The protection of operational police data resulting from investigations in the Western Balkans is insufficient and sometimes even abused.
Author: Marija Vukasović (Legal Researcher, Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia)
The media quite frequently publish information relating to investigations conducted by the police and the prosecution, quoting mostly unknown sources allegedly ‘close to the investigation’. It actually involves targeted and systematic disclosure of information from investigations; it also implicates only certain, specific media outlets.
“Leakage” or intentional placement (“serving”) of information by the police happens to be a big problem that negatively affects the healthy relationship between the media and the police. This kind of information could jeopardize investigations, the presumption of innocence or the right to privacy if is in this way disclosed to the public at large. There have also been cases when such information is deliberately disclosing to/by the media for political purposes.
Information obtained from the police are often used for political purposes or to get even with political opponents and those with different opinions and convictions, but also with the aim of stigmatizing certain individuals. In any case, such information usually appears by way of the already established pattern.
The media outlets that are close to those in power receive police information – mainly tabloids that publish information obtained in this way to promote various political interests or individuals. Tabloid-oriented media most often publish such information in order to offer stories that might attract a large number of readers and viewers.
Another problem is the fact that no accountability occurs when such situations occur. The proceedings envisaged by law are not initiated, and information on how the information was “leaked” is difficult to obtain and hard to prove.
According to the data of the Republic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Serbia, in 2016, the prosecutors’ offices have received three new reports concerning the disclosure of official secrets. During the same period, two reports were rejected and one was resolved by the application of the principle of opportunity – instead of being reported, one is obliged, for example, to donate a certain sum of money for humanitarian purposes.
Cases where the issue of liability is raised at all, most often involve proceedings initiated against journalists. There have also been cases when the media have invented stories, citing institutions as their sources. The Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection of the Republic of Serbia performed control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and found that there were no information leaks in the case of rape and murder of a girl and a woman and that the media have simply reported false information.
There have been examples of leakage of information from the police services in the region as well. In Kosovo, the media have reported news of the death of Astrit Dehari, a political activist who was imprisoned on terrorism charges. In this case, the authorities have said that he had committed suicide, while Dehari’s family and the opposition Kosovo party, Self-Determination, whose member he was, stated that he had been murdered. While the investigation was still underway, local media kept reporting about the last minutes and hours of his life in the prison corridors. Security camera footage leaked into the media. One of the consequences of these occurrences was the fact that they have jeopardized the course of the investigation.
However, it seems that this problem most challenging in Serbia. One of the last cases involved leaked information concerning the murder of singer Jelena Marjanović. She had been murdered in April 2016 in the Belgrade suburb of Borča, and the police have been unable to discover the perpetrator. Namely, at the end of August 2017, in the morning programme of a television station with a nation-wide frequency, the editor-in-chief of “Happy TV”, Milomir Marić, announced that the arrest of Jelena Marjanović’s husband was to take place as part of one of the reality shows: “The crowning moment of the reality show “The Cooperative”, broadcast by Pink TV, will be the arrest of Marjanović.” Marjanović was actually arrested after he left the reality show, two weeks after the above announcement.
It is necessary to provide better mechanisms to protect information from leaking. In this respect, it is necessary to develop and implement procedures that would provide knowledge as to where who, and how has to access specific operational data from the investigation.
In addition, full control over said data should be in the hands of the prosecutor’s office conducting the investigation, not those of the police. Measures to monitor the protection of operational police data should be implemented by the organizational units in charge of internal control of the police.
Additionally, it is important to have a functional system of responsibility, i.e. initiation of criminal or disciplinary proceedings against the responsible persons, but they should also be concluded, involving an appropriate epilogue: a court verdict or a disciplinary measure. Not only is responsibility established in this way, but such proceedings also carry a message that leakage of information from the police is not acceptable.
It is necessary to train employees on the handling of data stored in various databases since information can also be leaked because of lack of proper attention during handling, or even ignorance of persons employed by the police.
The article is part of the publication “Media and Police in the Western Balkans” published with the support of the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces and European Union.