In 2015, Serbian reporters working for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a non-profit investigative journalism network, used the legislation to reveal that then Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali was director of a $6 million property empire on the Bulgarian Black Sea. In 2017, the law helped the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, another investigative journalism group, look into the questionable property dealings of Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin. But transparency champions say even the finest legislation is only as good as its implementation.
In Serbia, state institutions and public companies simply ignore many of the 30,000-plus requests logged each year by the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, journalists say. “More and more institutions are closed to the public, refusing to communicate with journalists or to respond to our requests,” said Dino Jahić, former editor of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia. “It seems to me that all this is the consequence of a public climate in which journalists have come to be seen as evil, as enemies who work to damage the state and Serbian society.”
In 2017, the Ministry of Public Administration announced plans to amend Serbia’s right-to-know law that alarmed activists in the EU candidate country. Assistant Minister Ivana Antić told BIRN the changes were designed “to improve the legislation” and bring more state bodies into the FOIA fold. But critics said amendments drafted by the ministry could effectively legalise the current culture of secrecy by letting many organisations off the hook — particularly the public companies that build roads, run railways and provide electricity, telecommunications and other services. “These are state-owned companies that do business with public resources and they could be exempted from FOIA according to the new draft,” said Mirjana Jevtovic, an editor at investigative news outlet Insajder.net. “This means that citizens will not be able to find out how their money is spent.”
Nemanja Nenadić, programme director of Transparency Serbia, described the proposed exemption for public companies as “a matter of political pressure and an intention to hide information”. Critics also worried that changes could allow state institutions to tie the system up in knots through legal action. When public bodies deny or ignore FOIA requests, people have the right to appeal to the information commissioner, which can force the institutions to release the data. An amendment drafted in March 2018 would let public bodies contest such decisions in the Administrative Court. “Someone had the ingenious idea that institutions, which mostly don’t answer requests, should be allowed to sue the commissioner for the decisions passed,” said Commissioner for Information Rodoljub Šabić, shortly before his term in office expired in late December. “This amendment would result in thousands of complaints against the commissioner. The exercise of this right, which is already very complicated and time-consuming, would be painfully extended, and in the case of journalists, become meaningless.”
In a victory for campaigners, the Ministry of Public Information released a revised draft of the legislation in December 2018 that no longer included the provision allowing institutions to sue the Commissioner for Information. But transparency advocates say they will not sleep easy until they see the final version of the legislation. Among their concerns is a new provision in the December draft determining that the National Bank of Serbia is “without justification excluded from the competence of the Commissioner”. According to analysis published by Transparency Serbia, the December draft also missed an opportunity to safeguard the independence of the Commissioner for Information. Under the current law, commissioners are elected by deputies in parliament, a process that critics say is open to political interference. Serbia has been without a commissioner since Šabić — who had a reputation for independence — left office in December. Aleksandar Martinovic, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s leader in parliament, said at the end of January the party had several candidates for the job — and that whoever they put up would be “the exact opposite” of Šabić.
Meanwhile, journalists and transparency activists have been on the offensive. A campaign called Serbia for Information (in Serbian), organised in the run-up to Christmas by Belgrade-based NGO the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), sought to raise awareness of the changes by allowing people to “ask Santa” for public information. “We all know that Santa’s job is to bring presents to us,” the NGO said on its website. “However, if such a draft law is adopted, it may be necessary, instead of a gift, to provide us with answers to questions about how our money is spent.” CRTA has also launched a campaign called “I want a commissioner, not a yes-man!”, calling for the transparent election of the next Commissioner for Information. A form on the group’s website allows members of the public to propose to parliament their own criteria for the next appointee.
Across the border in Croatia, requests for data in the EU’s youngest member state often hit a wall of classified information and trade secrets. The number of FOIA requests denied by public bodies almost doubled in 2017 compared with the previous year, accounting for around five per cent of almost 22,000 requests submitted, data from the Information Commissioner showed. “Business secrets is one of the most common reasons for restricting access to information,” Commissioner Ana Marija Musa told BIRN in an email. Ilko Ćimić, an investigative reporter at Index.hr, said many Croatian institutions had a special knack for fobbing off FOIAs. “Sometimes they refuse requests with no explanation at all, saying you are abusing the right of access by requesting information too often,” he said.