Serbian governments come to power with two campaign messages: anti-corruption and anti-crime. The Corruption Perception Index, however, has been stagnant in Serbia for years. But how do we prove whether the state tackles corruption or not?
The brains started working: we, the team of the Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia (CINS), knew what we wanted to prove, but what would count as proof? In this case, we decided that the benchmark to go by must be the final results of anti-corruption activities of the state – court verdicts against perpetrators. This seemed straightforward enough – we would ask courts for documents about the cases and verdicts and show how many were there. But what kind of verdicts, and which courts? Soon enough, we learned that the criminal code contained six different titles for offences that are definitely corruption and another four titles for offences that are potentially corruption but not necessarily. And there are many, many courts in Serbia, over 150. And what about the cases not yet in court? We had to ask both police departments and prosecutors’ offices (over 100 new addresses) about the number of reported cases, the ones still under investigation, the ones dropped, and so on. The number of verdicts alone means nothing if you do not put it in an adequate context – the numbers of reported cases, prosecuted cases, and those that ended in some kind of plea bargain. Only that way we could show the citizens the true efficiency of the fight against corruption – how many cases were reported, how many prosecuted, how many ended with verdicts, and how harsh these verdicts were. Things were obviously becoming more and more complicated and the amount of work anticipated grew and grew until it became the most demanding project we, as CINS, have ever attempted. We recalculated resources (persons, time, money, skills, special knowledge needed, administration), added 10 percent safety margin for unexpected circumstances, and went to work.
Fortunately, we have been practicing data journalism for years and had previously constructed databases on different topics, so we knew what the job would entail. But, this was big.
We had to file more than 800 FOIA requests; the database grew to over 23,000 individual entries and the entire team worked on it for eight months. In essence, we were able to prove that the state does not only fail to fight corruption, but that it actually encourages it in a certain way: in a three year period (2013-2015), of over 6,000 persons reported to police, close to 3,000 were charged. The total number of convictions was approximately 1,500 (some persons received more than one), but only 232 of the sentences were not suspended. Most sentences were either at the legal minimum, or below the minimum. In lower courts, where most trials took place, 80 percent of sentences were suspended. Even the few prison sentences handed down were mostly served as house arrests.
And what about the other campaign promise, tackling crime in Serbia?
When investigating organised crime, citizens are best served if we prove a specific case. Our work is most valuable if there is a public official involved – organised crime corrupts every society.
We have been investigating groups of football hooligans for quite some time. They are, in fact, strong organised crime groups dealing and smuggling drugs, rarely prosecuted and almost never sentenced to prison. We were in the process of investigating the most prominent group with alleged ties to public officials, when three men came to beat up the director of one of the most important sports clubs in Serbia – FC Partizan. They beat up the director’s driver, then entered the building while making rude gestures for the benefit of the security cameras, looking for more victims. The video of the event leaked online and became viral. It was the cruelty of the beating and the open contempt for the cameras that infuriated the citizens.
For several months before the event, CINS had a very difficult time obtaining evidence in connection with a very problematic business scheme. New leadership had taken over of FC Partizan, and most of the young players changed managerial representation and moved to a single agency. The problem was that the two owners of the agency were a suspected member of an organised crime group and the best friend of a general secretary of the Serbian government. Football, business and politics came together in a single story, and the camera-happy hooligans were connected to the crime group in question.
So where was the problem? Connections of actors to the deal where laundered through several layers of corporate ownership involving both companies in Serbia and off -shore entities. The connections between the main players had to be proven. Most of the state institutions, as they often do in Serbia, started shutting down for our FOIA requests as soon as the investigation started.
It took many documents to connect the dots and prove the entire story, but three were particularly important. One came through a FOIA request. For the second we had to use the ‘back door’ – there is always a document about a paper at another institution. It took talking to three other institutions and two months of work, but we eventually obtained what we needed. The third one took personal contacts and a brave source. We landed a story that went straight to the heart of the problem, at the peak of public interest.
But what were the consequences? Two very different stories, connected only by electoral promise of the government, had to be done in two very, very different ways – one by data mining (for more information on data mining see chapter 5), other by classical investigative ‘digging’. One took eight months and the entire team, the other four months and two journalists. Were there any consequences for the government from the corruption story? Not really. Unfortunately, other media just ignored the story and the struggle against corruption continues in Serbia. Was the sport agency we named investigated by the authorities? No. It continues to operate.
So why do we bother? Well, if the public prosecutors’ office isn’t doing its job, is that reason enough for us not to do ours? We think not. If we stop doing our job, it is even more improbable there will ever be positive change. In the end, we publish evidence which would hold up in court. Perhaps one day some prosecutor will do something about it. It is important to not get frustrated and to try to find new stories which one day will have some effect.
The funny thing is – the jury of the European Press Prize (EPP), one of the most prestigious journalistic awards in Europe, found our stories to be a winner – we received the EPP for investigative journalism for 2017. Furthermore, we received total of nine different awards in 2017, so even if things in Serbia are grim, someone is watching, analysing and validating good work. There are citizens who crave good investigative stories and appreciate it, and sometimes awards come your way.