Combating Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Investigative journalism is the pursuit of truth. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, this endeavor can also lead to threats and intimidation. That, at least, is the experience of journalists at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing corruption in the country.
Zoran Čegar is a high-ranking police officer in Bosnia and Herzegovina who, CIN suspects, illegally acquired houses, apartments, and land worth millions of dollars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In October 2022, CIN requested an interview with him as part of a story about the acquisitions. He responded with a threat: “Don’t even think of calling me again so that I don’t come to you from where you are calling me.”
Three weeks later, Čegar was on trial in Croatia for fraud. A CIN journalist sought a comment from him after the proceedings, and again he responded threateningly. “Don't let me rip your throat out,” Čegar repeatedly screamed at the female reporter.
Čegar has a history of violent behavior, and authorities took his threats seriously. Police, for a time, provided CIN with protection.
Public pressure eventually led to Čegar’s suspension from his position as one of the heads of the federal police administration and to disciplinary proceedings. But the story is unlikely to end there. “He will eventually seek revenge because we did cause a lot of problems for him,” CIN Director Leila Bičakčić admits.
Being at the forefront of exposing corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina, CIN has repeatedly become a target of those in its sights. To address this, the organization takes precautionary measures. Reporters receive safety training, psychiatric counseling, and legal assistance. They are forbidden from traveling alone. They may even be removed form a story for their own protection. In extreme cases, CIN will send them out of the country for several weeks.
“We have taken some measures to mitigate the risk. But we are also aware that the risk can only be mitigated, not completely eliminated,” Bičakčić notes.
Still, CIN is often a thorn in the side of the powerful in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that reveals much about its vital role in fighting corruption.
An Endemic Problem
Corruption is widespread in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It can take many forms, from bribery to embezzlement to abuse of power, and affects the economy, the political system, and rule of law. It also undermines citizens’ trust in their government and national institutions, discourages investment and economic growth, and contributes to social and political instability. Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex and decentralized political system stymies the fight against corruption. The dominant political groups have divided the country into territories under their control, making it difficult to hold politicians accountable.
Despite the challenges, however, some progress has been made. New laws, regulations and government agencies have been established to fight corruption. The problem persists, however, as efforts to date remain woefully insufficient to address corruption’s root causes and strengthen the institutions and systems meant to combat it.
Founded in 2004, CIN has uncovered numerous cases of corruption at all levels of government and seeks to address the lack of accountability. Its investigations into misappropriation of funds, officials' hidden assets, bribery, and abuse of power have led to resignations and some of the new legislation.
In 2006, CIN uncovered the prime minister’s illegal acquisition of apartments in a wealthy Sarajevo neighborhood, which led to a wave of protests and, ultimately, to his removal from office. Success was short-lived, however, as he remained a senior politician. He has served since 2016 as deputy minister in the Ministry of Communications and Transport.
The political parties “replace people to look good. Then they simply wait a certain amount of time for these people to resurface,” Bičakčić laments, adding that the parties are the “generators of corruption”.
“They want to enter the government to have access to public money and use that public money to oil their connections and their people. Now, they are basically trying to legalize corruption, by trying to get the legislation to the point where corrupt acts are simply considered legal,” she adds.
CIN journalists aim to counter this through their investigative reporting, which, they hope, will increase calls for political change. Using classic investigative journalism as a model, they "follow the money" and investigate the misuse and misappropriation of public funds.
“The political parties enjoy the current situation because it benefits them very easily. For citizens to change their lives, they need to raise their demands to the point where they want better service, better life, better opportunities, and less narratives of division,” Bičakčić explains. “If political parties see that there is a demand for change, they will also change their behavior, because then it is a matter of survival for them. … By investigating, exposing and explaining, we hope that citizens will react and try to change the system.”
The Spark for Change
CIN’s work has not gone unnoticed. Its office walls are adorned with prizes, including multiple EU Investigative Journalism Awards, the OSCE Prize for Journalism, and the International Award for Investigative Journalism. The organization receives additional international recognition as a founding member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). CIN also participated in the Swiss Leaks project, which exposed international money laundering networks.
Still, CIN’s struggle for political change is long and arduous. “Most devastating to reporters is the fact that you expose these people, and nothing much happens after that,” Bičakčić says.
Every investigation and the repeated insistence on the truth, however, is part of a drive for that change, she believes. “I think it's impossible to predict what the spark will be. And that's why it's important to keep going, because you never know what eventually will be the decisive moment.”
That spirit keeps CIN undaunted in its efforts to promote transparency and accountability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite all the political challenges, limited financial resources, and threats to staff. In a country where corruption is chronic and widespread, and media freedom is often restricted, that makes CIN's work more important than ever.