The Faculty of Dramatic Arts was looking its glitziest, with young, talented actors welcoming the audience. And why not – the most prestigious award for investigative journalism in Serbia was celebrating its 18th birthday. In the interests of disclosure, I must tell you that the author of these lines was one of the three nominees for the best investigative article in the online media category. I must also tell you that I did not get it. Even so, it was an honour to be nominated.
Serbia is a “country of basketball”, as the old saying goes – and we are also very hot on investigative journalism. There aren’t many investigative reporters, and despite political pressures, regular smear campaigns by pro-government media, threats and a poor financial situation, we still work away trying to reveal the people who are so determined to eat our country alive.
But the struggle to stay committed is pretty tough. That’s not because of the money, or the stress – although both can be serious problems – but the fact that most of our stories, even the most shocking, seem to have no effect.
The judicial system in our country is meant to be independent, but it isn’t really. The Serbian constitution separates it from the executive branch of government, but in practice it is just a tool in the hands of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.
In fact, in the so-called democratic system of our authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vučić, the judiciary has a key role – but not in the way you might think. Instead of meting out justice and protecting the law, it has become a shield to protect our corrupt political and economic elites and their hangers-on.
Whenever a corruption case appears in the media – which is rare – state officials say, with a cynical smile on their faces: “Just let the institutions do their job”. That parrot-like chorus has become the corrupt regime’s new signature tune. It has ruled the country for more than a decade now, and the senior leadership knows very well the institutions will actually not do their job, nor the Prosecutor’s Office, nor the judges – none of them. And most cases never make it to the courtroom anyway.
To understand how large the scale of crime and corruption is, you just need to read the list of stories nominated this year for the award. One story deals with the “Jovanjica” case – a massive illegal cannabis farm that, according to police evidence, enjoyed the protection of Serbian state security officers. Another provides evidence of how a government secretary was protecting a brutal criminal gang, infamous for trading cocaine and for beheading its enemies.
My story was about a Serb-Syrian guy who officially worked as a translator for the police, but was in fact the boss of a people-smuggling ring that was taking down rivals with the help of police officers on his payroll.
The winning story in the online media category was by my colleague at BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network), Radmilo Marković, entitled “Belgrade – paradise for illegal construction”. He showed that corrupt city officials have been involved in a huge property scam worth more than €1bn (£864m).
Radmilo’s acceptance speech was quite telling: “We as journalists are faced every day with absurdity and fear that our work does not really matter. We discover many wrongdoings, but everything just stops right there – in the media. For me, this award will not do much, it will just make this day a bit less absurd.” He was looking and sounding pretty pessimistic, but then that tends to be his default setting.
The night became a bit more cheerful when we went out for a drink. Even Sisyphus would probably have had a slightly more bearable job if he had had a bottle of Jameson’s with him.
But I think, deep down, we probably still have hope that all this is not for nothing. That at least we are on the right side of history. And who knows? Maybe cases we have chased and reported on for years will someday get their day in court.