Serbia’s Finance Ministry has launched a terrorist financing and money laundering probe into journalists and nongovernmental organizations that critics say is a blatant attempt at intimidation by President Aleksandar Vucic’s government.
The ministry has requested bank information since the start of 2019 from 20 individuals and 37 nongovernmental organizations and institutions known for their work on human rights, transparency, and exposing corruption, according to documents published by TV Newsmax Adria Serbia on July 28.
The ministry’s order cites the need “to determine whether the listed organizations and individuals have anything to do with terrorist financing or money laundering.”
Zeljko Radovanovic, who heads the ministry’s anti-money-laundering unit, said the requests were standard procedure and not directed at government critics.
"We need to check if there are donors, or if there are any donors that carry a certain amount of risk," he said.
But those on the list and others point out that the move is mostly targeted at critics of Vucic’s government. The list includes individuals and organizations that have advocated for Serbia’s EU accession and associated reforms.
Amnesty International’s Europe director, Nils Muiznieks, called the move “a blatant act of intimidation and the latest in an ongoing campaign by Serbian authorities to silence critics.”
“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,” he added.
The list includes the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Serbia’s two main journalist associations, as well as rights group such as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Civic Initiatives.
It’s “a clear effort to intimidate government critics" as Serbia slides further "towards authoritarianism,” Florian Bieber, the director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, wrote on Twitter.
A member of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon, said the investigations appear to be an effort to apply pressure.
"Most of the civil society organizations, media, and individuals investigated for money laundering by the Serbian Government have been among the primary advocates for pro-EU reforms and supporters of EU values in Serbia," said Falon, who chairs a parliament committee on EU relations with Serbia, which is trying to join the bloc.
The director of the Center for Investigative Journalism, Branko Cecen, who is also on the list, said that the request for bank information was an abuse of institutions for the sake of settling accounts with critics of the government. He advised the government to investigate itself if it wanted to tackle money laundering.
Under Vucic’s conservative ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), human rights organizations have documented a steady erosion of democracy in the Balkan country.
The U.S.-based Freedom House has said that since the SNS came to power in 2012, it "has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations."