Serbian Court Fines OCCRP Partner KRIK for Reporting on Trial
A Serbian court has ruled against the investigative news outlet and OCCRP partner KRIK, in a move that journalists and media observers see as the latest attack on press freedom in Serbia.
The ruling comes after KRIK mentioned a top Serbian official in an April 2021 report into the trial of an alleged Serbian organized crime group. During that trial, a wiretapped call between gang members was quoted, in which the name of the official was mentioned. The official, Bratislav Gašić, then filed a defamation case against KRIK after its story was published.
Judge Nataša Petričević Milisavljević’s ruling against KRIK was first made public on Thursday Nov. 3, after a swift set of hearings. The well-connected Gašić is the ex-head of the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency and was recently appointed as Serbia’s interior minister. The financial penalties KRIK may face for losing the case have not been announced.
The judgment, according to KRIK editor in chief Stevan Dojčinović, sets a dangerous precedent.
“The question is whether journalists in Serbia are permitted to continue reporting from courtrooms? We accurately described what occurred in the courtroom, and this was never called into doubt over the course of the dispute,” said Dojčinović, who is also a regional editor for OCCRP.
Gašić had taken issue with KRIK’s coverage after being mentioned during the ongoing trial of the alleged gang led by Zoran Jotić Jotka. Gašić filed the suit against KRIK in May last year, seeking 500,000 Serbian dinars (US$4,251) for harm caused to his honor and reputation by KRIK’s article.
The story had reported on a wiretapped conversation from within Jotka’s group, in which one of the defendants said that Jotka did not need to be concerned for his safety since “Gašić is on his cauldron” — meaning that Gašić was receiving money from Jotka’s gang.
Dojčinović of KRIK stressed that before publishing his name, KRIK journalists had repeatedly attempted to reach Gašić and even postponed publishing the news in order to await his response, which never came.
Dojčinović said that as a leading government official, Gašić owed the public an explanation about the tape. However, he only once responded to a call from KRIK, telling journalist Milica Vojnović that he didn’t want to speak with her.
KRIK pointed out that the ruling was delivered exceptionally quickly, after just two hearings — a processing time far faster than typical Serbian trials.
During these hearings, KRIK says the court denied its requests for the audio recordings of the wiretapped conversations played at Jotka’s trial, as well as the full transcript from that trial.
Both journalists and opposition party officials denounced the ruling against KRIK, saying they were fearful of its future implications.
Željko Bodrožić, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, said the decision “demonstrates that the government has effectively taken over the judiciary.”
“It might be the start of the open trampling of the remaining free media,” he warned.
Serbia’s Coalition for Media Freedom also warned of an increase in lawsuits filed against media who simply report testimony or evidence from court trials.
The coalition said it is “already difficult for the media to report from courtrooms, and rulings like this will make it nearly impossible, encroaching on the media’s important duty in a democratic society of conveying information of public interest.”
Gašić’s case against KRIK is one of 11 filed against the outlet in the past two years alone, KRIK says.
KRIK editors say these so-called SLAPP cases (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are designed to intimidate journalists, stop them from doing their jobs, and prevent the airing of issues of public interest.