President Aleksandar Vucic is seen in Belgrade, Serbia, on December 28, 2020. The outlet KRIK has faced a smear campaign since one of its reporters questioned Vucic. (AP/Darko Vojinovic)

Serbian outlet KRIK faces smear campaign after journalist questions president

Berlin, April 1, 2021 — Serbian authorities must conduct a swift and thorough investigation into the ongoing smear campaign against investigative journalism outlet KRIK and ensure the safety of the outlet’s staffers, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 7, during a press conference, a KRIK reporter asked Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić about the government’s alleged connections with organized crime groups; Vučić did not answer, and instead dismissed the reporter and called her rude for asking such a question, KRIK reported.

In the days following that press conference, ruling party politicians and pro-government media outlets accused KRIK of being tied to organized crime; KRIK project manager Jelena Vasić told CPJ in an email that the outlet is “strongly denying these allegations and considers these attacks as a smear campaign by pro-governmental media to discredit [KRIK’s] journalistic investigations.”

KRIK and its staffers also received death threats in comments on the outlet’s Facebook page, including calls to shoot the outlet’s journalists, according to screenshots of such comments Vasić sent to CPJ.

“Serbian authorities must conduct a swift, thorough, and independent investigation into the ongoing smear campaign against investigative journalism outlet KRIK, put a halt to it, and ensure the safety of the outlet’s journalists,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Government officials and ruling party politicians should encourage the work of investigative journalists instead of participating in discrediting and smearing them.”

KRIK covers organized crime groups in Serbia and their alleged political connections, and is the Serbian partner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international consortium of investigative media outlets, according to its website.

On March 9, the pro-government privately owned broadcaster Pink TV aired a report alleging that that KRIK’s journalists were working for Veljko Belivuk, a purported leader of the Kavač organized crime group who was arrested in February, according to a transcript of the Pink TV segment, which CPJ reviewed, and a report by regional news website Balkan Insight.

The following day, daily newspaper Kurir, also a privately owned outlet that supports the current government, published an article claiming that there was a “secret deal between KRIK and Belivuk,” and featuring a photo of KRIK editor-in-chief Stevan Dojčinović. Also that day, the newspaper Alo, also privately owned and pro-government, published an article headlined “KRIK – Belivuk’s private media.”

At least five outlets have published more than a dozen articles repeating such allegations against the outlet since March 9, according to a summary of those articles shared with CPJ by Vasić.

Also on March 10, Sandra Božić and Vladimir Orlić, members of parliament with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, gave remarks implying that KRIK cooperated with organized crime groups, according to news reports and video of parliamentary discussions of those comments.

On March 17, Aleksandar Martinović,  a deputy for the Serbian Progressive Party, accused KRIK and Dojčinović of laundering money, not paying taxes, and associating with organized crime groups, according to news reports and a report by KRIK.

In a statement on March 10, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Publisher Drew Sullivan condemned the smear campaign, saying, “By accusing our colleagues of being part of the Kavač gang’s criminal activities, these pro-state tabloids are providing criminal groups with justification for murder.”

Sullivan added that the organization holds President Vučić “responsible for the blatantly false accusations peddled by his mouthpieces, which have real-world ramifications for our journalists.”

In an email to CPJ, Irena Petrović, the public relations and communications manager of Adria Media Group, which publishes Kurir, disputed the characterization that “Kurir is campaigning against KRIK, and especially that it is doing so on someone else’s behalf.“

Kurir had “been lumped together with some other media outlets while ignoring the fact that we have acted in accordance with the ethical standards and the journalistic code,” she said.

CPJ emailed Alo, Pink TV, and the press departments of the Serbian president, the legislature, and the Serbian Progressive Party, but did not receive any replies.