Meet the People Behind BIRN: Sasa Dragojlo

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Each month, BIRN introduces you to a different member of its team. For September, meet Sasa Dragojlo, Balkan Insight’s Serbian correspondent.

Photo: BIRN

Sasa Dragojlo, 33, wanted to write poetry with rhythm and hip-hop music but at the same was curious about people and the world. Eventually, he decided to become a journalist because it combines all of these.

Before journalism, he did many jobs from working in call centres to warehouses; however, in April 2015 he grasped the opportunity to work for BIRN. Since then, he has never quit this “nutjob profession”, as he calls it.

His favourite topics to work on are about corruption, crime, human trafficking, etc. Together with BIRN’s Kosovo correspondent, Xhorxhina Bami, he worked on an investigative story on the weaponry seized from Serb gunmen in northern Kosovo.

Recently, he won third prize as part of a team of BIRN and the Centre for investigative journalism of Serbia CINS for an investigation into Serbian arms exports to Myanmar following the army coup in that country. He also won third prize in the EU investigative awards for a story on a translator for the Serbian police who led a people-smuggling gang.

Let’s meet him!

  1. Why did you become a journalist and work for an investigative non-profit like BIRN? What do you like most in your job, and what is the most challenging thing?

I always wanted something linked to writing – from literature to poetry with rhythm, etc., like hip hop music. However, I have also been curious about the world in general and why we, as individuals, act like we act and that led me to the politics of our communities and the ideologies that shape them. But I also like to be active, learn about real people and ‘fight the power’. And when you combine all that, you get journalism – an eclectic field that combines all of that. However, when I got my degree at the Faculty of Political Science the future in journalism was not so clear. I wrote columns, essays and free-form prose in multiple online media, but could not live off it, so I worked multiple ‘real jobs’ – from call centres to warehouses. I thought I would never find a media that wanted me, have enough money, or where I wanted to work (I would not want to work in 90 per cent of the media; a construction job looked more attractive). But in April 2015 I got a chance to work for BIRN and since then I never quit this nutjob profession.

  1. What kind of stories do you prefer to work on?

I like to work on stories where, along with big corruption or crime, you have a story of ordinary small people. During my career I noticed that many colleagues would avoid stories about labour exploitation, human trafficking, or the housing crisis, but chase procurement frauds or dirty things concerning big names in politics, etc. But I find it wrong, and it’s one of the reasons people do not trust old-school media. Since I started working, I always emphasized those topics and they are the ones I’m proudest of. I would not name one, because there are really a lot of them.

  1. Together with Xhorxhina Bami, you worked on an investigative story on the weaponry seized from Serb gunmen in northern Kosovo last month. Would you like to tell us more about this?

This story is a classic reaction to an event that shook the whole region and even further. We wanted to see what we can do as a proper and professional newsroom. Since both sides – Belgrade and Pristina – are not trustworthy actors and are looking for their propagandist angle, we decided to take a look at the material evidence – the weapons arsenal seized by Kosovo Police. After days of close looks at the weapons, we found our angle – a pile of weapons whose marks suggested they were made in Serbian institutions or arms factories in recent years, which made them easier to trace. Our story was the first independent evidence in this case and many regional media were interested in reporting about it. I gave numerous interviews in Serbia and a few in the region and I hope the impact will not end at that.

  1. Recently, you won third prize as part of a team of BIRN and the Centre for investigative journalism of Serbia CINS for an investigation on Serbia’s arms exports to Myanmar. Also, you won third prize in the EU awards for a story on a Serbian police translator who led a people-smuggling gang. Tell us more about these investigations.

The investigation about Serbia’s arms export to Myanmar following the army coup in that country was a great example of collaboration between different media organisations. When we found out we were working on the same story, we decided to cooperate and not to go into competition. That is the main reason I really like that story, beside it shows how business and especially the arms industry are always looking to bypass legal and ethical norms. Tackling that is one of the key goals of professional journalism.

The story “With Police Connections, Serbian-Syrian Translator Turned People-Smuggler” is one of my favourite stories. I spent months working on it, meeting sources in the crime underworld, informants of security services and police, and lost a lot of nerves to prove my claims. But the results have been rewarding. This story shows how our world works – hypocrisy and fake humanitarians, criminals and police as two sides of the same coin, violence and human rights violations as a norm – the refugee crisis as a global phenomenon we cannot escape from. As much as we ignore it, it will not stop. Things seem to get much worse, considering the ongoing ecological and social crisis, along with bloody wars all over the globe.

  1. Can you advise fellow journalists from the region on how to investigate arms trafficking? 

First, I would tell any journalist to develop sources. Go out there and speak to the devil itself. Not for exhibitionism, but to understand and collect information you will use in the public interest. You need to touch the heart of darkness in order to write about it. In our world, where the few rule the many, good contacts are essential. Important information, unfortunately, is rarely obtained through FOI requests. OSINT methods are necessary and really essential to investigate arms trafficking, but without good sources, in most cases, you are just touching the surface.