Police in Serbia often refuse to answer questions or reply to a request for an interview except when it comes to pro-government media.
If you are an investigative journalist in Serbia, one thing is certain: you will find it difficult to get any information from the police. However, cooperation between police and the media is needed for both sides.
For reporters engaged in investigative journalism, it is necessary to obtain official and accurate information. This helps them with their work, reducing possible errors and speculations. Police can also benefit from a relationship with journalists. Investigative reporters are often faster than law enforcement in obtaining cross-border information because they are not restricted by international legal regulations. Information on criminal investigations and court cases can be facilitated with help from colleagues in media organizations in other countries. Sharing this information with the local law enforcement authorities can help them further their own investigations.
Although investigative journalism and police work have much in common, since both aim to uncover crime and corruption, journalists in Serbia encounter problems when it comes to checking data or obtaining new information despite the fact that police work is public, according to the Law on Police.
Police in Serbia often refuse to answer questions or reply to interview requests, especially if you are not from a pro-Government media outlet.
The Serbian Ministry of Interior has a selective approach towards the media. Since its founding a year ago, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network – KRIK has not received any official answer to questions or requests for an interview from police, regardless of the topic. Several media organizations recently complained about lack of transparency from the police. Getting official information from the police became a problem for news agencies, TV stations and daily newspapers in Serbia. So our colleagues must rely on their police sources and off-the-record data. The online news portal Insider recently announced that the police withheld information for several months. As published on their website two months ago, the Ministry didn’t respond to the last ten questions to which Insider requested answers regardless of the topic.
Television stations also frequently complain they were unable to get information from the police. That was the case with TV series VICE whose journalists said they could not get officials from the Ministry of Interior for interviews in their documentary about illegal drug trafficking in the capital of Serbia – Belgrade.
A few years ago, getting an interview with a police official would take just a few days. Lately, the situation is completely different. There have been cases where ministry employees agreed to an interview but an official request to the Department for Media and Communication within the Ministry of Interior must be sent for approval. Requests often went unanswered. Sometimes department employees say that the request has been forwarded and they need the potential subject to confirm the interview. Often, those requests never reach the subjects. To make matters worse, professors from the Police Academy also need approval from the media department to speak to the journalist, making it very difficult to speak on the record with experts in the field of organized crime.
People who answer the phone at the department for media never introduce themselves and when journalists insist on knowing to whom they are talking, the answer is always the same: “clerk of the department.” These “clerks” know how to drag their feet for months.
Police often refuse to cooperate even when journalists need to confirm information already published in the media. Procedures are different, however, when the Ministry of Interior wants to promote itself. For example, during “Operation Cutter” police arrested around 80 people, and the clerks of the media department immediately provided the information – even the names and surnames of those arrested, which they never do for journalists seeking answers to other questions
KRIK has not received any official response from the police since its founding a year ago
KRIK tried to get an answer on why the police were being so uncooperative. In early November of 2015, we requested an interview with Minister of Interior Nebojša Stefanović but we did not get a response. However, at one press conference, he told us that all information that is important to citizens is available and that persons from Ministry of Interior assess when they want to speak on some topic. Stefanović also said that sometimes he thinks he is in the media too much and therefore he does not grant interviews. Ten days after the conference, he gave an interview to daily newspaper Politika.
Media outlets which support the government generally have no difficulty getting information. In fact, the government uses them to present information it wants, often in violation of the personal data protection. Intentionally leaked information fills the front pages of pro-government media. Such stories are used in political disputes and may violate the presumption of innocence or be simply fictitious.
Information of public interest must be available to all media organizations and citizens. Journalists need to respect the code of ethics. Favoring certain media is bad practice that should stop. On the other hand, data obtained from the police should be used by journalists in accordance with the law, not for sensationalist journalism that deals with affairs, or for political ends.