In the end of August 2017, a bombastic announcement that Zoran Marjanović would be arrested in a reality programme appeared on the front page of the Informer. The Informer quoted the editor of TV Happy, Milomir Marić, who, as reported by some other media as well, had announced this in the morning programme of his TV station. The arrest of Marjanović was thus announced two weeks before it really took place, after he had become a part in a 24-hour reality show programme Zadruga (Cooperative) broadcast on TV Pink.
Zoran Marjanović was husband of Jelena Marjanović, singer, who was killed in April 2016 in the Belgrade settlement of Borča; the police have not been able to identify the perpetrator yet. The case, which meanwhile developed into a mystery, kept occupying front pages of Serbian tabloids for months, brutally violating privacy and destinies of families Marjanović and Krsmanović (Jelena’s maiden name).
It is difficult to tell which of the published details from the Marjanović case were discovered in the course of the investigation and which are figments of tabloid imagination, but the announcement of Zoran’s arrest is a telling example of what has become a regular phenomenon in Serbian society – leakage of information.
Information from the investigation of the murder case of Jelena Marjanović was permanently published on front pages of tabloid newspapers
This term implies all cases when data from institutions – even classified – ends up in public, mostly through media. This is the manner in which Serbian public has for years been learning about details from indictments which are not yet published, or court proceedings held behind closed doors. This happens almost on everyday basis, regardless of whether it is about divorce lawsuits or cases of high corruption and organized crime.
Nenad Stefanović, deputy public prosecutor with the Third basic prosecutor’s office says that it happens that information first goes to media, after which the police inform prosecutors about the case.
“Last night, for instance, I was on duty, and then this morning I read in the papers that there was a fire in New Belgrade and that one person got killed in it. No one contacted us”, says Stefanović in an interview for CINS in the end of August.
According to his words, most information from pre-investigative stages leaks from the police, while the minister should not be talking about police actions and arrests at press conferences before the prosecutor assesses the evidence and possibly files charges. The prosecution is reduced to the role of providing service information, that someone is remanded for 48 hours or that an order was issued, without any information on what the police do, says Stefanović.
Sources from Serbian Ministry of the interior (MUP) did not accept to talk on this topic. Journalists of the Center for investigative journalism of Serbia (CINS) have not had an interview with law enforcement for more than two years.
An earlier research conducted by CINS indicated that there are frequent cases of top state officials from earlier and current sets of authorities who announce arrests, forecast results of investigations, and give assessments of successful steps in fight against crime and corruption; however, the results mostly do not match the announcements.
Three charges for revealing of official secrets
In its Progress report for Serbia for 2016, the European Commission mentions the issue of leakage of information in several places, stating that it takes place often and that, besides jeopardizing ongoing investigations, such practices violate the presumption of innocence as well. The Report also states that it is politicians that comment ongoing investigations and proceedings in public.
Thus, following the arrest of Zoran Marjanović, Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia spoke about the suspect as if he had committed murder, even though charges had not been filed against him yet. Vučić even gave details on what Jelena Marjanović looked after she had been murdered, that is, that her skull had been fractured in several places.
Saša Đorđević, researcher with Belgrade Center for security policy (BCBP), also points to the example of the Kurir daily which covered on its front page the arrest of Veljko Belivuk, one of the leaders of Partizan club supporters, en evening before the police informed the public about his arrest. *According to his words, to resolve cases of leakage of information, independence of institutions, primarily the police and prosecution, is of utmost importance, as well as political decision that institutions function in an environment free of impact of political interests.
Leakage of information or lies?
Checking whether leakage of information took place in the case of rape and murder of a girl and a woman from a village in the vicinity of Zaječar, Rodoljub Šabić, Commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection performed examination of MUP, Police administration in Zaječar, and Higher public prosecutor’s office in Zaječar. Šabić then established that the data published in media considerably differs from the data from official documents, and that there was no leakage of information, but that media simply publicized wrong information.
Predrag Blagojević says that he does not have any doubt that certain media outlets make up information, quoting a source from an institution.
“This is how stories on thousands of Albanians who buy flats in Niš, chickens whose flesh glows in the dark, hundreds of students from Vranje and Leskovac doing prostitution in Kosovo, and similar, are born. These stories cannot be possibly proved wrong, they disturb the public, and they frequently mention ‘sources from the police and prosecution’ as sources”, explains Blagojević.
Đorđević said that as of 5 October 2000 and the toppling of the regime of Slobodan Milošević all political parties were “in love” with the police and services, and were using their capacities to the maximum. He adds that it is necessary to know exactly who has access to information, that in cases of leakage of information criminal proceedings should be launched, and that cases featuring high profile personalities from law enforcement, or the Security information agency (BIA) need to be investigated to the end.
Branko Lazarević was the head of cabinet of the current first deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Ivica Dačić at the time when Dačić was the minister of the interior. A case against Lazarević is prosecuted before the Special department for organized crime of the Higher court in Belgrade for suspicion that he revealed to Rodoljub Radulović and Radovan Štrbac – collaborators of Darko Šarić, charged with money laundering and international drug trafficking – data on the proceedings against them. Even though criminal charges were filed back in September 2014, the trial, constantly postponed, has not gone far.
“The case against Branko Lazarević for revealing of an official secret has been endlessly postponed, and the end is not even close. There must be one case, one trigger that will constitute good practice and indicate that leakage or servicing of information is not possible”, explains Saša Đorđević from BCBP.
According to the data from the Republic public prosecutor’s office, in the course of 2016 prosecutors’ offices in Serbia received three new charges for revealing of official secrets. In the same period, two charges were dropped, while one was resolved through implementation of the principle of opportunity – rather than being charged, the subject, for instance, pays a certain amount of money for humanitarian purposes.
CINS already wrote that Rodoljub Šabić, Commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection, filed misdemeanor charges against Zlatibor Lončar, minister of healthcare, because an e-mail had been sent from his cabinet to the psychiatric clinic Dr Laza Lazarević requesting information on the diagnosis of Aleksandar Kornic, former manager of the Kurir daily. Several days later, this data was published in the TV programme “Rušenje Vučića – poslednji čin” (“Toppling of Vučić – the last act”) on TV Pink when Dragan J. Vučićević, editor of the Informer, produced the medical documents and read the findings. The case against Lončar has become subject to statute of limitation.
Charges were also filed against Slavica Đukić Dejanović, minister without portfolio, who was the manager of Clinic Dr Laza Lazarević at the time. By the first instance verdict, rather than being fined, as prescribed by law, she was punished by a reprimand while the court justified this stating that “it may be expected that she would refrain from committing violations in future”.
One of the cases of unauthorized revealing of information from court processes was launched by prosecutor Nenad Stefanović. A part of the trial of Ljubiša Buha Čume, former leader the Surčin criminal group, where his former wife Ivana and Milan Ljubenović, police officer, appeared as witnesses, was closed for public. This means that any revealing of information would constitute a criminal act, and the court warned all the persons in the courtroom to that extent.
However, on several occasions, several media published not only details from the trial, but also the whole dialogues. This is why the Third basic prosecutor’s office, where prosecutor Nenad Stefanović works, filed criminal charges to the First basic prosecutor’s office in Belgrade.
In its reply to CINS, the First basic prosecutor’s office stated that there were no grounds for launching of criminal proceedings, and that they could establish no reasonable suspicion “that actions of a person constitutes all important elements of any criminal offence which is prosecuted ex officio.”
Journalists responsible as well
Even though some piece of information may be “secret”, motives for its revealing may be different.
Criminal charges against Ministry of the interior and Ministry of defense
In the beginning of September this year, Rodoljub Šabić, Commissioner for information of public importance, filed criminal charges against unidentified official persons from the Ministry of the interior and Ministry of defense for the criminal offence of unauthorized collection of personal data on the president of the opposition party Nova stranka and member of Serbian National Parliament Zoran Živković.
The reason to file the charges took place several months earlier – in June 2017. This is when Aleksandar Martinović, MP from the ruling Serbian progressive party read official military and police documents which were supposed to be classified in the course of a parliamentary debate, quoting the reasons why Živković had not served the compulsory military service, i.e. why he had a permit for a gun.
Having initiated examination of the case, the Commissioner was provided a reply from the Ministry of defense, but the Ministry of the Interior did not supply the requested documents.
Predrag Blagojević, editor of internet portal Južne vesti and president of the Association of on-line media says that this usually comes down to either political or financial motives. Blagojević says that his media outlet was also once approached by an anonymous source who offered information on police activities for money.
“To demonstrate reliability of his information, he sent us data on fights and accidents on several occasions; thus it would happen that our journalists would arrive at the scene before the police, which is utterly awkward. Having realized that our anonymous ‘source’ was actually someone within the system, I thanked him for his cooperation”, said Predrag Blagojević.
Directing of investigation in the direction desirable for the one who reveals information to media may be a possible motive.
Nenad Stefanović, prosecutor, says that media is shoved semi-information which then becomes the central point giving rise to questions which may not even have to do with the investigation.
In its annual Report for 2016, the European Commission remarked that media owners and editors must pay more attention to observance of professional standards, with support of the Press council.
Predrag Blagojević is of similar opinion, adding that legal responsibility lies on law enforcement and prosecution, but that ethical responsibility lies on media and journalists. He believes that journalists must be aware of the position of their sources and their motives, and whether information may be proved, that is, verified, from another source.
*Note: The original version of the text read: “…independence on part of institutions, primarily law enforcement and prosecution, is paramount. A part of this responsibility also lies on politicians who need to protect institutions.”