In Serbia, financial and legal intimidation against journalists is routine. Plaintiffs are commonly aggrieved businessmen or public officials, whose actions have been exposed as criminal, corrupt or both. In reply, they file so-called SLAPP suits — or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — typically meant to discourage and punish those shedding light on their illegal behavior.
Serbian Minister of Internal Affairs, Bratislav Gašić, is one such plaintiff. During a public trial, it was revealed – from an audio recording of a wiretapped conversation last year – that he was involved with a Serbian criminal organization, Jotka’s group. At the time, Gašić was essentially the head of the Serbian secret service, the Security Intelligence Agency. According to the wiretap, he was “on the cauldron,” a widely understood euphemism in Serbia for individuals who are being bribed.
Now, Gašić has sued and won a case against the organization responsible for bringing that information to the public, KRIK.
KRIK — or Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, the fact-checking, debunking and organized crime publication which reported on the situation — has upwards of 10 lawsuits filed against them at any given moment. Many of the legal challenges are issued from similar entities: politicians and officials who have been unmasked and are unhappy about it.
“The government officials, and especially wealthy businessmen, don’t even bother to talk to you anymore. They just sue you,” said Jelena Vasić, a project manager at KRIK. “It’s so cheap for them and it’s so damaging to us, because it’s expensive and time consuming.”
According to Article 19, an international nongovernmental organization focused on free speech and expression, Serbia is particularly ill-equipped to deal with SLAPP cases.
“Serbian legal framework lacks safeguards to prevent or discourage SLAPP lawsuits, such as early dismissals or procedural expediency,” wrote Article 19.
“Essentially, in April 2021 we were only quoting court material. One wiretapped conversation in which it was claimed that the leader of that crime group had ties to Gašić,” KRIK wrote in an internal email to the International Fact-Checking Network. “The reasons why the judge condemned KRIK are not yet known, nor the amount of the fine.”
Though a judge ruled in Gašić’s favor at the beginning of last month, KRIK has already motioned to appeal. It is hopeful for a different result, given that the presiding judge of the last suit was the wife of a prominent member of Gašić’s political party.
KRIK told the International Fact-Checking Network that it reported exactly what was said in the courtroom, and that it called Gašić for comment and even postponed publication “until the next day to give Gašić enough time to respond.”
Vesna Rakic Vodinelic, a Serbian law professor, called the verdict “judicial censorship” and “the height of legal malfeasance and dishonesty”. Serbia’s former Public Information Commissioner, Rodoljub Sabic, said it was “stifling critical speech and violating the rights of the public.”