Serbia should in its public administration improve the understanding and respect of the role of independent bodies, including the Ombudsman, while the Serbian Parliament should be more active in overseeing the executive government, the European Commission has said in its annual Progress Report for Serbia en route to the EU. There is some progress in Serbia as far as the actions of the public administration are concerned, but things are changing slowly: the administration usually fails to respond to the demands of the independent institutions and poor practices change only after several warnings from said institutions. The authorities also often perceive the objections and criticism coming from the independent institutions, especially the Ombudsman, as attacks on the Serbian government and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić personally.
“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 acknowledgement 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.
The report, publicized on Nov. 9, underlines that “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 Commissioner for Free Access to Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection Rodoljub Šabić have reacted in numerous cases, pointing out violations of civil rights or the inadequate conduct of the public administration.
Šabić, among other things, recently warned that the citizens’ personal data may be compromised and abused in electronic communication with state bodies, and urged several ministers to take all steps to minimize the risks as much as possible.
Janković, as one of his many activities, conducted control and identified omissions by the authorities in the demolition of several structures in Belgrade’s Savamala quarter on election night between April 24 and 25. The authorities, however, still have not acted on his recommendations.
The buildings were torn down in secret at a location near the Sava riverbank 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 authorities, because even after several months the citizens are still demanding answers and periodically gathering at rallies organized by the civic initiative Let’s Not Drown Belgrade.
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 an opposition 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 Nov. 2 issue of the Danas daily.
Parliament Should Be More Active in Controlling the Authorities
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 improve the quality of law-making and be more active in the oversight of the executive branch.
“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. The 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 EC.
The part pertaining to civil oversight of security services calls for greater understanding and defense of the role of the Ombudsman’s Office in that field and a more active role of 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.
Ombudsman Saša Janković early last year voiced his suspicion that the Military Intelligence Agency was gathering information on political parties, union leaders and certain judges without a court decision.
The report also reads 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 that “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,” states the report.
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 EC 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.