The International Press Institute (IPI) underscored its staunch support for the Crime and Corruption Investigative Network (KRIK) in Serbia as it faces a mounting barrage of vexatious defamation lawsuits and damaging court verdicts.
IPI said that, in recent years, KRIK investigations have rattled the government of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and implicated multiple ministers and MPs in alleged corruption scandals, “drawing the intensifying ire of the ruling party and its allies.”
It noted that KRIK and its journalists have been hit with an avalanche of what IPI and other international press freedom organizations have long deemed to be “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs) – vexatious civil and criminal defamation suits aimed at intimidating the media outlet and draining it of both financial resources and time.
“Unlike in other European countries where SLAPPs are often ultimately thrown out following a costly and lengthy legal process, in Serbia KRIK has been on the losing end of court verdicts in the past. IPI and our partners have previously raised concerns about such decisions, which pose serious questions about the independence of the judicial system in Serbia and represent a major threat to media freedom,” it said.
After a recent visit to Belgrade, IPI and other press freedom groups condemned the deteriorating state of free media and the crisis facing independent journalism, citing the legal pressure on KRIK as a key example, reads the statement.
“Serbia continues to be one of the worst countries in Europe for SLAPPs and the number of documented cases is on the rise. IPI believes the aim of these lawsuits is to isolate KRIK and pressure it into submission, muzzling its important watchdog journalism. This cannot be allowed to happen. IPI calls for renewed support for KRIK’s mission from the international community, as well as from Europe’s journalistic and press freedom communities,” said IPI.
It noted that earlier this month KRIK received a 12th SLAPP lawsuit, initiated by Nikola Petrovic, a businessman and close ally of Serbian President Vucic.
“The lawsuit targeted editor-in-chief Stevan Dojcinovic and investigative reporters Bojana Jovanovic and Dragana Peco. It stemmed from an article about his alleged connections with drug trafficking networks in the Balkans and Colombia,” said IPI.
It further said that earlier this week KRIK was then convicted in the High Court in Belgrade for simply reporting on the SLAPPs it was facing.
“In 2021 it had published a list of individuals who had sued the newsroom, reporting that the majority of lawsuits had been filed by people connected to the government and stating that in their opinion these lawsuits were aimed at silencing their journalism,” said IPI.
The International Press Institute said it was “alarmed” by this ruling, and added that “the fact that a professional media outlet can be convicted for simply stating its opinion that it had been targeted by SLAPPs represents a new level of absurdity.”