Radmilo Marković, 42, studied journalism but never took his diploma; this didn’t stop him from working on breaking investigative stories and winning the Dejan Anastasijević award for the best online article.
Radmilo, based in Belgrade, has been working for the last two years for BIRN Serbia. His report, “Illegally Legalised: The Corruption Involved in Building Belgrade”, was on buildings built without permits in Belgrade over the last seven years that were legalized by new construction legislation.
His report angered the Mayor of Belgrade, Aleksandar Sapic, who filed two separate defamation lawsuits against BIRN Serbia, its editor, and journalists, including Radmilo, claiming that BIRN’s report had damaged his reputation and caused him mental anguish.
Radmilo spoke to us about the award, his first defamation lawsuit, and about journalism in Serbia and its impact; sometimes he admits he feels that journalists’ work is almost meaningless, as investigative stories have little impact in terms of arrests or prosecutions in Serbia, where impunity is the king.
1. Why did you become a journalist and decide to work for an investigative media non-profit like BIRN Serbia? What do you like most in your job, and what is the most challenging thing?
It was an honour for me when BIRN called me to join them two years ago, as BIRN Serbia is one of the most respected media in the country. These days, when number of clicks is the main interest for media executives, joining one of the few organisations that play by the book was refreshing. The best thing – and the worst thing at the same time – is that you have the time to thoroughly explore the topic you are covering, which sometimes puts you in a rabbit hole of an endless network of people or companies, and you eventually end with a lot of information that you don’t use in a final article. On the other hand, since almost all other media outlets are focused on speed and measure only quantity, you could end up working on something that is forgotten and not in the spotlight of the general public.
2. What kind of stories do you prefer to work on? Do you have a story that you feel especially proud of?
Right now I’m working on the problem of illegal real estate construction in Belgrade, and I hope to be able to widen the scope of my research to the whole of Serbia. The problems here are that the state doesn’t have (or doesn’t want to share) a definite list of all illegal buildings, and the fact that these buildings are being built as we speak, so it’s like a snake chasing its own tail.
3. You worked on an investigative story on corruption practices in building processes in Belgrade. More than 450,000 square meters of residential property, partially or completely built without permits since 2015, have escaped demolition and somehow been legalised. Tell us more about this investigation. What drove you to start doing it, and what was the impact?
My colleague Jelena Veljković initially found the first such case: under our law, you could legalise a building if it was built before 2015 and exists on the satellite image of Serbia from 2015. Jelena found one building, linked to the person responsible for issuing legalisation documents in Belgrade, that was built during 2017-2018 and still ended up being legalised, which was against the law.
So, she discovered the phenomenon, and after that it was relatively easy but also time-consuming; all we needed to do is to find buildings that weren’t on the satellite image in 2015, and which in spite of that were registered in the cadastre as “legalised”.
We never knew the magnitude of this malpractice, so it was a bit of a shock to see that there are literally hundreds of such buildings.
Sadly, this story – like almost all investigative stories – did not produce any impact in terms of arrests or prosecutions. In Serbia, when it comes to high corruption cases, impunity is the king.
4. Belgrade Mayor Aleksandar Sapic filed two separate defamation lawsuits against BIRN Serbia, its editor, and journalists, including you, claiming that BIRN’s reporting damaged his reputation and caused him mental anguish. Would you like to tell us more about this Slapp case? Has it affected you and your colleagues?
I can speak for myself on this topic. On the day we received the lawsuits I was a bit shaken. No one had ever sued me for something I wrote so it came as a shock. However, over the next few days, this shock became anger – anger that I must now go to court, and not him for all the things that he has done, that we wrote about.
In his lawsuit, he demanded around 50,000 euros per case, which is higher than the amount the court approves in such a cases, so there is a good argument that this indeed is a Slapp case, even if we don’t go to the facts that we have thoroughly researched and carefully wrote these articles, according to all the standards.
5. How would you advise fellow journalists from the regions to tackle Slapps?
I don’t have any idea; this is my first time. It’s useful if a local journalists’ association gives free legal assistance, like in our case.
6. Recently you won an award, would you like to tell us more about it?
Just a few days ago, the Independent Association of Journalists gave me the annual award named after our great late colleague Dejan Anastasijević. The award was for the best online article – that one I mentioned, about illegal legalization of illegally built buildings (good luck in trying to explain that to your public).
It was an honour for me to receive that award, but, as I said during the ceremony, the fact that nothing ever happens after we reveal crime and corruption is making our journalists’ work almost meaningless. But it’s a good feeling to receive such an award, there is no doubt about that.