Serbian journalists expose anonymous doxing site's ties to pro-government media coterie

Frame from the promotional video for the website Istraga.rs. Fair use.

It took over half a year for the identity of the owner of a website that became notorious for doxing voices critical of the regime of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić or their relatives to become known to the public.

The website called Istraga, which translates as ‘investigation’, launched in early 2019. It has become known for its smear attacks targeting journalists, opposition activists and non-governmental organisations.

Site owner tied to pro-regime media establishment

Transcript of domain registration for Istraga.rs published by VOICE. PD.

In an article published on 27 August 2019, VOICE – a research and analytical center run by the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, revealed that the previously unidentified owner of the website Istraga.rs is a business partner of a pro-government media mogul.

The owner of the internet domain used by Istraga.rs, ”which since its founding is used to spread insults and libel against journalists NGO activists and opposition politicians, in the most vulgar manner, is a certain man named Luka Rakočeviić, co-owner of a company with Lav Pajkić,” VOICE revealed in its article.

VOICE obtained the domain registration data from the Basic Court in Novi Sad, likely through a freedom of information request.

Rakočević shares the ownership of a company called Best Vision Productions with Pajkić, a media personality with his own show on the influential pro-government sensationalist Pink TV, in which he uses “satire” to attack the the opposition. Pink TV is a media company dominating the Serbian broadcasting market, with news channels similar to Fox News, and slate of entertainment programs such as turbo-folk music and reality shows, as well as other kinds of music and movies.    

Intimidation masked as ‘investigations’

Istraga.rs started its work in January 2019, purporting it does investigative journalism. However, unlike the media outlets recognized for their investigative work in the public interest, it provides no transparency about its editorial staff (Impressum) and ownership. Its internet domain has been registered in a ”private’ mode until it was recently exposed by VOICE. It is not a member of the Press Council, a self-regulatory body for media that adhere to ethical Code of Journalists.

On 19 February, they published the following video showing a group of about 15 burly men wearing a kind of uniform – hoodies and jackets branded with “Istraga” inscription, walking  around a city block in the night without showing their faces, sticking advertisements for the website on post boxes and walls. The video ends with a call for others to join: “We are Istraga. We research the connections between politics, crime, non-governmental organizations and the secret services. Join us!”

In Serbian context, the image of group of masked thugs in the night has particular resonance after April 2016, when a group nicknamed ‘phantoms’ for wearing balaclavas, demolished several buildings in Belgrade's historic district of Savamala. This cleared the way for the controversial government project called “Belgrade Waterfront.” The police failed to intervene, even though the group has abducted an elderly night watchman, who died a month later while in hospital.

VOICE pointed out that Istraga.rs became notorious for publishing “utterly repulsive texts about journalists, politicians, non-governmental organizations from Serbia (i.e. free-thinking individuals and organizations which critically report or talk about the Vučić's regime).”

Most of their articles are focused on ‘proving’ that certain people or organizations are ‘mercenaries’ and ‘traitors’ to Serbia. Using populist tactics perfected by Serbian pro-government media in the last three decades, they usually allege that their targets have obtained large sums of money. Many of their articles follow a pattern with the title “Who funds the [a media outlet, an NGO, an opposition politician]?!”

Some of the sums presented are from publicly available sources, for instance transparency statements on the websites of the targets. Many articles do not contain any data, just loaded questions alleging profiteering. For individuals, Istraga.rs uses doxing – taking contents from their targets’ social media profiles and presenting it in an intimidating or defamatory manner.

‘A weapon for bots’ and the targeting of female journalists

On 23 January, the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) warned that this website introduced a new genre “pointless investigations” – as an excuse to write defamatory articles which were then promoted on social networks by profiles linked to Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the ruling party in Serbia. SNS has developed a massive online apparatus similar to troll armies of populist parties in Russia and North Macedonia. These profiles are called SNS-bots in everyday Serbian slang.

NUNS in particular pointed at Istraga.rs articles targeting female journalists, with titles such as: “KRIK journalist Dragana Pećo hugging men in Albanian sweatshirts” – implying that she is a traitor for fraternizing with the national ‘enemies,’ “Parents of Vreme weekly journalist Jovana Gligorijević have insulted the Serbian Orthodox Church,” and “Hana Adrović one of the leaders of protests in Belgrade simulates oral sex in a night club (VIDEO).”

As the promotion of the doxing website increased in February, NUNS issued another public announcement:

Podsećamo i da sajt istraga.rs ne poseduje impresum pa se ne zna ko zapravo stoji iza ovog takozvanog medija. Istovremeno, tekstove ovog “hrabrog” portala prenose po društvenim mrežama uglavnom botovi, što je još jedan dokaz da je reč o botovskom oruđu, čija je jedina svrha postojanja da etiketira i kroz tabloidno blato pokušava da provuče sve one koji misle svojom glavom i ne pristaju na cenzuru.

We remind the public that website Istraga.rs doesn't have an Impressum so it is unknown  who is actually behind this so-called medium. At the same time, the text from this “brave” portal have been disseminated by bots via social media, which is another piece of evidence that it's actually a weapon for bots, whose purpose is to label and smear all those who think with their own heads and refuse to submit to censorship.

VOICE pointed that one of the most tendentiously malicious texts by Istraga.rs was against the three female authors of antiwar documentary film “Ethnic Albanian women are our sisters” (“Albanke su naše sestre”), produced by Milena Popović, Sanja Kljajić i Vanja Đurić. The film covers the NATO bombing of 1999 and the people in Serbia who stood up to the criminal war policies of regime of Slobodan Milošević. It is one of five films from a project titled “Real people – real solutions” (“Stvarni ljudi – stvarna rešenja” ) about relations between Kosovo and Serbia. In 2017 mobs of Serbian nationalists disrupted the  censored the projections of these movies by threatening those  cinema audiences.

A dose of sexist cyber-bullying

The portal's sexist attacks against women journalists, activists and women relatives of persons deemed undesirable by the regime are especially troubling.

They for instance published doxxed swimsuit photos they deemed ‘provocative’ from the Instagram profile of the daughters of the former president Boris Tadić, who is currently an opposition politician. Another article, decries the luxurious life of the daughters, based on doxed photos from the Instagram profiles of the two young women. It alleges that ”unlike their peers from Serbia they spend several average salaries for their expensive caprices” like designer bags, plastic surgeries and travel. The article does not offer any evidence for these claims, including the malicious conclusion that the girls were dissatisfied with their looks and spent “thousands of euros” to change their “noses, mouths and breast.”

In another post titled “How high are the salaries at KRIK? KRIK journalist Marta Mihajlović takes summer vacations at luxurious destinations.” they doxxed vacation photos of a young female office manager of reputable anti-corruption outlet KRIK. Istraga described her as “an example of arrogance and hypocrisy” of the whole organization “whose journalists lead a dirty campaign against Serbia.”

Such articles imply indirect threats to the young women. They are simply young people who shared vacation memories with their circle of friends. By taking the photos out of their private contexts and abusing them for political harassment, Istraga.rs and its social media auxiliaries commit textbook cyber-bullying.

In spite of disproved claim by Serbian Minister of Interior that “today all journalists are safe,” this website has contributed to fostering an atmosphere of fear in the country.

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