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Covering organized crime and its ties to Belgrade’s most powerful people has brought this investigative reporter many enemies – but also satisfaction in seeing the truth revealed

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Investigative journalist Stevan Dojcinovic stands on the roof of his office in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.Martyn Aim/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.

For the past 15 years, Serbian investigative journalist Stevan Dojcinovic has worked relentlessly to expose corruption, money laundering and government links to crime syndicates at home and in the Balkans. As a result, Mr. Dojcinovic, 36, has been ruthlessly targeted by a coterie of gangsters, crooked politicians and villainous government officials. Such is the intensity of threat, slander and harassment directed at him that almost half his life has been spent under siege, fending off a deluge of fake news designed to break his spirit and silence his voice.

Corruption in the Balkans extends into the upper echelons of government, and Mr. Dojcinovic’s exposés have made him some formidable enemies. Some examples: The former mayor of Belgrade, Sinisa Mali – now Serbia’s Minister of Finance – had a modest salary, yet somehow had more than 45 bank accounts and reportedly was involved in the purchase of 24 apartments on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Indicted cocaine smuggler Darko Saric had strong business ties with Prva Banka, a bank owned by the family of Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic. “Follow the money,” goes the catchphrase, if you want to unearth corruption. Balkan politics is the exemplar of this sound advice.

And then there is Serbia’s Minister of Health, Dr. Zlatibor Loncar, who has a long-standing association with Peter Panic, a one-eyed mobster connected to the Zemun Clan, one of Serbia’s most powerful mafia groups. Before entering politics, Dr. Loncar was a practising physician who provided Mr. Panic, who was facing assault charges, with suspect medical reports that helped the mobster delay – and in one case circumvent – the course of justice.

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Serbs wave flags at an anti-government protest at the national legislature in 2019.Marko Djurica/Reuters

In 1985, the year of Mr. Dojcinovic’s birth, Serbia was still part of Yugoslavia. His father was an engineer, his mother an economist, and in time his younger brother would become a lawyer. When the Balkan civil wars started six years later, the family was living in Krusevac, 200 kilometres from the capital, Belgrade. The city was spared the fighting, but not the economic hardships that came with international embargoes and sanctions. These were “the nightmare years,” Mr. Dojcinovic says, during which Yugoslavia tore itself apart. Like many Serbian families, the Dojcinovics suffered financially. Childhood holidays to the beaches of Greece stopped. Crime, however, never skipped a beat. Even as a schoolboy, young Stevan was aware of its ubiquitous presence. “You could feel it,” he recalled. A number of people were murdered at the local pub, 200 metres down the road from his home. There was even a tacit playground hierarchy in place. Everyone knew they better be nice to the “top kid” – the one who had a big brother with links to organized crime.

Growing up in a repressive socialist state, rife with crime and buffeted by the remnants of ruinous civil war, left Mr. Dojcinovic feeling disillusioned. His form of dissent against the state of affairs was to join a protest movement. He became a punk, the archetype of teen rebellion and alienation. Recognizing that he lacked musical talent, but determined to contribute to the movement, he started a punk magazine, LBVKBVRDa, with responsibility not only for editorial content, but also sales and distribution throughout the Balkans. It was around the same time that he revealed an additional propensity for risk-taking by embracing extreme urban bike-riding. The day before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one of his bike stunts went horribly wrong. Months in hospital followed, with multiple surgeries to repair a shattered jaw – for a year thereafter, all his meals were taken through a straw.

Mr. Dojcinovic went on to study political science at the University of Belgrade. His course work included journalism classes which left him disillusioned. He did not want to learn the profession from books. It was during this period of uncertainty, adrift in his career choice, that he began reading The Assassination of Zoran, Milo Vasic’s book about the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Dindic, killed by a sniper’s bullet in 2003. Mr. Vasic was an investigative journalist who founded the independent Serbian weekly Vreme in 1990, at the height of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s rule. His journalism exposed the shadowy connections between organized crime, political leaders and the intelligence services in Serbia and the Balkans. His masterful account of the assassination was a continuation of this theme, revealing how organized crime was behind the targeted killing of Serbia’s progressive, democratic leader.

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A woman holds a picture of Zoran Dindic in Belgrade in a 2019 vigil marking the 16th anniversary of his death.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

“Milo Vasic’s book transformed my life,” Mr. Dojcinovic says, noting that it opened his eyes to the power of investigative journalism. There it was, tens of thousands of documents meticulously researched and laid out, like the work of a prosecutor, all wrapped up in beautifully clear prose that gripped your attention and held it even though one knew the outcome before starting to read. Mr. Dojcinovic saw how investigative journalism would give him the means to push back against a corrupt regime – just the way his earlier punk phase had done, but this time with a formal career that went beyond mere protest by holding out the promise of positive change as well. This was the kind of journalism a world removed from the dry, passionless approach foisted on him at university. And moreover, to a young man who had delighted in extreme sports, it came with a frisson of risk and excitement, too. Stevan Dojcinovic had found his métier.

Before he could begin working as an investigative journalist, Mr. Dojcinovic needed training. He looked for this outside the university, and for a few months worked for the public broadcaster, RTS, but did not find the experience rewarding. In 2007, he attended a training seminar given by Paul Radu, the co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was with Mr. Radu’s training and mentoring that Mr. Dojcinovic became an investigative journalist, and in 2008 he began working for OCCRP.

Seven years later, he founded KRIK, an organization with the same mandate as OCCRP, but publishing in Serbian instead of English. Based in Belgrade, he learned that crime on a grand scale did not respect a country’s borders, and that it required a multinational team to reveal its many tentacles. In one of Mr. Dojcinovic’s first big exposés, he worked alongside colleagues in Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Bosnia to show how criminals had infiltrated the lucrative casino market.

Another lesson was that investigating a major crime network could take a long time. In 2010, Mr. Dojcinovic began looking into the Saric cartel, Europe’s largest network of cocaine dealers. Four years of intense, dangerous, adrenalin-soaked work led to the crimes of gang leader Darko Saric, leading henchman Rodoljub Radulovic (aka “Banana”) and chief financier Zoran Copic being exposed.

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Mr. Dojcinovic's enemies have long tried to discredit him with misinformation. These headlines in the pro-government tabloid Informer call him a 'sadomasochist' and accuse him of espionage.Martyn Aim/The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Dojcinovic also got this letter from Russia's Federal Security Service declaring him a spy. Serbia's government is a staunch ally of Moscow.Martyn Aim/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Dojcinovic‘s tireless efforts to expose crime and corruption in Serbia has made his life a “nightmare” at times – a descriptor he uses repeatedly in describing the adversity he now faces. While organized crime killed prime minister Zoran Dindic in 2003, Mr. Dojcinovic does not believe that members of the political elite who remain hand-in-glove with the criminals will resort once more to assassination to silence him. As he wryly notes, killing journalists or incarcerating them would not improve the chances of Serbia’s long-held desire to join the European Union. Instead, the method of attack now is a different form of assassination – one that targets his character. The government controls the media. They have law enforcement in their back pocket. They shamelessly exploit the reach and power of the internet. They use all three prongs relentlessly, which gives them a vast array of powers to be used nefariously and with impunity.

Impugning Mr. Dojcinovic’s character follows a stereotypical playbook. He has been accused of being a CIA agent. He has been linked to S&M sex clubs. He is constantly being sued. There are currently 10 cases open against him. To date, he has escaped the bogus tax audit, a favoured intimidation ploy that’s like catnip to repressive regimes. His media colleagues have not been so fortunate. The apartment of a KRIK employee has been broken into. Once again, the vandalism follows a familiar script. The place is turned upside down, the contents trashed, but nothing is ever stolen. The message behind the mess is clear: You have no privacy, no security – not even your home is safe. Reporting the break-in to the police is pointless. There is no avenue to seek redress.

The harassment of journalists started in earnest when the Serbian Progressive Party, under president Tomislav Nikolic, took power in 2012. Mr. Nikolic had been deputy prime minister during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, who had died six years before in prison in the Hague, where he was being tried for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal. Old habits die hard. An even more disturbing recent development is a concerted government attempt to connect Mr. Dojcinovic and KRIK to organized crime. This smear not only hinders Mr. Dojcinovic’s work – his exposés often depend on his sources within organized crime and the police – it also comes with grave perils for him. Being pinned to a particular crime group in the cutthroat Balkan underworld runs the risk of making him the target of rival groups. When the dangers become too acute last year, he had to flee Serbia for a month.

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Mr. Dojcinovic carries a scanner to find surveillance cameras.Martyn Aim/The Globe and Mail

There is no break in this orchestrated persecution. Mr. Dojcinovic has no downtime. Rare attempts at a short vacation are invariably upended by scurrilous new accusations. “You can’t sit at the beach sipping a cocktail and put off responding for five days until your holiday is over,” he says. So it goes – the days running into weeks, months and years of intimidation designed to wear him down, crushing him under the sheer weight of it all. And the harassment doesn’t end there. Segments of the public are inflamed by government manipulation and Mr. Dojcinovic receives death threats and a lot of hate mail. No wonder, then, that he feels weary – “I am like a 50-year-old man,” he says – his fatigue hard to shake. And all the while, assailed by these distractions, at times emotionally spent, he still has to keep on working.

So what has kept Mr. Dojcinovic in Serbia, continuing to unearth crime and corruption? The answer may be found in the epiphany he experienced when he began reading Milo Vasic’s book – that with investigative journalism, one could “do a good thing to counteract a bad thing.” Couched in terms like these, of good versus bad, his efforts take on a moral imperative. The ethically egregious behaviour of politicians in cahoots with gangsters – an association that reached its malign apotheosis with the murder of a democratically elected, reform-minded prime minister – simply cannot be accepted. Journalism gave him the means to fight back. Doing nothing – an act of omission when seen within the context of moral injury – has never been an option, even if it means placing himself in the crosshairs of a government that works ceaselessly to destroy his credibility.

Given the forces arrayed against him, there is a constant tension in Mr. Dojcinovic’s life. Work both destabilizes his life and rewards it. Revealing corruption motivates yet stresses him. The thought of living elsewhere is attractive yet troubling – the advantages of a more tranquil life in a different country, longed-for during periods of intense anxiety, competing with worries about the lack of purpose that could come with it. All of this makes for a roller-coaster existence. “When you finish a story, you have this nice feeling – it’s the perfect day,” he says. “[But] tomorrow the nightmare starts.”

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Mr. Dojcinovic thinks investigative journalism serves a vital civic purpose.Martyn Aim/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Dojcinovic is clear-eyed about what he can achieve. He recognizes that exposing corruption amongst the political elite in Serbia will not have the same immediate impact as in a country like Canada, for example, where politicians are held more accountable. But he has an eye on the future. He believes preserving a historical record of crimes and misdemeanours – something no one else is doing in Serbia – is important. He sees investigative journalists fulfilling an essential civic function, keeping their fellow citizens informed of what is happening in their own country. And ultimately, there will be a reckoning. “We are touching the untouchables,” he points out. Accountability will not be denied.

It would be remiss to conclude that the challenges Mr. Dojcinovic and his colleagues face are specific to the Balkans, notwithstanding the region’s long history of political instability. In an address to the International Centre for Journalists, which honoured him with their Knight Award in 2019, he explained how a toxic imbroglio of crime and corruption, undercutting and weakening the rule of law, was attractive to autocrats, extremists and ultranationalists the world over. It gave them a manual on how to subvert and take over a democracy. Each step along this slippery road was spelled out – and it all begins with undermining the media, using it to manipulate and distract people; and when necessary, to destroy the activists, judiciary and credible journalists who get in the way.

Placing Mr. Dojcinovic’s work in this broader context, where the stakes are so high, gives us a more complete appreciation of what he is up against. At the same time, it also shines a bright light on his tenacity in the face of adversity and a refusal to buckle under intense pressure – the very embodiments of a moral courage that keeps him going.

Moral Courage: About the series

Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.

Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.

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