Why we need networks like WIN

by Vladimir Radomirović


Vladimir Radomirović explains how the Whistleblowing International Network’s resources are helping him improve whistleblower protections in Serbia.

Journalists are accustomed to being the publishers of whistleblower disclosures, not the sources of them. But in 2009 that’s exactly what happened to a group of journalists I was a part of who blew the whistle on censorship and conflict of interest at the oldest daily newspaper in Serbia. That whistleblowing experience changed the course of my career, forcing me to rethink how I could best practice journalism. It also resulted in my association with the Whistleblowing International Network, which is supporting our work in Serbia to chart a new course for whistleblowers in our country.

The newspaper in question, Politika, was jointly owned by a German publishing company and the government of Serbia. Following a change of leadership in 2008, new editors increasingly prevented investigative reporting and stifled debate on important political issues. Politika journalists protested first to the editor-in-chief who, in keeping with his authoritarian style, offered no explanation. Then we sent letters to the paper’s board members and to the German company. None of the board members, including well-respected human rights activists and university professors, replied. The German company acknowledged political pressures on reporters by the government, but claimed they were unable to do anything since their partner in the endeavor was “coming from the political area.” With no one inside the paper willing or able to address the reporters’ concerns, we turned to local journalistic associations and to the European Federation of Journalists, but little or no help was offered.

We then did what journalists do best: We informed the public about what was happening via a statement on censorship published by a news agency and a daily paper. We also filed a conflict of interest complaint against the prime minister, whose company was receiving kickbacks from the newspaper. No official action was taken against the prime minister, who said he would sell his shares in the company. The journalists, however, were fired from the newspaper.

Our dismissal made clear the need for an investigative news outlet free of political and economic pressures and thus free to report on any important issue. Being a whistleblower myself, I was also aware of the need for whistleblowers to have protections and to have allies. In 2010 I founded an online investigative news outlet. The name of the outlet was an obvious choice: Pištaljka (The Whistle).

Five years since its inception, Pištaljka has published hundreds of investigative articles on corruption and brought to light the fates of dozens of whistleblowers. In some instances, our reporting resulted in positive changes, with fired or threatened whistleblowers getting their jobs back or seeing threats subside. Despite the forces aligned against it, the press still retains some power to affect change.

In addition to telling their stories, we are partnering with whistleblowers to build better protections for those in Serbia who are willing to speak up in the public’s interest. One example of such a partner is Biljana Mraović, a judge who reported corruption at a court in a small town in western Serbia. She alleged that the presiding judge there was taking bribes from indicted criminals, who then walked free. What Biljana did was remarkably brave. She had no political backing, and she was a female judge in a small town that had no independent media. When I asked her why she did it, she simply said: “This is how I was brought up. I can’t stand injustice.”

Far from being rewarded for her courage, Biljana was removed from her position (yes, even judges can be fired in Serbia). Even worse, she received threats from the office of the president of Serbia. After Pištaljka published a story about this, the information commissioner filed charges against the presidential office. An official there was fined and eventually Biljana got her job back.

In addition, for the past year Biljana has been involved in drafting the whistleblower protection law, as one of two whistleblowers who were on the working group set up by the Ministry of Justice. (The other one is Slobodan Marinković, a police inspector who blew the whistle on corrupt local officials allowing illegal construction in a Belgrade suburb.) As my interest in whistleblowing and whistleblower protection grew over the years, I came to know the organizations and individuals involved with WIN. During public consultation on the draft whistleblower law, WIN’s assistance has been indispensable. In mid-January I shared an early draft with the WIN email Listserv, and in a matter of days I received comments from experts and lawyers from the UK, Canada, US, and Germany. With Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project and Paul Stephenson, a consultant at Public Concern at Work, already involved in the drafting process, this impressive group of practitioners was able to improve the text in ways that simply would not have been possible without the Network. WIN is now coordinating an effort to change some provisions in the final draft before the law is adopted by parliament. We at Pištaljka are particularly concerned about an article on classified information that would see virtually any information declared secret and therefore prevent many whistleblowers from going public.

This sort of networking was also evident at the June conference co-sponsored by WIN in Amsterdam (see blog Oct. 6). The gathering was a unique opportunity to share experiences and to think about the future relationship of journalists and whistleblowers. After my presentation on Pištaljka, I was approached by several young people who showed interest in starting similar websites in other parts of Europe. It clearly showed that WIN is much stronger than the sum of its parts.

As WIN grows even stronger, whistleblowers from around the world will have a voice, a platform of the kind we lacked back in 2009 when we blew the whistle on censorship in Serbia.

Vladimir Radomirović — editor in chief of Pištaljka, an investigative journalism/whistleblowing activism website in Serbia — is a 2014/15 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.