A reporter of the investigative outlet KRIK risks a prison sentence over a piece exposing secret business practices of a powerful businessman close to the Serbian President. While monitoring the trial, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Serbia to implement anti-SLAPP measures recommended by the European Union.
“While businessmen with problematic connections to politics and to politicians themselves deliberately use abusive lawsuits to silence journalists, neither the Serbian judiciary, nor the society sees this as a big problem,” said Head of Advocacy at RSF Germany, Lisa Kretschmer, who is in Belgrade monitoring journalist Dragana Pećo’s trial. “This has to change, so that public-interest journalism – under pressure from all directions in Serbia – is better protected.”
“We call on Serbia – which provides most fertile grounds for gag lawsuits in Europe, but which is also an EU candidate country – to fully implement the European Commission’s recommendations from April 2022. They contain preventive measures to protect journalists against SLAPPs as well as punitive measures against those who file them,” added Head of the EU-Balkans Desk at RSF International, Pavol Szalai.
The case of Dragana Pećo of the Serbian investigative outlet, KRIK, is emblematic of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) in Serbia. The journalist is sued for the second time by Nikolas Petrović, a powerful businessman and the best man of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The current lawsuit against Pećo has been filed by Petrović over her article about his secret business practices, exposing especially his entanglements with the controversial businessman Stanko Subotic. Pećo and her co-author Vesna Radojević revealed that Petrović had bought an airline company from Subotic at a heavily discounted price through middleman companies in Luxembourg. In reaction to this article, Petrović’s lawyers demand a Belgrade court to condemn Pećo to a two month prison sentence for the “unauthorized collection of personal data”. They request one month in prison for Vesna Radojević.
The trial has been dragging on for nearly a year and a half, with the next hearing scheduled for October 28. RSF will monitor the trial on the ground in support of Dragana Pećo and as part of a broader press freedom mission in Serbia.
Pećo’s media, KRIK, which investigates organized crime and corruption, has been targeted by numerous SLAPPs. Most recently, it has been subject to a lawsuit by the former State Secretary of the Serbian Ministry of Interior, Dijana Hrkalović. The politician is currently on trial herself for allegedly using her high political office to obstruct a criminal investigation. According to KRIK’s numerous investigative pieces, Hrkalović has been in contact with members of organized crime. In addition to KRIK, Hrkalović has filed complaints against another 15 media outlets.
As one of three states, Serbia was nominated for the prize of the “SLAPP country of the year” by the European SLAPP Contest organized by the European coalition against gag lawsuits, CASE, of which RSF is also a member. According to the jury, the biggest EU candidate country in Western Balkans with 18 documented cases of abusive lawsuits in 2021 “has proven to be fertile ground for SLAPPs”. The prize was eventually awarded to Poland.
Neither the prosecutor’s office, nor the courts communicate sufficiently with the press, according to a recent study by the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS). As a result, journalists have trouble making themselves understood by a part of the judiciary. Many judges in Serbia are not aware that SLAPPs deliberately aim to hinder journalistic work or even make it impossible. The plaintiffs often call for high damages, while the legal costs of a trial alone endanger the existence of the editorial office. Freelance media professionals are even more at risk.
Serbia is ranked 79th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.