BIRN Serbia and IJAS Report: Journalists Feel Undefended From Online Attacks

Report says online abuse is becoming so ‘normalised’ that journalists often do not report it – or have any faith in institutional protection.

Online threats against journalists are more intense and common than physical ones, but most newsrooms have not set up safety protocols to help them respond to these attacks, while laws do not provide efficient protection, BIRN and IJAS’s new report reveals.

Working in an environment that is becoming primarily digital has left journalists and media more exposed to online to attacks, insults and threats, but many newsrooms have not established mechanisms to deal with such cases and legislation does not provide adequate protection either.

These are some of the findings from the latest report, “Journalists’ Safety in the Digital Environment”, which BIRN Serbia and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, IJAS, published on July 18.

Online attacks and threats impact journalists’ mental health and private lives and affect relations in the newsrooms and commitment to professional standards. Online abuse is typically “normalised” and considered as part of the job.

“The most striking finding is that hate speech, threats, insults,
intimidation, pressure and other forms of digital violence against
journalists are so widespread in Serbia that journalists believe that it has become a daily ‘normal’ environment in which they work and that it is the price they pay for their work.

“When faced with digital threats and insults, they generally
do not report them because they know that, at the institutional level of protection, things are rarely undertaken and resolved,” says Aleksandra Krstic, associate professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Belgrade, one of the report’s authors.

Endangerment of journalists’ safety may lead to self-censorship and journalists may even abandon stories of public interest. which then lowers the quality of information the public receives and puts at risk media independence and freedom of speech, the report notes.

The report says many journalists rarely report insults and threats, warning that “the lack of trust that journalists have in the institutional protection system, the competent prosecutor’s office or the courts, is alarming”.

Marija Babic, lawyer at IJAS and another author of the report, says it is necessary to harmonise laws with developments in the digital space in order to prosecute attacks.

“Competent authorities should process attacks and threats to journalists as quickly as possible. It is also very important that such attacks are condemned by high-ranking state officials, who should stop pressuring and targeting journalists and the media as this is only making them [journalists and media] targets of very serious attacks,” says Babic.

The report also notes the lack of professional solidarity with attacked journalists and the fact that journalists and editors mainly turn to the public – which is the only thing they still trust – hoping that publicising attacks and threats will save them from potential attackers.

“All these findings should be read in a general, social context that is not conducive to the development of free and independent media. Threats and pressures, intense public campaigns led by representatives of the highest state authorities, a culture of impunity and weak institutions lead to a situation where journalists and the media are legitimate ‘targets’.

“Apart from the need to strengthen the capacities of the newsrooms themselves, we should insist on more effective protection mechanisms through amendments to the laws and a stronger response from institutions,” says Tanja Maksic, program manager and researcher at BIRN and one of the authors of the report.

The full report in Serbian and English is available on BIRN Serbia’s website.



Under the Spotlight: Infrastructure Projects in Serbia

BIRN Serbia


National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

Main Objectives:

  • Overall objective of the project: to promote accountability of the government through quality media reporting based on the facts. Our reporting will put under spotlight the capacities of the Government and its relevant bodies to run infrastructure projects and their accountability to citizens.

Specific Objectives:

  • Establishing facts related to the planning, management and impact of infrastructural projects delivered in Serbia
  • Informing the public about infrastructure projects and their impact on society

Main activities:

  • Journalistic research and production – BIRN will produce at least 5 thematic packages annually (analytical and investigative content) to be published on the platform. The content will be done in-house by BIRN’s journalists and editors. As proposed topics require extensive field work, we will also rely on local journalists to participate in the project if/when appropriate. In-depth stories will be specifically edited, following standards applied on the length, paragraphing and presentation of facts. We will make available additional multimedia materials, visualize data and documents, provide photos etc.
  • Extensive database creation and open documents to the public are BIRN’s mitigation method on the overall negative trend of closing institutions and denying access to data, supporting BIRN efforts to keep public institutions accountable and transparent. BIRN will provide a) interactive data and documents base creation: and b) production of multimedia material, such as illustrations, visualisations, videos and photo galleries.
  • Online promotion and raising awareness will enable the project findings’ promotion using multiple online communication platforms and formats.
  1. Target Groups:

State institutions: the Cadastre, relevant ministries, Treasury administration, Tax Administration

Main Implementer:

BIRN Serbia





Digital Media Action – Monitoring Deployment of Intrusive Technologies

BIRN Serbia


DTI Fund – Independent Media

Main Objectives:

  • Independent media to influence public agenda through availability of quality information on underreported topics.

Specific Objectives:

  • to provide independent oversight of intrusive digital technologies with a focus on human rights and media freedoms in Serbia.

Main activities:

  • Monitoring will be based on the systematic mapping of the usage of potentially intrusive digital technologies in state institutions and will trace state funding through the public procurement of hardware and software for surveillance and AI, companies involved, services enabled, etc.
  • Media production will focus on the broader societal implications of the usage of intrusive digital technologies, including the implications for journalists and media.
  • Capacity building for journalists will provide understanding of the context on AI, digital/biometric surveillance, teach them the journalistic techniques needed to track developments in this field and its deployment in public sphere.
  • Production and mentoring scheme will serve as an extension of the workshop; it will be provided for at least 5 participants whose story pitches will be commissioned by BIRN.
  • Multimedia campaign will promote media production and the monitoring results and will raise the general public awareness about digital surveillance and algorithmic decision making, how they are governed, and what the potential consequences of their use are.
  • Round table will be organised, gathering various interested stakeholders and steering a public debate about the findings and key project results.

Target Groups:

Media, Journalists, CSOs, Journalists’ associations, Independent institutions: Commissioner for the Data Protection and Free Access to Information, Equality Commissioner, Ombudsman, State institutions and public enterprises.

Main Implementer:

BIRN Serbia





BIRN Serbia Holds Training on Illicit Financial Flows

BIRN Serbia organised a day-long training on investigating money laundering. The training, “Illicit Financial Flow and Money Laundering”, on June 22, in Belgrade, was designed to equip fellow journalists with the knowledge and practical tools required to detect and report on this type of crime.

Representatives of various national and local media organisations gathered in Belgrade for four distinct sessions on complementary methodologies presented by BIRN Serbia staff.

Participants underwent a comprehensive training program which examined the entirety of the investigative process.

Practical advice was presented on searching open source intelligence such as public registries and databases to identify potential money laundering cases, recognizing the means through which criminals attempt to clean “dirty” money, processing and visualisation of big data, and current legal practice regarding such criminal cases.

Working breaks between sessions saw presenters take the time to make themselves available for direct consultation. Participants engaged staff for suggestions on their own specific projects, thus enriching the training experience.

Reviews of the program were overwhelmingly positive.

“The attention to detail was immaculate, presenters were clearly experienced and sought to walk us through every step of the investigative process from top to bottom using concrete examples from their own work,” one attendee noted.

The training was held as part of the project “Uncovering Illicit Financial Flows in the Western Balkans”, financed by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ.

The overall goal of the project is to raise public awareness about illicit financial flows and provide a basis for decision and opinion makers to boost efforts to combat illicit financial flow.

It aims to increase the pool of journalists in Western Balkan countries equipped with tools and techniques in uncovering illicit financial flows, especially across borders.

BIRN Serbia Recognised for Journalistic Courage and Investigative Reporting

For only the second time since 2000, an entire newsroom – BIRN Serbia – has been awarded the prestigious Stanislav Stasa Marinkovic Award.

BIRN Serbia newsroom has been awarded the prestigious Stanislav Stasa Marinkovic Award by the daily newspaper Danas for journalistic courage and achievements in investigative and analytical reporting.

In a statement, the jury said BIRN Serbia newsroom said that the team had produced so many important stories over the past 12 months that it was impossible to select just one journalist for the award. Its work confirmed BIRN Serbia’s status “as one of the most influential investigative media in Serbia”, it said.

“BIRN newsroom, led by Dragana Zarkovic Obradovic, has been dedicated to furthering innovative ways of reporting on relevant media investigations, as well as nurturing young people who are just entering the world of journalism and that is why the jury decided that the award should belong to the whole newsroom,” the jury wrote.

It is only the second time since 2000 that an entire newsroom has won the award. The first to do so was N1 television.

Milorad Ivanovic, editor in chief of BIRN Serbia, said that the award holds special importance as recognition of the newsroom’s collective effort.

“Each and every one of our journalists has contributed to the publication of significant investigative pieces that serve the public interest,” said Ivanovic. “We firmly believe that this achievement is a testament to the exceptional teamwork within our organisation.”

The award is bestowed in honour of former Borba editor in chief Stanislav Stasa Marinkovic, one of the pioneers of Serbia’s free press and president of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia between 1983 and 1985.

It was first presented in 1993 by the daily newspaper Borba. Danas took over in 2000.

This year’s jury included 2022 winner Tamara Skroza, Marinkovic’s wife, Dragana, caricaturist Dusan Petricic, political sciences professor Aleksandra Krstic, and Danas representatives Safet Bisevac, Zoran Pavic and Dragoljub Petrovic, who was president of the jury.



Belgrade Mayor’s Chief of Cabinet Sues BIRN for Defamation

Nenad Milanovic filed a defamation lawsuit against BIRN Serbia for publishing an investigation on his negotiations with Turkish company Kentkart – the fourth SLAPP lawsuit it received this year.

Nenad Milanovic, chief of cabinet of Belgrade mayor Aleksandar Sapic, filed a defamation lawsuit against BIRN Serbia before the Higher Court in Belgrade, seeking 200.000 dinars (1,705 euros) in damages for mental anguish.

The lawsuit claims his reputation and honour has been damaged by the BIRN article, “Audios Reveal that Sapic’s Chief of Cabinet Offered to Fix Procurement to Kentkart”. The lawsuit states that the article is “full of absolute falsehoods”, but does not elaborate to explain which information Milanovic believes to be incorrect.

“The news published on website was very disturbing to the plaintiff because the incriminating expressions used by the defendant were disparaging and have contributed to the damages for the plaintiff’s honour and reputation, especially in the plaintiff’s work environment, and then in the environment in which the plaintiff lives.

“Namely, the plaintiff is very successful in his job, and the insinuations mentioned in the text can have an extremely negative impact on the plaintiff’s reputation at his work and in the private sphere as well”, reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is filed against BIRN Serbia and its editor-in-chief Milorad Ivanovic.

Ivanovic says this is the fourth SLAPP lawsuit this year.

“This is forth SLAPP lawsuit filed against our newsroom this year. These lawsuits are not being filed in honest attempt to receive any kind of justice, but to exhaust journalists and newsroom.

“The lawsuit does not deny any fact we have published in the article. Mental anguish of public officials, their reputation and honour, cannot be above the truth,” said I.

So-called SLAPPs aim to drain the target’s financial and psychological resources and chill critical voices, to the detriment of public participation, according to a report on SLAPP lawsuits in Serbia published in 2022 by Article 19, the American Bar Association Centre for Human Rights and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, NUNS.

Aleksandar Sapic, the mayor of the Serbian capital, has filed two separate defamation lawsuits against BIRN Serbia, its editor and journalists in March, claiming that their reporting damaged his reputation and caused him mental anguish. He is seeking six million Serbian dinars (around 50,000 euros) in damages in each case – a total of around 100,000 euros.

Predrag Koluvija, who is on trial for alleged illicit marijuana production, in February accused BIRN of incorrectly reporting on one of his court hearings and thus damaging his reputation and causing him mental anguish. He is seeking 200,000 dinars (around 1,700 euros) in damages.

Meet the People Behind BIRN: Radmilo Marković

Each month, BIRN introduces you to a different member of its team. For May, meet Radmilo Marković, journalist at BIRN Serbia.

Radmilo Marković, 42, is working on breaking investigative stories and has won 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.



BIRN Serbia Journalist Radmilo Markovic Wins Investigative Award

Radmilo Markovic, investigative reporter with BIRN Serbia, was awarded the prestigious Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Award in the online media category for his reporting on illegal constructions in Belgrade.

Radmilo Markovic was announced as the winner of the award given by the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia and the US embassy in Belgrade on Tuesday.

The jury awarded him for his multimedia investigation that identified hundreds of buildings built in Belgrade without permits in the seven years since new construction legislation entered into force, and made legal via apparently illegal means.

“Investigations into this topic and numerous wrongdoings will continue. We and other media have already done some follow-ups. We wrote and we will continue to write on people who illegally obtained gain by damaging the citizens,” Markovic said after the ceremony.

“However, journalists’ work has its limits. From there, the state institutions should take over – thre prosecution, police and courts. Unfortunately, that other part of it is yet to actually start – for this and hundreds of other investigations that journalists have produced in the last decades,” he added.

This year’s winners included TV N1 journalist Maja Nikolic who received an award in the electronic media category for a documentary Below surface – The last honour and journalists Nemanja Rujevic, Ingrid Gercama, Nathalie Bertrams and Tristen Taylor who were awarded in print category for the story “Parrots worth as much as cocaine”, published by the weekly Vreme. The newly established audience award went to Dalibor Stupar, a journalist of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, for a documentary about heating and air pollution.

The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia organised the 18th annual award for outstanding investigative journalism and reporting on issues of public interest with the support of the US embassy in Belgrade.

This year, 45 stories were submitted for consideration.

Among the nine nominees were three more BIRN journalists. In online media category, the jury nominated  Sasa Dragojlo’s investigation “With Police Connections, Serbian-Syrian Translator Turned People-Smuggler” and Jelena Veljkovic for a series of articles about Nemanja Stajic, Belgrade’s former secretary for legalisation affairs.

Jelena Zoric was nominated in the print category for articles published in Vreme about the “Jovanjica case” – concerning a massive cannabis farm that allegedly enjoyed the protection of Serbian state security.



BIRN Serbia Awards Small Grants for Reporting on Artificial Intelligence and Surveillance

After BIRN Serbia trained ten journalists to report on the development and use of surveillance technology and artificial intelligence, AI, half of the participants have been provided with funding to work on stories on this topic.

The training was held on April 28 in Belgrade as part of the programe “Artificial Intelligence and Surveillance Technologies – Challenges of Media Reporting”.

Journalists learned how to recognise and monitor use of artificial intelligence and surveillance technologies. Following the training, five participants were awarded small grants of $480 US to report on this topic.

Grants were awarded to: Bojana Vlajović Savić (Res Publica), Slađana Majdak (BETA agency), Slaviša Milenković (Kruševacpress), Filip Mirilović (weekly Vreme), and Mila Tomić (Ozon press).

Surveillance is gaining more and more importance and while journalists should contribute to the transparency and accountability of the government’s use of these technologies, they often lack the skills needed to report on this topic.

That is why the training was aimed at strengthening the capacities of newsrooms to recognize and follow trends in the development and application of these technologies. Participants also received practical advice on how to improve reporting on the effects of surveillance on citizens’ rights.

“People often complain that the state and its institutions do not keep up with modern technology and the opportunities it provides us. Unfortunately, there are indications that they are keeping up, but they are not using these possibilities in the best interest of citizens,” says Radmilo Marković, one of the lecturers.

“Instead, these technologies are being used for who knows whose personal or group interests. That’s why it is important to draw attention to this and this workshop gave us some concrete tools and guidelines on how such things should be investigated,” he added.

Journalists were introduced to the concept of using algorithmic tools for automating decisions, surveillance equipment and other monitoring and profiling technologies, the consequences of their use for the rights of citizens, and how to follow the money trail and procurement of equipment and software for the aforementioned technologies.

The training leaders were experts in the field of the use of surveillance technologies and their impact on the realization of guaranteed rights: Ana Toskić Cvetinović, executive director of the organisation Partners Serbia, Danilo Ćučić, program coordinator of the A11 Initiative and Filip Milošević, from the SHARE Foundation.

Part of the training reflected the experience of BIRN’s newsroom. BIRN editor Milorad Ivanović and journalists Aleksa Tešić and Radmilo Marković shared the knowledge and techniques they applied while working on stories such as procurement of surveillance equipment by Serbian public energy company EPS and use of a software for espionage in Serbia.

BIRN Serbia Holds Training on Monitoring Local Govts’ Tender Spendings

BIRN Serbia held a training on monitoring local government spending through public tenders for 13 local journalists and civil society representatives from Nis, Leskovac, and Vranje.

The workshop, entitled “Monitoring local public tenders”, was held in Nis and organised by BIRN Serbia, Civic Initiatives and the Committee for Human Rights Nis on May 12.

The training provided practical advice on data collection and processing techniques, publicly available resources that can help the media and civil society monitor how local governments allocate public funds through tenders, as well as information on risk points and possible abuses.

New data published in BIRN’s database show that during 2022, the Serbian state distributed 6.8 billion dinars, or about 58 million euros, through public tenders.

However, this money was often wasted and regularly used to finance GONGO organisations and tabloids.

During the workshop, BIRN, together with its partners, shared tools and knowledge with journalists and activists so they could report on public spendings through project financing, monitor money flows and analyse public finances, and thus contribute to greater transparency on budget spending and authorities’ accountability. The workshop program focused on previously identified problematic points:

  • stages of the competition at which abuses may occur – and how to report on this
  • the silence of institutions – how to use requests for access to information of public importance to obtain data
  • GONGOs – how to recognize them

“Our goal is to strengthen the local media and provide them with the methodology and knowledge we used in our research and database creation, so that they have the tools to follow and report on this topic,” said Tanja Maksić, BIRN Serbia program manager and the author of the methodology based on which BIRN’s database on public tenders was collected and presented.

“The more eyes that are focused on the spending of the state budget, the less room there will be for abuses. Empowered journalists are indispensable partners in this process,” she added.

The workshop was organised as part of the project “Publicly about public tenders”, which also created the largest database of open data on public tenders.