Award winning investigative journalist talks exposing crime networks, Paradise Papers and dealing with intimidation.
Stevan Dojčinović has not chosen an easy life.
As an investigative journalist, he spends much of his time trawling through documents and data in the hope of joining the dots that reveal cases of serious organized crime and corruption. From highlighting dodgy privatization deals to money laundering and corrupt government ministers, he has a tendency of getting on the wrong side of powerful people.
In a well functioning democracy the pursuit is an admirable one, but Dojčinović is conducting his work in a region that has never boasted media freedoms as a strong point, and in a country where those freedoms are in particular decline. Reporters Without Borders recently described Serbia as “a place where practicing journalism is neither safe nor supported by the state.”
KRIK journalists are under constant surveillance by Serbia's Security Intelligence Agency.
Dojčinović and his colleagues at the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which he founded in 2015, know what that looks like all too well. Half of the nails on his hands are completely white. “I have psoriasis from all of the stress,” he says.
The editor-in-chief, whose work has been widely acclaimed with multiple international awards, has been the subject of vicious smear campaigns by government backed tabloids, often timed to try and detract from major revelations by the investigative site.
He has regularly talked publicly about how KRIK journalists are under constant surveillance by the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), and about the various ways in which those connected to their investigations have attempted to deter them.
KRIK journalist Dragana Pećo had her Belgrade apartment broken into and turned upside down, but nothing taken, in an apparent attempt to intimidate in 2017, while a government minister is currently attempting to sue the organization in four separate lawsuits.
The lawsuits relate to revelations made about Minister Nenad Popović during KRIK’s reporting as part of the global Paradise Paper investigations in 2017. Another major story that KRIK has broken in recent years was the suspicious circumstances surrounding Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin’s purchase of an expensive Belgrade apartment.
Photo: Screenshot of KRIK.rs.
Recently, in response to the “propaganda and lies” published by much of the government controlled media in Serbia, KRIK has established a second platform, Raskrikavanje, dedicated to investigating the reporting by other media and debunking their myths. Dojčinović points out that the widely reported story — both in Serbia and Kosovo — of Aleksandar Vulin saying he was about to undertake a hunger strike was, in fact, not true.
Ahead of his Volume Up talk in Prishtina on how to unite Balkan journalists, K2.0 sat down with Dojčinović to discuss “propaganda mastermind” Aleksandar Vučić, taking on the mainstream media, and how cross-border investigative journalism is needed more now than ever.
K2.0: Firstly, I want to talk about the state of media freedoms in Serbia. KRIK is seen as one of the few remaining free media organization’s in Serbia, and I’m aware of the backlash you receive. How do you describe the situation with the media in your country?
Stevan Dojčinović: About media freedoms I can talk for hours. I don’t know how much this is known in Kosovo, but we don’t have free press in Serbia. I mean, in general, you have but not from the mainstream media or media that reach millions of viewers. We have free media that work on the internet, only one newspaper with low circulation, one TV channel that is free but is not one of the biggest TV [channels] in the country.
For example, if you have these big corruption cases discovered in Serbia, they just go through a small number of independent media and don’t reach a wider audience and the biggest number of people don’t get informed about the matter, mostly because they are informed by the media controlled by the government, who mostly do propaganda and publish bad stuff about the opposition and independent journalists.
There are problems with the media in every Balkan country, but in Serbia this is on a completely different level. You can’t find any other country in the Balkans where you don’t have some strong media. In Serbia, we don’t even have media who endorse the opposition, let alone independent ones; the mainstream media is only what the government says.
You get pissed off because you are swamped with lies from the minute you wake up in the morning.
In Montenegro, for example, there are newspapers like Vijesti who are still strong media that oppose the government, but Serbia is the only country in the Balkans where you can’t find one single mainstream media that is independent, while in Kosovo, as another example, you can find some media that are not tied to the government.
It’s hard to explain the feeling you get from the media reporting in Serbia — it’s disgusting and you get pissed off because you are swamped with lies from the minute you wake up in the morning.
You have some “free zones” where you can go, a few media that are free and also Twitter is very important in Serbia because the audience is not big and usually the people there understand what’s going on and they share articles; Twitter is the place to go if you want to get some real information about what is going on in Serbia. For us, also, Twitter is very important, it’s kind of like a free space where you can go and read some real news.
But, outside of it is all swamped with propaganda and lies from every angle. People have started to get exhausted by all this propaganda stories and lies from the main media.
The five most important TV channels with national frequencies are controlled by the government and you can't find real information there, nothing.
Do you feel that, in general, the public in Serbia is aware of what is going on with these media? How much are they affected by all of this?
Well, people who use the internet to get informed, who read news from the web portals and social media are more able to get real information — they understand what is going on much better. But, a big part of the population doesn’t have access to the internet or are not able to properly use modern tech and the internet, like old people. This is the part of the population that mostly relies on TV.
The polls done in Serbia have shown that the major media in Serbia is still the television — a citizen of Serbia spends five hours per day watching TV on average. That’s a lot, that’s huge. So, TV is the major tool. The five most important TV channels with national frequencies are controlled by the government and you can’t find real information there, nothing.
Even during electoral campaigns, the opposition leaders do not have access to these TV channels and they do not appear there at all — you can only hear the government’s opinion. Most of the people watch this and are constantly fed with this propaganda and that’s the big problem in Serbia. The government perfectly understands that this is their most important tool and they could give up everything, but they will never give up their control over the media.
How does the government exert this control over the media? What means do they use to achieve all this influence?
It’s mostly through financial means. Our government gives a lot of money to the media through two different channels. The first is through a program called ‘project financing of the media,’ which is done through a law and it was a cool idea, but turned out pretty badly [and the second is through advertisement funding].
The results were actually funny, because they show that the more a media breaks the ethics rules, the more money it receives from the government.
The [first] idea was that the central government and the local institutions support important projects of the media, to try to make the independent media stronger. But, the money is all given to tabloids who do propaganda and publish lies, so the law is abused and this constitutes the first way in which the government impacts the media coverage.
The Press Council of Serbia, an independent body, does research every year and after that they publish a list of media that have done the most violations of journalism rules and ethics. The results [here] were actually funny, because they show that the more a media breaks the ethics rules, the more money it receives from the government.
Nowadays, it’s not important just to publish true stories, you also need to debunk lies.
Our NGO owns two websites — KRIK and Raskrikavanje. The latter is a site where we publish investigations and articles about reporting done by other media, so it’s kind of a special website dedicated to investigate the work of other media. Every day, we pick big stories from other media and then we try to debunk them, trying to show the readers where these media have shared lies, while we also investigate where these media get their money.
Next, we try to boost our story and we target the audience of the media that has published the fake story in the first place. So, the story is not targeted to be read by readers of KRIK, because they already know that those are lies, but we try to show to the readers of other media what lies their preferred newspapers have been writing.
Nowadays, it’s not important just to publish true stories, you also need to debunk lies. Five years ago, yes, I thought that publishing the truth was enough, but now you also have to do something about the lies.
Do you get a backlash from these other media, do they get mad when you prove that they are spreading lies while getting funds from the government?
Yes, they get really mad with us and stuff, but we had problems with them even earlier, because whenever we publish some investigative story in KRIK where we discover corruption cases, the same media always attacks us. If you publish a story on corruption today, next morning you’ll have five stories full of lies about us, things like we’re spies working for the Americans and these kinds of stories.
So, when we started debunking them the level of trouble remained the same.
How is the situation in Kosovo portrayed in the Serbian media?
Well, when I get ready to come to Kosovo, my grandmother worries because she thinks that here the situation is very close to war — she thinks that I could be killed. All the time the media talks about war, war, war and people like my grandmother think I’m crazy that I come here where there are bombs and stuff.
If you follow the developments by reading Informer of watching Pink TV, you’ll get the government’s version about the situation in Kosovo. Usually, in reality, the reality is the opposite.
Through his controlled media, Vučić tries to present the relations with Kosovo as tensioned, greater than they really are, sometimes it feels like we are on the edge of war.
Secondly, they throw a lot of bad stories about Kosovo’s leaders — mostly Hashim Thaçi and [Ramush] Haradinaj — with really strong statements. My sense is that the politicians in Serbia and in Kosovo work together smoothly and have background deals about which we don’t know, and what we see in the media is the complete opposite of this, because this is his modus operandi.
Vučić is kind of a mastermind of propaganda.
On Kosovo, people in Serbia rarely know what is going on. Now, there have been talks about land swap or demarcation, but they never really explain. Sometimes we find out that Vučić has been meeting with Thaçi, but they hide this from the public and they don’t care to explain more, while in public speech they try to say that they hate each other.
For instance, if Serbia wants to accept something big in the negotiations with Kosovo and the EU, then the stories on the front pages will be that the Serbian opposition leaders sold Kosovo and so on. So, it’s kind of an auto-projection of the reality on the mainstream media.
If you look into how Vučić deals with the media, I think there is a great deal of sophistication. In the world, I think that the best way the propaganda is done is in Serbia, mostly because our president has a long history with this kind of work.
In the ’90s, he was the Minister of Information in Milosevic’s government, and not by accident, but he was talented and was obsessed with the media. From 2000, he was in opposition and for 12 years he continued to be involved in this field, and when he got the power back in 2012, the first thing he did was to take control over the media with a good sophisticated knowledge on how to do this stuff. He’s a kind of a mastermind of propaganda.
Do you think that he’s the main and principal cause of the media environment in Serbia being this bad?
No, to be fair, he’s not the one who created this system to control the media, that was created before him. Even before the media were controlled through financial channels. In the previous governments, the control over the media existed too, but it was on a level with other countries in the region, where big independent media existed.
When Vučić came into power, the control was more brutal and completely closed down the media, but he did all of this in a sophisticated manner.
During the NATO bombings, he was officially censoring the media in an official way — editors would come to his office and he would have the last word on what would be published and what not. Now, [since] he came back to power in 2012, he has changed his manner, but it’s hard to prove that he still does it because he doesn’t leave any fingerprints.
The media in Serbia are not censored, they’re more self-censored for the money they get from the government.
Photo: Screenshot of KRIK.rs.
You reported a story recently about a meeting between Zvonko Veselinović and Vučić’s brother. Veselinović is often mentioned in the Kosovo media in relation to criminal activities and the ties he has with Milan Radojičić, a guy who is close to Lista Srpska who has a relationship with Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj. How do you see this connection between people linked with crime and high level politicians in Kosovo and Serbia?
We knew that Veselinović has ties with the people at the top of the Serbian government, but besides the pictures that we have published about the meeting we don’t have any other proof. But, we know that Veselinović receives a lot of big important state projects with his road construction company.
He was indicted for different economic crimes during the previous government’s [mandate], and now during Vučić’s time he has been acquitted. The justice system in Serbia is the same as in most of the countries in the region and he was set free after he was indicted.
He has also been seen at some of the official events of Vučić’s party and now we have pictures of him together with Vučić’s brother, one of the most influential people in Serbia. The person who gave us the photos told us that they were extremely friendly.
There was never really war for organized crime — they work really nicely together.
They met in the Kopaonik mountains, so they most likely didn’t meet each other by accident, and during the meeting they watched a basketball match together — Red Star was playing; it shows that they’re close.
It’s often said that the crime organizations often work better than the governments themselves, surpassing every kind of difference and cooperating smoothly across borders. There was never really war for organized crime — they work really nicely together.
What was shocking was a report from our secret service signed by a previous director in the previous government. The BIA [Security Intelligence Agency] was investigating Veselinović and the report said that he has strong ties with some crime bosses from Kosovo, who then have their own ties with high officials in the Kosovo government.
If you connect the dots, you can see that the crime organizations often put the governments in touch.
Some of the names mentioned in the report are almost anonymous here in Kosovo, maybe because reporting on organized crimes is lacking in Kosovo’s media.
The report said that Veselinović controls the northern part of Kosovo, his Kosovo partners control the other parts of Kosovo and the business goes smoothly. Some of the names mentioned in the report are almost anonymous here in Kosovo, maybe because of the fact that reporting on organized crimes is lacking in Kosovo’s media. Also, in a German intelligence report by the BND [Federal Intelligence Service] the same name is mentioned, but in Kosovo media you cannot find one single article about him.
So yes, organized crime works; bosses work together regardless of anything. For instance, during the war in Bosnia, Arkan, the leader of paramilitary groups who fought there and committed war crimes, was working with the Bosniak military at the same time by smuggling weapons and ammunition to them. The Bosniak military would then use the very same guns and ammunition to fight against the Serbs. So basically, they just use every opportunity to make money and they don’t care about anything else.
A week ago, a group of drug smugglers was arrested in Croatia. One guy was a formal leader of the Bad Blue Boys — which is one of the toughest hooligan groups in Zagreb who support Dinamo Zagreb — and his partner in the smuggling was this guy from Delije, hooligans who support Red Star football club in Belgrade. They show a lot of hate toward each other by organizing fights and everything else, but they cooperate by other means.
KRIK is one of the media involved in the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) consortium, which has made global headlines with the Paradise and Panama Papers investigations, which have shed light on cases of huge misuse of finances as well as high level corruption by public officials and other powerful figures. Now that some time has passed since the initials publications, do you think that it has been worth it?
During the Paradise Papers we found some documents and revealed the wealth of a government minister in terms of the money and property he owned and some offshore companies associated with him. That was a pretty big story, but he sued us four different times for the same story, but in four separate lawsuits — a pretty unique case. What was strange was that the court accepted all four of the lawsuits and now we have four different legal processes for the same story in the same court, something unseen before.
And now the process is still ongoing. He sued us in January last year. He has a lot of influence as a minister and he doesn’t want to take part in the procedures, so basically he’s just postponing and he’s just dragging the process, trying to wear us down [in terms of] time and money. This thing costs, because we have to pay lawyers — just to respond to a legal lawsuit process it costs around 500 euros.
This is torturing us, it completely destroys your schedule and wastes money, but it is worth it because now people can better see who the government minister really is.
He’s Nenad Popović, a guy with strong ties in Russia and who is now a minister in the Serbian government — and he’s also very rich. According to the Paradise Papers, his property is valued at around 100 million euros. So for him, to play with us in courts is pocket change, but for us it means a lot of money and time wasted.
In February, we published another story about him, about a privatization process that was mismanaged and some 300 people were left without work. We wanted to show him that we will not back down, but yes, it is a nightmare.
Even to come here, in Kosovo, I postponed a couple times because of the court process, that costs my a lot of other business trips that I have to cancel because of that.
But, we think it was worth it because we have reshaped the public opinion of him. People in Serbia now can see who he really is and people even dislike the fact that he has sued us. This is torturing us, it completely destroys your schedule and wastes money, but it is worth it because now people can better see who the government minister really is.
You have problems with rich businessmen, powerful politicians and people tied to the government. Are you afraid?
No, I try not to be afraid. It’s shitty if the editors are afraid, it’s expected from me to motivate other people and not to show that I’m afraid and I’m trying to handle most of the stuff on me. Sometimes we receive threats, the other media write bad stories about us, and then we have some more lawsuits that we have to take care of.
The fear is not the problem in Serbia, but the constant pressure.
Besides Popović, there’s this right wing guy from Britain that has sued us, and then we have the Serbian secret service spying on us a lot, following us, sometimes the newspapers publish photos that were taken with hidden cameras by the secret service. We deal with a lot of pressure all of the time — 24 hours.
You can’t relax at any time, all the time you have to look out for people that are following you, who are taking pictures of you and so on. The fear is not the problem in Serbia, but the constant pressure. Once, one of our reporters went to her apartment and the door was broken, the apartment was upside down, literally everything.
The most problematic is this reporting on corruption and organized crime. Even if you go as a reporter in war zones, you can die of a bomb and disaster can happen, but if you manage to get back home, the stress kind of stops and you leave everything behind, but with investigating organized crime it is an all the time stress that never ends.
You don’t feel that someone is going to kill you now, but you feel some medium level danger and the pressure lasts for years, so it’s not a healthy environment to work in.
You talked about how the criminal and political exponents cooperate to spread their business across borders, but how is it with the media across the region? What can we do to bring cooperation between the media and journalists to another level?
Today, actually the media plays the most important role. I don’t think this was the case before, but today it is. Because in most of our countries in the Balkans, you don’t have real police, prosecution and judges — in general they are all seized and controlled by the governments.
So, it’s not possible to fight corruption through the governments’ framework, so today, especially in the Balkans, the police and the prosecutors are not the ones who are there to stop bad deeds. There was never a better time to be corrupt than today.
In the last decades, not only in the Balkans, but also on the global level, you have more and more populists coming into power, so even internationally corruption is not seen as such a big deal. Now, more people are doing it and more people are accepting it as a way of doing things on the lower level.
The only people who can make these links are a group of journalists who can do cross-border stories, because that's how crime works.
This is also happening in the EU. One of the stories by a media working with the OCCRP showed how members of the EU parliament were receiving bribes to their bank accounts from Azerbaijan in exchange for not passing some legislation about freedom of media in Azerbaijan, since the government there was arresting journalists and committing other human rights violations.
I think this is also linked to the populists coming into power. For example, I believe Vučić is good friends with [Viktor] Orbán, [Reccep Taiyyp] Erdoğan and also with Hashim Thaçi. In a way, the idea is to make the corruption legal somehow, and the only people that they are afraid of are journalists, because they have well-established control over other areas of institutions.
You are essentially calling upon journalists to step up…
Yes, because journalism is becoming less and less powerful, and we need to get back at them, and we need to do it together. For example, a story on Serbian politicians engaged in corruption and crime has limited impact without painting the full picture about their links with politicians in other countries.
The only people who can make these links are a group of journalists who can do cross-border stories, because that’s how crime works. What we need to do is to try to show the network in the background, the conspiracies, the connections between our governments in order for people to understand what their governments are doing.
There is nobody [else] out there, literally; you cannot expect prosecutors to step up and arrest a minister in our governments. That’s why our readers at KRIK make contributions to us because they can sense that we are doing a job that no one else in the country can do. But we have to build networks in the region to better understand their cooperation.
See for example the [Nikola] Gruevski case [in North Macedonia]. When he lost power, in order to get away from his country he got to Albania, then to Montenegro, Serbia and then to Hungary. This shows that he had connections and I’m sure he got guarantees in all of these countries before flying away.
This is similar to what journalists should do: They should cooperate more and try to do more cross-border stories.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.