The Center for Data Innovation spoke to Jelena Vasić, a journalist and project manager at the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), a non-profit organization in Belgrade that recently won the Data Journalism Award for Open Data. Vasić discussed how data journalism can expose corruption and organized crime and how it can fight fake news.
Nick Wallace: You were part of the KRIK team that built a database of Serbian politicians’ assets, which is what won KRIK the Data Journalism Award for Open Data. Can you tell me a little more about that project—how it came together, and how the data proved useful?
Jelena Vasić: We started that project at the beginning of 2016. We decided that we really needed to build a new database of assets of Serbian politicians because the official one is very poor. Serbia’s anti-corruption agency has a public database of assets of Serbian officials, but there are many problems with that database. It’s built on information that is provided by the officials, and the anti-corruption agency does not have enough resources or time to fact-check that information, or to do constant investigations of politicians’ declared assets.
So that’s the first problem: the information you see on the official website of the government anti-corruption agency is the information given by those officials. It’s very well known in Serbia that officials are always trying to hide their assets, to put them in the name of their family members or friends, or use any other way of hiding it, because in Serbia it’s very popular to be perceived as a poor politician, so you can be closer to the voters.
There are other reasons why we decided to create a new database: for example, in the official database, you don’t have the opposition leaders. We thought it would be only fair, and would contribute to transparency, to have property cards for the main opposition leaders, so we added that.
Perhaps the most important thing is that we included the assets of the family members. On our database, when you enter a property card, you can see not only what that politician owns, but also what his family members own. The best example of why that’s important is our president, Aleksandar Vučić. When you enter his property card, you will see that he officially owns only one 30 square meter apartment in the center for Belgrade—a very, very small apartment. But when you see what his family members own, there are seven more apartments in Belgrade—the total value of property owned by his family is more than €1 million. His wife owns a huge apartment next to his apartment, and that wasn’t in his property card, and his mother and father also own a significant number of assets. So we included all that, and you can see the difference between our database and the official one.
What was also completely new in our database was that we added violations of the law. So besides the fact you can see every piece of land, car, apartment, house, income, company, and businesses connection, you can also see where politicians have broken the law in the past.
I must emphasize that all of this information comes from official documents. We don’t publish anything that is not accompanied by official data. We dig through many different databases—official ones in Serbia and abroad—to make one useful and easy-to-use database for our readers. Some of that information is official, but not online. You cannot search the Serbian cadastre or land registry by name, you need to pay for that. You need to pay for every document you would like to have from the Serbian business registry—it’s public, it’s official, but you need to pay for it. So we collected all that information and gave it away for free to our readers, in one place.
Wallace: Corruption and organized crime are usually clandestine, except where law and order have broken down altogether. How can data help to bring it out of the shadows, and how do you get hold of data that does that?
Vasić: Every crime can be described by following the money. When you start to follow where somebody is investing his money, in which companies he is involved, with whom he is meeting on a private or business level, you start to gather the pieces, and every piece of information is recorded somewhere. Even if it’s a meeting, a contract, an agreement, a loan—it’s all somewhere. But it’s held in different institutions, so you need to know where to look and how to connect those pieces of information.
When we investigate the assets of one politician, we don’t start with the assumption of, “oh, he’s probably hidden something somewhere, we just need to figure out what.” We just go and check what he has declared and what he actually owns, and then when you explore the difference, you might find something—maybe corruption, maybe crime.
We have discovered that some ministers in the current government have connections to very serious crime groups. For example, we have discovered that while the current minister of foreign affairs, Ivica Dačić, was the minister of internal affairs and responsible for the police, he was meeting with a very famous drug lord—and members of his cabinet were also meeting that drug lord at the same time.
On the other hand, while investigating the assets of the current minister of health, Zlatibor Lončar, we discovered that he had acquired an apartment from a notorious crime group—the same one that in 2003 assassinated the prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić. We also discovered two official court statements by protected witnesses, given in a trial several years ago, alleging that while the minister was a young doctor in one clinic, he helped that crime group to kill an opponent, by injecting him with poison in a hospital after he had been shot. 10 days after that man’s death, Lončar acquired an apartment from the wife of a notorious killer associated with that group—we actually have the contract. So you have the court statement on one hand, and a contract for purchasing an apartment on the other. That was our scariest story, the one that no-one wanted to republish because it was that scary. After we published that story, we received the strongest smear campaign against us that we’ve ever experienced—and he’s still the health minister.
To answer your question, it’s never so simple that you just go and find the data. You follow the clues. If you find one piece of information, you follow it to the next one. That’s also what happened with the story of the Minister of Defense, Aleksandar Vulin. He doesn’t have evidence of how he came to possess €200,000 in cash that he used to buy an apartment in the center of Belgrade. He told the anti-corruption agency that he got that money from his wife’s aunt in Canada, as a loan. We discovered an unpublished report by the anti-corruption agency, showing that they didn’t buy the excuse of the loan from the aunt in Canada, and they sent that case to the prosecution. So we followed that case to the prosecution office, and saw that they decided to close the case. You usually get to information that is buried in some pile of documents in some state agency somewhere, and build your story from that.
Wallace: Serbia has high levels of corruption by European standards, but it also has some of the toughest freedom of information (FOI) laws in the world, at least on paper. In a recent report, the Center noted that almost every country in the Balkans exhibits the same contrast. If corruption in government undermines the rule of law, is there a Catch-22 when it comes to using government transparency laws to expose corruption, or can journalists still use government data to expose wrongdoing?
Vasić: We have been very lucky in the past few years, because Serbia has a very strong and independent information commissioner. He is very independent and passionate about his work. Because of him, we still get a lot of information and a lot of documents from government bodies that are instantly a story. But the reason I say it’s thanks to him is because the institutions themselves really don’t like answering requests, because they know what follows. There are some institutions that always answer our FOI requests, but there are others that deliberately don’t answer or try to find a way to avoid us, to come up with some justification for not giving us the information.
When we started building up this database of politicians’ assets, the Serbian land registry completely changed their way of answering our FOI requests. They were surprised that we were asking about the ministers and the prime minister, so they started adding new levels of requirements: “you shouldn’t come to our office, you should go to the central office and get their approval, then after that—” they just added hoops we had to jump through to get the information.
Some of them just don’t answer, because they know that after that, we need to appeal to the information commissioner, and then it takes him a while to review our appeal, which buys them time, and then even after that, they sometimes decide to pay the penalty to the commissioner’s office if they don’t deliver the information—but that’s it. They can pay €2,000 to the state—so a state institution pays €2,000 from the state budget, to the state budget—and then they don’t have to give us the information. So I would say that in many cases the commissioner is successful and fights back, but when you have an institution that doesn’t want to give you the information, then they won’t—they’ll just pay the penalty and be done with it.
We’re worried about what will happen when he leaves office, because his term will last for only one more year, and after that we don’t know who will take his place. We believe it could be somebody close to the government, because that’s the way they’ve worked previously: on all independent state bodies, they’ve appointed people close to them.
It’s getting harder and harder to get information in Serbia. We have the second best freedom of information law in the world, but the implementation of the law is not the best. The institutions are learning how to avoid us, and without the current commissioner, it could become very hard to use that law. But it has been the most important tool in many of our stories, so we will not give up on it—we will try to use it as much as we can.
Wallace: There is a debate about how to respond to the spread of “fake news” online, which is made all the more complicated by the fact some now use that term to discredit real journalism. Some analysts are talking about the “post-truth” age, where facts do not even matter anymore. What do you think is the best way to get people to pay attention to data-supported journalism, instead of just going for whatever supports their biases?
Vasić: I’m glad you asked that, because at the beginning of this year we decided to fight back against fake news. We’re currently developing a subpage on our website that will have the sole purpose of debunking fake news. We realize that although our results are very good and our stories get good readership—we have half a million unique readers per month in Serbia, and many of our stories are republished in the mainstream media—there are still people in Serbia who don’t believe it, people who use the fake news portals.
So this new part of our website will be completely dedicated to debunking fake news. We’ll choose the most important fake news story for that day or that week, stories about issues that are important to people in Serbia, and then we will fact check that story and write a correct version of it, showing the readers what was false and what was true.
We’ve already set up a small team doing just that, and the website is almost ready and will be out in less than a month, I hope. It will be our way to fight back. We have talked with colleagues in Bosnia who had a similar idea, so we’re building this in as a small regional project to include other countries as we go along, and we will see how it will work.
Unfortunately in Serbia you have a very toxic fake news environment. You have fake news launched by the government through pro-government media, you have fake news that is coming from abroad—from Russia and from the EU—and you also have unintentional fake news emerging on social media. We will deal with all of them depending on how relevant they are at that moment: we will not deal with fake news about some pub singer, we will tackle serious fake news.
Wallace: Most people tend to think of journalism as a literary profession rather than a data-intensive one. Do you expect to see that change? What long-term impact do you think data is going to have on journalism, and on the skills needed to make good journalists?
Vasić: Data journalism is all that we have left. As a journalist now, you are competing with citizens who are tweeting, instantly putting information on Facebook and Twitter, or even Instagram, and you no longer have the capacity to compete with that amount of information spreading. You need to be more detailed. The future of information is all about giving more information in one place, built in a way that can be easily understood and is clearly supported by evidence. When you and your colleagues deal in facts—that is, fact-checked information—then no-one can fairly say anything bad about that profession, we’re just trying to prove the facts.