Serbia: Legal harassment of investigative media outlet KRIK must stop
The legal harassment against Serbian investigative media outlet KRIK continues as the portal was convicted for reporting on a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) case it was facing, at the same time as a new abusive lawsuit has been filed against it.
We, international press freedom and journalists’ organisations, stand in solidarity with KRIK’s newsroom, which is currently fighting 12 legal proceedings, and raise the alarm about the use of SLAPPs in Serbia, considered as a growing threat to independent journalism.
In recent months, KRIK has been facing multiple lawsuits as a result of public interest investigations exposing crime, corruption and other abuses of power committed by powerful people in Serbia, often affiliated with the ruling party.
The latest alarming development came from the Belgrade High Court on 3 May. In a first instance decision, the court condemned KRIK for naming in an article the individuals who sued them – police commander Goran Zivkovic and two of his colleagues from the Witness Protection Unit. In the article published in December 2021, the media outlet detailed the avalanche of lawsuits it is currently fighting: namely who brought the cases, on what grounds and their impact on the whole editorial team. As a result, KRIK must pay 374,200 dinars (almost 3,200 €) in compensation for “emotional pain” and for trial expenses. The court also ruled that part of KRIK’s web article must be deleted. KRIK has appealed.
In a reaction to the verdict, KRIK’s editor Stevan Dojčinović said SLAPPs are the outlet’s biggest challenge: “this latest ruling makes it clear that SLAPPs have become the regime’s main tool for shutting down the few remaining independent media outlets. Things have gone so far that we are no longer even allowed to complain in public about the fact that our newsroom is flooded with lawsuits – we are found guilty even for that.”
On 11 May 2023, KRIK reported that the media outlet is facing a new lawsuit in response to an article published on 11 April 2023. The lawsuit was filed by Nikola Petrović against KRIK’s editor and investigative reporters Bojana Jovanović and Dragana Pećo. He demanded the removal of the article and is seeking 200,000 dinars (1,700€) in compensation for “mental suffering”. Nikola Petrović has filed two other lawsuits against KRIK: one ended in favour of KRIK and the other is still pending.
This case is the last in a series of 12 lawsuits initiated in most cases by people from the government or businessmen close to them. The amount of damages claimed is completely disproportionate and exceeds by three times the organisation’s annual budget. While the financial burden is huge, the negative impact on the day-to-day operations is equally significant. The time spent on preparing the defence, presenting the evidence, analysing hundreds of pages of legal documents is effectively taking journalists away from their core work: investigating and informing citizens.
SLAPPs threaten the future of independent journalism – aiming to intimidate, drain resources and isolate reporters so they abandon their hard-hitting investigations. We, the undersigned organisations, renew our support to the KRIK journalists and call on the Serbian judicial authorities to finally acknowledge SLAPPs as a means to silence voices and suppress information of public interest. Serbia continues to provide one of the most fertile grounds in Europe for suing journalists in retaliation for their work. By failing to recognise the threats posed by SLAPPs, the latest court decision sends a worrying signal to all Serbian journalists who investigate sensitive political and economic issues. We hope that the appeal process will consider the serious impact of SLAPPs against journalists, and will finally uphold the public interest and international standards on freedom of expression.