Portal KRIK published an investigation about Predrag Mali, brother of Serbian Finance Minister Sinisa Mali, which discovered and documented that Predrag is using an expensive car owned by “Millennium Team “, private company engaged in numerous state-funded projects. (One of those projects is famous and controversial “Belgrade Waterfront”.) Apart from the car, KRIK found that Predrag was also using the apartment owned by this company, in which his previous girlfriend has lived. Experts agreed that such relationship between individuals (close to people in power) and private companies can be interpreted as a classic example of corruption.
KRIK couldn’t imagine that this story will be turned into one of the biggest smear campaigns against its team. Only few hours after the story about Predrag Mali was out, pro-regime tabloid „Serbian Telegraph“ started publishing fabricated information about KRIK. They claimed that KRIK’s journalist was “following and harassing Predrag Mali’s wife and their baby”. As an “evidence” the tabloid published a video of an unknown man walking in front of Mali’s building, but that man clearly was not one of KRIK’s reporters.
This was serious and well-organized attack, aimed to discredit KRIK and to distract the public attention from the discovery about minister’s brother. At the same time, Serbian top state officials like Prime Minister Brnabic and President Vucic made very irresponsible statements regarding this case, they were ignoring the discovered corruption and started claiming that KRIK is on “tabloid level”.
In an incredible turn of events, Serbian police have issued award of 5.000$ to anyone who identifies the person shown in the video allegedly following Mali’s wife. This was unprecedented abuse of institutions, because Serbian police was not announcing this kind of awards even in serious cases of political assassinations, but now it did, in supporting the tabloid spin effect. Two weeks later, at KRIK’s insistence, prosecution revealed that the person from that video was actually some random passerby with the initials N.A.
This story has attracted national attention, but since Serbia is captured state and public institutions (such as Anti-Corruption Agency and Prosecution) are under control of the ruling political party, there has not been adequate legal consequences against the minister so far.
While working on this story, KRIK’s reporters have used all research journalism techniques available: FOI requests to get official documentation, obtaining information from live sources, researching through national and international business databases, and at the end – extensive field work.
Having in mind that in recent years Serbian state institutions are refusing to deliver requested documents to journalists, it was important for KRIK to develop new innovative ways on how to get and prove information. That is why, in order to prove that Predrag Mali is actually driving “Audi a6”, owned by company “Millennium Team”, KRIK reporters have decided to monitor the entrance to the parking of his building. It took several days of field work to finally spot Predrag driving that car and to take a photo of him as evidence for the investigative story. Many colleagues from foreign media have found this approach interesting and KRIK reporters have gave the mini trainings on how to do this type of monitoring in practice.
So KRIK journalists have visited the building in which Predrag Mali lives, but none of KRIK team members has spoken to or followed his wife. The building was visited only with the aim of verifying that Mali is still driving “Audi a6”, and this was already thoroughly explained in the original investigative story. KRIK adheres to the highest standards of journalism and respects the rights of the persons it reports about, as well as the rights of their family members.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The smear campaign that was immediately launched against KRIK was definitely the hardest part, it was vicious media attack, which lasted for several days. Progovernment tabloid “Serbian Telegraph” was constantly publishing new lies about KRIK’s journalists in order to spin and divert the public from our discovery about minister’s brother.
During that week, editor-in-chief of “Serbian Telegraph” was guest of one TV show and he publicly admitted that his journalists do not really know who the person from that video is and that they are still checking his identity. This did not stop them to lie and mark our reporters as stalkers. During this appearance he has even accused KRIK of using the “Japanese surveillance method” which “allows that target notices that you are there, it is used for intimidation”.
By publishing false accusations, this pro-government tabloid was endangering the safety of our team and a direct consequence was the fact that during those days we were again receiving death threats on our social media profiles.
However, KRIK team decided to fight for its reputation. We immediately launched crowdfunding action titled “We follow corruption, we don’t follow babies!”, where our team members made short videos in which we call our readers to support KRIK. We printed special edition of KRIK T-shirts with graphic illustration of this story about Mali, which we were giving out as gifts to all citizens who paid us donation. This was very successful action, because our discovery is now also present in the “offline world” on the streets of Serbia, since our readers become our walking billboards. Also, our journalists have used every opportunity since then to publicly wear those T-shirts in TV shows, award ceremonies and conferences. KRIK team has continued to monitor this case, we will report on any further developments.
What can others learn from this project?
Sounds immodest to advise other colleagues, but we feel that persistence and attention to details is the most important for investigative journalists. After finding one old document showing that minister’s brother was charged for misdemeanor speeding, our journalists have paid attention to this seemingly irrelevant information, they followed the lead and deeply investigated the case. And at the end they have managed to prove direct links between people closed to the Government officials and private companies which are involved in valuable state funded construction businesses.
And we can say that our project is an example of why it is important to fight for your story and not to succumb to pressure. We as journalists must always be completely transparent to our audience and always first communicate everything with the readers in crisis situations. And the citizens will know to appreciate it and support you.