“Whistleblowers are the guardians of our rights”
What can a person do when corruption is everywhere? A Serbian whistleblower portal is helping uncover corruption cases and successfully fighting back. Read More
What can a person do when corruption is everywhere? A Serbian whistleblower portal is helping uncover corruption cases and successfully fighting back.
For many years now, we’ve been following the fate of famous whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. The most enduring part of their stories has been their flight from legal prosecution. While people all over the world have taken to the streets to demand their freedom, the U.S. courts are accusing them of endangering the national security of the USA. So are whistleblowers enemies of our states? Quite the contrary, says Serbian journalist Vladimir Radomirovic, who sees them as guardians of our democracies.
Together with other journalists and lawyers, Vladimir operates the Serbian Pištaljka whistleblower portal. Its central objective is to fight the systemic corruption in Serbia. Pištaljka has made high-profile cases public, caused officers and ministers resign, and helped pass the Serbian Whistleblower Protection Law. This inspired the EU to call on its member states to pass similar laws to protect whistleblowers. Vladimir talked to us about how whistleblowers serve society and why protecting them can actually help win court cases about deep-rooted corruption.
Systemic corruption is a problem in many states. It inhibits the economic and social development of a country, and above all, destabilizes the faith of the people in their political representatives. What is the situation like in Serbia?
In Serbia, corruption is almost purely political. In Western Europe and the U.S., I feel it mostly has to do with the corporate world getting involved in politics. But it is a common enemy and one we need whistleblowers to help us defeat.
“Pištaljka has made high-profile cases public, caused officers and ministers resign, and helped pass the Serbian Whistleblower Protection Law.”
What is a whistleblower?
Simply put, a whistleblower is a person, usually an employee, who witnesses wrongdoing and speaks up about it. How whistleblowers are treated after speaking up defines both them and our societies. They are the guardians of our rights, of our money, and of our lives.
At Pištaljka, you’ve defined the revelations of whistleblowers as an essential means for fighting corruption. Your work focuses on investigating and publishing cases that whistleblowers have unveiled. That is not a common approach. How did the idea come about?
I was a whistleblower myself. In 2009, with a group of fellow journalists at Politika, Serbia’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, I blew the whistle on government-condoned censorship and on the then prime minister’s conflict of interest. At the time, the German WAZ group co-owned Politika, so we sent a letter to WAZ as well as to the Serbian government, which controlled a 50 per cent stake in the newspaper. We never got a reply from the government, but WAZ responded and said they were fully aware of the political pressures on journalists at Politika, but could not do anything about it, since the editorial part of the newspaper was in the hands of the Serbian government. We were fired a couple months later. That is how Pištaljka was born: We needed a safe, censorship-free space, to report on rampant corruption in the country, and we wanted to help people like us, other whistleblowers.
Pištaljka offers whistleblowers a form of consulting services. They can take their revelations to the team, who helps them determine the best course of action, and then the cases are turned over either to the newspapers or the courts. How can people approach you and approximately how many cases do you handle?
Pištaljka allows whistleblowers to choose whether they want to contact a journalist or a lawyer. If they want to have their tip investigated by our journalists, we tell them to send us as much information as they can, and we try to get to the bottom of it.
“We were fired a couple months later. That is how Pištaljka was born.”
We get about 15-20 tips per month through this channel, and at least five provide enough information on corruption or other crimes that we can start digging. Our lawyers receive at least 20 requests per month, and sometimes the two channels interact.
How do you make sure the whistleblowers don’t face personal risks when making their stories public?
Let me give you an example: Our lawyers have been working with a police whistleblower for three years now. The whistleblower had evidence of torture by senior police officers in the city of Novi Sad and was very afraid for the safety of his family. First, we managed to have the sadistic police officers removed from their positions, and when it was safe enough and the whistleblower said we could, we published an article. The former head of the police is now being investigated and will probably face prison. The well-being of whistleblowers is paramount to us and we would never sacrifice them for publicity. This case also shows that by combining legal and journalistic expertise you can have the strongest impact on the worst crimes and protect whistleblowers at the same time.
What have been your biggest achievements so far?
In the past 10 years, Pištaljka has published more than 700 stories on corruption and other crimes, mostly based on tips from whistleblowers. We have trained more than 1,000 judges, more than 200 public prosecutors, more than 150 attorneys and more than 250 internal whistleblowing officers.
We have also organized two international conferences on whistleblowing as well as a dozen national events. But the most important thing we did was to push for the adoption of the Whistleblower Protection Law and see that it is properly implemented in Serbia.
We’d love to hear more about the Whistleblower Protection Law in a bit. But first let’s get back to the cases your team has investigated. What have been the highest profile cases from all those brought to you?
Pištaljka’s most important stories have included high-level corruption. I’ll give you a couple examples: In 2010, a few months after we opened our doors, we discovered that the environment minister’s private company had contracts for the sale of computer equipment with over 70 state institutions. In 2012, we published a secret European Commission report on the botched judicial reform in Serbia.
That same year we published a series of articles on the defense minister investing in a multi-million euro building project in central Belgrade. The minister went to trial over not declaring this asset, but walked free since prosecutors could not prove intent. In 2016, we discovered that tennis star Novak Djokovic’s mother-in-law was one of the key players in a suspicious multi-million euro gas infrastructure project. In 2016 and 2017, Pištaljka published series of articles on the dubious purchase of Christmas lights for the city of Belgrade, which cost the taxpayers at least 3 million euros, and then we found out that the city was paying 83,000 euros for a plastic Christmas tree and that the tree was put up on the central square even before the procurement process was over. There are dozens more stories like these ones.
What happens when you blow the lid off stories like these?
It lets the public know about corruption so they can do something to address the problem. As for judicial outcomes, there have been no sentences for high-level politicians, and that seems to be a central issue for Serbian democracy. There is still little or no accountability. Pištaljka has made dozens of mid-level politicians resign or had them sentenced, but when it comes to the top, the system still protects them.
“Pištaljka has published more than 700 stories on corruption and other crimes.”
What do you mean? How is high-level corruption protected in Serbia?
Here’s one example: We published a multi-month investigation into the mayor of Belgrade Siniša Mali, who is now finance minister, proving that he receives 60,000 euros annually from unknown “friends” abroad, that he had his children’s nanny employed at a city utility company, and his ex-wife at a company that had deals with the city. Part of the investigation was based on a report by the Anti-Corruption Agency. Instead of pursuing the truth and having Mr. Mali investigated, the Agency dropped the report and made sure we never got the full version. We could only get a heavily redacted report.
Then the Agency director suddenly got appointed to the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country. That is how things work here.
As you said, one of Pištaljka’s important achievements has been helping develop the Whistleblower Protection Law. Can you tell us more about it?
In 2013, the new government announced it would pursue an anti-corruption platform and established a working group to draft a whistleblowing law. I was part of the working group, but more importantly, so were two whistleblowers – a judge and a police detective. Their input and their experiences were key in drafting this law, which our friend, leading whistleblower attorney Tom Devine, calls a “gold standard”.
“The law directly influenced the EU Whistleblowing Directive.”
The law is even considered a model by the EU. But it was a rough road getting there, wasn’t it? Pištaljka is likely to be calling for proper implementation for years to come.
The law was passed in 2014, and looking back, I don’t think the government really wanted it to succeed. Aside from the initial advertising campaign and basic training for judges, there was no other effort to boost the law’s impact. Pištaljka ended up pushing for implementation by offering free legal advice to whistleblowers, including court representation, and by covering trials to protect whistleblowers.
Later, in coordination with the Judicial Academy, the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor’s Office, we organized advanced training sessions for judges and prosecutors. According to Pištaljka’s data, as of this year more than 30 whistleblowers have received court protection and many experts are praising the Serbian law. The law directly influenced the EU Whistleblowing Directive, adopted last year, that calls for all EU member states to pass whistleblowing laws or improve their current ones by the end of 2021.
And finally, let’s return to the issue of corruption. How does corruption affect us and what happens if we don’t fight it?
Corruption affects all of us. We usually perceive corruption as money exchanging hands, but let me give you an example of how it can lead to a loss of life or other serious consequences. Pištaljka has been following the case of Serbia’s most famous whistleblower, Dr. Borko Josifovski, for years. In 2006, Dr. Josifovski was the director of the Belgrade medical emergency service when he went public with evidence that some medical teams were taking kickbacks from funeral homes for tipping them off about where someone had passed away. The amount was 200-300 euros per address. What was terrifying was that resuscitation was not performed in some cases, although it should have been. So lives were lost because someone was on the take. Pištaljka was the first to contact the relatives of the deceased, not the police or the prosecutors. Some of the relatives told us they remembered people from funeral parlors coming to their homes even before the doctors arrived. Immediately after he blew the whistle, Dr. Josifovski was removed from his post as director and later fired. Since then, he has not been able to get a job at any state-run hospital. In 2016, Pištaljka helped Dr Josifovski sue the state using the recently passed Whistleblower Protection Law. He won his case and said he finally felt vindicated.