A Serbian website, Juzne vesti, has acused the country's tax authority of deliberately subjecting it to prolonged and undue financial inspections because of its critical reporting.
Juzne vesti editor Predrag Blagojevic has accused Serbia's taxation office of putting undue pressure on the media outlet because of its critial stance towards the government.
He said months of financial inspections had continued this week, and that journalists had counted 14 different tax inspectors inspecting the media outlet and the companies it cooperated with, calling it “pressure on independent journalism”.
“We don’t complain about the tax inspection, because this is their job, and we don’t ask for favours or to be excepted from controls, but for it to take so long goes beyond the legal framework,” Blagojevic told BIRN.
He explained that tax inspectors had been checking the finances of the website, based in the southern city of Nis, for six months already, all based on an anonymous complaint.
Blagojevic added that this was inevitably interfering with their work.
“Inspectors are also checking work of companies cooperating with us, and asking them to show their contracts with Juzne vesti,” Blagojevic said, calling it “pressure on companies not to cooperate with our website any more”.
Juzne vesti is one of only a few media outlets reporting from southern Serbia and is well known for its critical reports about the authorities.
Its journalists have won numerous media prizes, and Blagojevic received the prestigious “Dusan Bogavac” award for ethics and courage.
On April 10, Blagojevic published a comment on the website Pescanik, saying that when tax inspectors checked the work of a media outlet for five years in a row, where each check lasted for several months, and when they spend, as he explained, nearly two years in the editorial office and “do not find the slightest irregularity, it is clear that this is not an inspection representing the public interest and checking possible taxation evasion, but an administrative weapon”.
Pescanik, saying that when tax inspectors checked the work of a media outlet for five years in a row, where each check lasted for several months, and when they spend, as he explained, nearly two years in the editorial office and “do not find the slightest irregularity, it is clear that this is not an inspection representing the public interest and checking possible taxation evasion, but an administrative weapon”.
|Office of the Serbian Tax Administration told BIRN that, according to the The Law on Tax Procedure and Tax Administration “any document, information, data or other fact about a taxpayer that has occurred in tax [proceedings], misdemeanor, pre-trial or judicial proceedings is considered and kept as a secret information”.|
The Serbian Journalists’ Association, NUNS, recently called on the Serbian Prime Minister to stop the pressures on Juzne vesti.
Soon after, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, told FoNet news agency that if there was no real need to extend the tax inspection of Juzne vesti, then "in the shortest time it should be completed in order not to interfere with the work of this media”.
Despite that, Blagojevic told BIRN that tax inspectors had decided even to work during non working days, on Saturdays and Sundays, and continue their work.
“This is abuse of the tax administration, so that instead of it being a tool in the fight against tax evasion, it becomes a weapon against the free media,” he said.
According to Juzne vesti, tax inspectors asked the media outlet to show them its business contracts, but also any other contracts with embassies, the EU, OSCE and other international institutions.
During his visit to Serbia, when he met top Serbian officials, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, told N1 television on April 12 that the OSCE was worried about the state of journalism in Serbia.
He also added that the country's new Media Strategy, which is being prepared, needs to “more clearly define the rules regarding transparency, ownership and financing of the media”.
The head of NUNS, Slavisa Lekic, told BIRN that prolonged and intrusive tax inspections of media outlets that are seen as "unsuitable" are “not new to us”.
“But to send inspectors to clients who cooperate with that media is an unscrupulous novelty,” Lekic concluded, calling Juzne vesti “one of the most important media in Serbia”.