Serbia launches terror financing, money laundering probe into independent media, rights groups

By bne IntelliNews July 30, 2020

Serbia’s finance ministry has launched a terrorist financing and money laundering probe into journalists and NGOs, seen by critics as an attempt to put pressure on those opposing the government.

Serbia has been widely criticised for creating poor media environment. In May, the Council of Europe noted that Serbia is facing a rising number of attacks on the media, and inflammatory rhetoric from public officials.

The list includes the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), Serbia’s two main journalist associations, as well as rights group such as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Civic Initiatives.

The Finance Ministry has requested bank information since the start of 2019 from 20 individuals and 37 NGOs and institutions active in protection of human rights, transparency, and exposing corruption.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic defended the investigation at a press conference on July 30, saying it is a regular procedure, RFE/RL reported. He accused those targeted by the investigation of “making noise” to get more money from their donors. 

The head of the anti-money laundering unit, Zeljko Radovanovic, also said the probe is a standard procedure. He claimed that such probes are made routinely every year.

However, the investigation has been criticised by the US embassy in Belgrade as well as by rights organisations. 

"The United States is concerned by the appearance of a selective investigation into several Serbian civil society organisations and investigative journalism outlets,” said a statement from the embassy, which warned that Belgrade could jeopardise its progress towards EU accession should it appear to be stifling civil society or the free press. 

“The targeting of journalists and NGOs on absurd allegations of money laundering and financing terror is a blatant act of intimidation and the latest in an ongoing campaign by Serbian authorities to silence critics,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

It added that this kind of arbitrary investigation that specifically targets those critical of the government undermines the right to freedom of expression and threatens freedom of the press and called on authorities to stop the checks.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) also issued a statement, saying it is “concerned by what appears to be a selective inquiry by Serbian authorities into several investigative journalism outlets and civil society organisations in the country”.

“For a country supposedly working toward EU accession, this looks like a giant leap in the wrong direction,” said Drew Sullivan, said OCCRP co-founder and publisher.

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