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Investigative Journalism Attacked in Serbia, Four Arrested in Moscow Flag Stunt

Plus, Zagreb takes on the right, and Prague scrambles to save jobs.

by S. Adam Cardais, Barbara Frye, and Anders Ryehauge 21 August 2014

1. Serbian pro-government tabloid attacks investigative media


A pro-government tabloid in Serbia is attacking two news organizations that conducted an embarrassing investigation into a major government contract, Balkan Insight reports.


Aleksandar Vučić
The Informer tabloid recently reported that the country’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, had to cancel a vacation because “spies” from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which produces Balkan Insight, and Serbia’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CINS) had booked rooms in the same hotel.


Earlier this month, BIRN and the Vreme weekly reported that the government of Serbia had significantly overpaid for a 51 percent stake in Air Serbia, a joint venture with the UAE’s Etihad Airways.


Vucic said the investigation “was serving the interests of a controversial Serbian tycoon, Miroslav Miskovic, who is awaiting trial for corruption” and who Vucic said owned Vreme, according to Balkan Insight.


Informer earlier wrote that BIRN was operating under a secret EU contract that forbid it from reporting on the activities of EU companies.


Dragana Obradovic, director of BIRN in Serbia, called the spying claims “ridiculous” noting that BIRN and CINS “are far from paparazzi journalism.” Further, she said the organization’s contract with the EU had been the result of an open call for proposals and did not restrict topics to cover – information she said she gave to the Informer reporter before the tabloid published its article.


The day after the BIRN and CINS investigation was published, Vucic said it was erroneous and speculated that it was based on an earlier version of the contract. He then released details of the contract for the first time, according to Balkan Insight.


The country’s Association of Independent Journalists credited the investigation with forcing Vucic to release the information and accused the prime minister of using repressive tactics against the media similar to those he adopted as information minister under Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, Balkan Insight reports.


2. Russian demonstrators face prison over Ukraine protest


Four people face up to seven years behind bars after being arrested 20 August for flying the Ukrainian flag from a Stalin-era Moscow landmark, RIA Novosti reports.


After climbing the skyscraper, the protesters also painted in blue half of a large yellow star atop its spire. Ukraine’s national colors are yellow and blue. One protester reportedly parachuted off the spire, Reuters reports.



The protest comes as Ukraine prepares to celebrate its independence, on 24 August, and ahead of an EU-brokered meeting in Minsk next week between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin to discuss the Ukraine crisis. In a video posted to Facebook, Poroshenko made light of the stunt, saying “I congratulate these Ukrainians.”


The flag was quickly removed Wednesday. Police identified the suspects only as two men and two women, according to Reuters.


The four were originally charged with vandalism, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, but the charges were upgraded to the more serious hooliganism, according to RIA Novosti.


This week, Moscow courts handed down prison sentences of up to 3 1/2 years for protests in May 2012, before Putin’s inauguration.


3. In fight with the right, Zagreb takes aim at referendums


Croatian leaders are trying to head off a “referendum flood” led by conservative groups bent on upending government policy on gay marriage, minority languages, and other human rights issues, Balkan Insight reports.


The center-left government wants to raise the bar for holding referendums. Under several proposed legislative changes, groups must present a clearer argument justifying a vote; collect signatures in public bodies, not on the streets where manipulation is possible; and comply with tougher campaign finance rules.


The push stems primarily from a successful 2013 campaign led by In the Name of the Family,” a coalition backed by right-wing political parties and the Catholic Church, to hold a referendum effectively banning gay marriage. In addition, a group of war veterans gathered nearly 700,000 signatures in late 2013 to force a referendum that would chip away at minority language rights, especially those of ethnic Serbs.


While the Constitutional Court ruled last week against holding that vote, the government says it faces a deluge of referendum challenges, led by right-wing groups, on issues like gay rights – but also abortion or sexual education in schools – that remain controversial in socially conservative Croatia.


Part of the problem, Balkan Insight points out, is that a referendum can legally pass even if turnout shorts 50 percent, thanks to a 2010 constitutional amendment aimed at ensuring that Croatia’s EU membership referendum passed. In practice, this means groups can rally their base to change the constitution without overwhelming public support.


The proposed changes have a long road ahead of public and parliamentary debate. While a constitutional law professor applauded the initiative, In the Name of the Family slammed it as anti-democratic.


4. Czechs embrace German kurzarbeit to protect jobs


Fearing a painful trade war between Russia and Europe over Ukraine, the Czech Republic is importing a German job-saving solution, The Wall Street Journal reports.


This week Czech political, labor, and business leaders came together on a proposal to introduce so-called kurzarbeit, a German policy that prevents companies from instituting mass layoffs in tough times. Under the emergency regime, the government helps businesses cover some labor costs. In exchange, businesses keep employees on part-time rather than giving them the sack, which ultimately saves the government costly unemployment benefits in what some call a win-win solution.


“[It] is much more expensive to pay the unemployment benefits and have the people on the street than help the companies to keep them,” Tomas Pouza, a Czech diplomat leading a task force on the issue, told Radio Prague.


Parliament will receive a bill within weeks, according to The Journal. The policy could take effect as early as January.


Kurzarbeit helped Germany weather the post-2008 global economic slump. Czech leaders still have to hash out the details, including the criteria for qualifying, but they’re eager to stave off a third recession since 2008 as Russia and Europe trade sanctions over Ukraine.


In particular, Russia’s new ban on many EU food imports evidently convinced Czech leaders it was time for drastic measures, The Journal reports.


5. Orphanage closes in Tashkent after corruption claims


An orphanage in Uzbekistan that had been dogged by corruption allegations has been shut down amid tearful scenes of displaced children and workers, reports.


The Tashkent orphanage came into the spotlight in May,  when a court rejected a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed by a whistle-blowing former deputy supply manager.


Abdurazzak Sadykov was fired after three months at the orphanage, shortly after he refused to sign on to inventories that he said grossly overstated the orphanage’s resources.


Sadykov said while he and two others worked to renovate the orphanage, which had failed a fire safety inspection, he discovered falsified documents pertaining to the liquidation of some goods at the facility. He also said he witnessed someone drive off with 100 new pairs of children’s shoes without doing any paperwork.


Sadykov had also charged that children were mistreated at the home, being tied to chairs and locked in toilets as punishments.


His claims of theft were “partially accepted” by the local district prosecutor, and an accountant and the orphanage’s director were reprimanded, reported at the time.


Staff members tried unsuccessfully to keep the orphanage open, but Sadykov, a member of the Independent Human Rights Activists Initiative, said he suspected the home’s director had “leveraged connections with high-ranking officials in order to get the home to close and thus bury the corruption there,” writes.


The facility’s 120 residents, ages 4 to 11, were driven away in buses on 20 August. Most were sent to another orphanage in the capital, while 50 temporarily have been sent to summer camp, but it's unclear where they will stay when they return to the city. Seventy staff members are now without jobs and fear they will not get paid the salaries owed to them.
S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern
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