Serbian officials seek better whistleblower protection


"By protecting the whistleblowers, we protect ourselves," the Serbian ombudsman says.

By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 25/05/13


The slogan on Serbia's anticorruption awareness campaign brochures emphasises that staying silent about corruption is the equivalent of supporting it. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]

Serbia's government intensified efforts to reduce corruption, but experts said citizens are discouraged from reporting corrupt activities because whistleblower laws do not offer proper protection.

A draft law that will protect whistleblowers is part of Serbia's new national strategy against corruption. Details of the law have not been made public, but it is the product of collaboration by several institutions and organisations, including the country's ombudsman, justice ministry and anticorruption agency, Transparency Serbia, the National Council for the Fight against Corruption and the deputy public prosecutor.

"This law is good normative base for support to whistleblowers and for all to act in accordance with their consciousness, responsibly towards society and without fear of reprisal," said Sasa Jankovic, the national ombudsman. "By protecting whistleblowers, we protect ourselves."

Experts say new laws are necessary because Serbians who report corruption to authorities face the risk of losing their jobs and social positions, as well as threats against their safety.

"We have seen dozens of cases when citizens who decided to indicate on abuses were promptly 'punished' for anticorruption behaviour. Some of them got the 'whistleblower' status at the anti-corruption agency, which haven't contributed to their position, even made it worse due to intensification of retaliation," Zoran Gavrilovic, the director of the Bureau for Social Research's Society Against Corruption programme.

He added that the anticorruption agency does not have mechanisms for protecting citizens from retaliation.

Aleksandra Kostic, the anticorruption agency's spokesperson, said current law states that citizens must be employed at public institutions, and there must be proof of corrupt activity in order for the agency to file a suit and communicate with other bodies related to the case.

The agency is authorised to protect citizens who report corruption in public authorities from what the law calls "harmful consequences." These include retaliation or firing.

"The agency has managed this article in the law but it is not enough for protection of those who report the corruption in any other fields. The clause 'in public authority' disables all other corruption reporting. Also, the agency should not react when it comes of anonymous submissions, which disables persons who are scared of retaliation. But, at the other side, this protects the agency of those who would use this for personal or political promotion," Kostic told SETimes.

The agency's mandate prevents it from working on cases that were initiated prior to 2010. It also is not responsible for bribery cases, which are handled by the interior ministry.

Laws prevent the agency from acting on anonymous reports, but in rare instances where such reports contain serious accusations, the agency initiates discussions with the institution where the corrupt activity allegedly occurred.

"Everything which is not under our direct jurisdiction, we forward to the relevant body. Also, even each anonymous submission we use to analyze carefully and react if we find it is necessary and all these with the aim to encourage citizens to be proactive and report corruption," Kostic said.

While citizens who report corruption in public authorities can contact the anticorruption agency, those who are aware of other threats to public interest -- such as environmental pollution or tax evasion -- and those who have been the targets of retaliation for such reporting have few options for seeking protection.

In his role as national ombudsman, Jankovic works impartially as a mediator, attempting to prevent future violations of law and to educate citizens about their rights and protections.

"Persons in such situations used to come to the ombudsman, and I am trying, by walking the edge of my jurisdiction, to help, but the success depends on someone's goodwill since there are no law frames, [and] those who are committing retaliation do not have obligation to follow my recommendations," Jankovic told SETimes.

He added that the situation has improved recently.

"Several people who reported irregularities in work of one prison became victims of retaliation. The anticorruption agency, commissioner for the information of public importance and the ombudsman has intervened together and the justice ministry, which manages the prison system, has begun to eliminate the consequences of facility manager's revenge," Jankovic said.

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Dragan Skakovski, an unemployed former worker at Shopping Mall Belgrade, and one of the first whistleblowers in Serbia, hopes that after almost two decades of fighting the system he will get proper protection and support by institutions and law.

Skakovski's two corruption cases deal with unpaid salaries owed to a few hundred former shopping mall workers and charges of tax evasion against the mall's management.

"My cases are currently in hands of Constitutional Court judge and I'm waiting for final decision," Skakovski told SETimes. "I did this because I didn't want to be seen as part of that since I was the head of syndicate. These cases started in 2000. And still is ongoing and changed a lot of judges, as well. It is almost outdated. … It is obvious that someone is stopping these cases."

Would the fear of retaliation prevent you from reporting corruption to authorities? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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