Commission: Serbia should acknowledge the remit of independent bodies

Ombudsman Saša Janković said he was opposed to anyone who confused state authority with unlimited power. []

Serbia should improve its understanding of independent bodies, including the Ombudsman, while its parliament should be more active in overseeing the government, the European Commission said in its annual Progress Report for Serbia. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

“The welcome practice of regular meetings with the Prime Minister needs to be built upon with a view to improving within the public administration the understanding and acknowledgment of the essential role played by the Ombudsman’s Office and other independent authorities and regulatory bodies in ensuring that the executive is accountable,” reads the report.

Announced on 9 November, the report emphasises, “It is important in this respect that all their recommendations, and in particular those related to issues of significant public concern, are responded to, as appropriate.”

Ombudsman Saša Janković and the Commissioner for Free Access to Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, Rodoljub Šabić, have reacted in numerous instances, pointing out violations of civil rights and the inadequate conduct of the government.

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Šabić, among other things, recently warned that citizens’ personal data may be compromised and abused in electronic communication with state bodies, and urged several ministers to take steps to minimise the risks as much as possible.

As one of his many activities, Janković identified omissions by local authorities in the demolition of several structures in Belgrade’s Savamala quarter on election night between 24 and 24 April. The office in question, however, has still not acted on his recommendations.

The buildings were torn down in secret at a location near the Sava River, in downtown Belgrade, which is to be the construction site of the ambitious Belgrade Waterfront project. The project is being carried out in association with the United Arab Emirates and is the pride of the prime minister and his cabinet.

The Savamala case has in the meantime become politically sensitive for the government, because even after several months, citizens are still demanding answers and periodically gathering at rallies organised by the civic initiative Let’s Not Drown Belgrade.

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There is some progress in Serbia, but things are changing slowly: government bodies usually fail to respond to the demands of independent institutions, and poor practices change only after several warnings from said institutions.

The government also perceives the criticism coming from these independent institutions, especially the Ombudsman, as attacks on the Serbian executive and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić personally.

Janković said in early November that it was the Ombudsman’s job to work in a way defined by the Constitution of Serbia, and that he was opposed to anyone who confused themselves with the state and confused authority with unlimited power.

“The constitutionally defined job of the Ombudsman is to control the work of governing bodies — not of the opposition, media or citizens (even when they severely violate the law), but of the government,” Janković told the 2 November edition of Danas.

Parliament should be more active in controlling government

The European Commission said in its report that the Serbian Parliament had made an effort to be more transparent and to advance the consultation process, but added that it had to improve the quality of lawmaking and be more active in the oversight of the executive branch.

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“Consultation and transparency improved. However, the inclusivity, transparency and quality of law-making and effective oversight of the executive need to be further enhanced, and the use of urgent procedures limited,” reads the report.

It adds that the parliament frequently resorts to urgent procedures in adopting laws and last-minute changes to the parliamentary agenda. Parliament also gives “limited support” to independent regulatory bodies and is not sufficiently active in overseeing the executive, whereas a genuine cross-party debate is non-existent, which altogether reduces the parliament’s effectiveness, says the European Commission.

The part pertaining to civil oversight of Serbia’s security services calls for greater understanding and defence of the role of the Ombudsman’s Office and a more active role for the parliament.

The report adds that there should be further work according to the Ombudsman’s recommendations regarding the illegal collection of data by the Military Security Agency on the activities of political parties.

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Early last year, Janković expressed concern that the Military Intelligence Agency was gathering information on political parties, union leaders and certain judges without court authorisation.

Administrative silence

The report also says that the right to access public information is regulated in the law on access to public information, which is not fully in line with European standards, adding “administrative silence” is a major issue.

“Administrative silence is a major issue, as highlighted by the Commissioner for Free Access to Information of Public Importance, who oversees implementation of the law,” the report says.

A new law on personal data protection, in line with EU standards, needs to be adopted urgently.

The Commission noted that the processing and protection of sensitive personal data, biometrics and video surveillance, security of data on the Internet and direct marketing remain inadequately regulated, leaving significant scope for abuse.

The EU executive also said, “There is a need to strengthen the capacity and secure adequate resources for the Office of the Commissioner for Free Access to Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection,” and improve the law so that the Commissioner’s recommendations are applied.

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