The Protector of Citizens, Mr. Zoran Pašalić, MSc. was guest on the “New Day” TV program on N1 TV
Ms. Darija Kisić Tepavčević, the Minister of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy and Mr. Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens discussed the case of Mr. Đorđe Joksimović from Kragujevac, who was deprived of his parental rights due to poverty, while his children were placed in a foster family. The Protector of Citizens Mr. Zoran Pašalić speaks about this and other cases that were in the focus of the Ombudsman’s Office work over the past period for "New Day". Good morning and welcome to N1.
Firstly, I must say that you have also used one, so to say, quite incorrect qualification.
No one’s children have been taken away due to poverty and it shouldn’t be qualified as such because, in Serbia, no one has ever been deprived of a child because of poverty, but because, it might happen that, we will determine after the investigation, children were inadequately treated, neglected in any way, be it in terms of education, nutrition, hygiene. Those are the reasons, not poverty.
What have you determined? So, you have initiated an investigation to control the regularity of the Kragujevac Social Welfare Center’s work. What conclusion have you arrived at?
Firstly, it’s impossible to provide an assessment because the investigation has been launched. For now, we have the files that we received from the Ministry, because this investigation also applies to the Ministry of Labor. These days, I hoped that it would be yesterday, but let’s hope for today, Kragujevac Social Welfare Center promised us that they would not wait for the deadlines, they will send us all the documentation they have, because the case is specific. Also, I talked with Mr. Đorđe Joksimović and I asked him, and I know that at the moment he is taking care of right that - sending to the Institution the documents or if he is unable to send it, we would go to his place of residence and we would take the documents that he prepared for us.
Only when we look through those documents and I quote Mr. Joksimović, "there’s full car trunk of documents," so when we read through all that, we will see what actions have been taken from the beginning in relation to the children, Mr. Joksimović's three daughters, to him, to his wife and how the children got into a foster family, only then can we draw some conclusions. This topic triggers another thing, and that is whether someone in that system failed, in the sense of whether the facts that were the cause of removing the children to a foster family were correctly ascertained.
And does that now mean that someone in the system has failed?
We don't know yet.
How much time do you need?
Well, you see, I can't predict now, given the vast amount of documentation, how long it would take, but it would be done as soon as possible because the situation is specific. We primarily protect the position of children, so their status, and certainly what is most important that is to see if there are any irregularities in the work of the Kragujevac Social Welfare Center.
So, we don't know when, because Mr. Đorđe Joksimović was happy that you initiated this investigation, but at the same time, he says: I don't know for how long I can wait, what they are waiting for, whether I should die before my children are returned.
Since I have been heading the institution, we have never split things off abruptly. The easiest thing to do was to issue a statement within two days, but that is not how I work. Mr. Đorđe Joksimović and I talked over an hour for sure in the Institution of the Protector of Citizens and what I immediately told him was that we would work according to what is in the files and according to the proved facts, which absolutely does not mean either one or the other decision, nor do I want to forejudge either of the decisions.
All right, so we’re waiting for the final decision.
Unfortunately, you will have to.
We will talk about the investigations that you have initiated as well as about the one that you have not initiated, precisely because of this storm about sexual abuse by an acting coach and the initiative to amend applicable regulations, laws that regulate such schools and educational institutions. What needs to be changed?
Firstly, it is not a school at all, because there are business entities that are registered for certain activities that do not fall into the scope of education and pedagogy of either minors or children major of age or adults regulated by the Law on the Fundamentals of the Education System, which is within the competence of the educational inspection operating according to the Law on Educational Inspection. Certainly, the first thing we do is to see if it, let's call it tentatively a school, if it is registered as a school and then falls within the scope of these laws or it is registered as an economic entity where its primary activity or main activity is something else, for example, the production of film, audio content, producer jobs, whereas education is either not registered at all or is not placed in the first place as a core business activity, because the most important thing, in that particular case, is whether it operated as an educational institution at all, whether it met all the conditions that are rigorous when an educational institution is being established.
And what, for example, if not?
Well, if not, then the question arises as to who failed. That's what I've said many times, you can't look at things fractionally. It has to be seen systematically. If that institution, or if it is registered as a limited liability company, so an economic entity, was engaged in an activity for which it has no registration, and figuratively speaking the entire city knows about it, then the question arises whether those inspections that control the work of economic entities, market inspection, tax inspection controlled and determined on the basis of the registration sheet that the institution or limited liability company or company or economic entity, performed an activity for which it was not registered at all. There are a number of related issues, if you control freelancers, then you probably also control these institutions, institutions and economic entities, limited liability companies, whether they pay taxes and on what basis they do it. One cannot rely on a single inspection, such as educational inspection. We have the educational inspection again in a related case, and that is the case of this kindergarten that is closed, the one banned from working.
How many times has it been inspected, is it enough to be inspected once a year by the city education inspection, is it enough to be inspected once every three or four years by the national educational inspection, whether and when the educational inspection conducts control, does it control by scrutinizing the class registers and observing the process, the work process, seeing whether all those who work in the kindergarten meet all the requirements that are very rigorous, required by law, and which apply not only to the owner, but to all employees. Then, are those who have direct contact with children licensed, if not, do they have mentors, if they have mentors are they allowed to take an exam to obtain a license, and when, because they are waiting three, four years to take the exam now at this point. These are all very detailed controls that need to be carried out.
Let's stick to the "Zamak " kindergarten now, what does closing the kindergarten mean?
This means that the kindergarten certainly did not operate according to the Law regulating kindergartens and the Rulebook, I will tell you right away, many kindergartens were established and started working before the adoption of the Rulebook, the question arises whether they have worked in accordance with existing regulations because they were founded earlier. This is the same issue that the Protector of Citizens is dealing with at the moment, a bit wider in scope, because if they were established in accordance with the Rulebook, then that's fine, if they are not, is there a deadline for them to adapt to the Rulebook, if they have adapted that’s one thing, if not that’s another, then you know what is done in such a situation. There is no dilemma here because working with children is really governed by regulations that are quite strict or rigorous if someone does not comply with them.
However, you saw, parents of the children from that kindergarten reacted with resentment, they don't want to, they don't know first of all where to go with the children, and secondly, they don't want to drop the children from the kindergarten?
I understand that as well. And I understand that, given that the parents need, when both of them are employed, to take children to kindergartens, but the parents are not the primarily responsible ones, although there is Parents’ Association who should in some way take part in the work of the kindergarten, but it is not up to them, but to the one who issues licenses, who gives permits and controls the work of the kindergarten. So, educational inspections, either a city inspection or a national inspection.
Are all kindergartens or only this one covered within your control investigation?
Not all kindergartens, because no matter how much we wished, the capacities of the Protector of Citizens are not such that he can encompass all the kindergartens, but what we are doing at the moment, that is to collect data related to what I have just said, whether they work in accordance with the regulations, the school of acting case, to call it that way, it aroused public interest. In the age of television, newspapers, electronic media, Twitter, Facebook, there is an abundance of information, if something does not change in accordance with what I said, this problem will simply fade away when the public interest ceases or when some other problem, so to speak, covers it, and the problem will remain. So, that constant check of who is doing what in the education and pedagogy process of children is crucial for this not to happen.
Speaking of the media, is the manner how the information reaches the tabloids within your investigation, how the information from the prosecution and the statements of the victims is leaking?
You see, that is a serious issue that concerns those who should deal with it, and we all know who should do it.
Isn't that you?
Well, we handle it, among other things, but it's not a primary activity.
But you do it as well?
We do, of course, because you see, there is a list of cases where arbitrary or incomplete reporting in the media caused confusion, not to mention the so called secondary victimization. I will give just one example, where at her insistence I spoke to one victim, not in this case, but in a case that also aroused great public interest and that person who is a minor, so encompassed within the domain of children, told me how it hurt her when the media reported more than what happened to her by the perpetrator, and the he behaved, so to speak, monstrously towards that person.
Which case do you refer to?
I prefer not to say, because if I articulated it, it would mean putting them in the media and that’s not the goal. The goal is to protect them against secondary victimization.
Let’s talk about what you have rejected. You have rejected the initiative of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights to launch an investigation to control whether there had been omissions by the competent institutions regarding the protection of health care workers. Why is this not a topic for the Protector of Citizens?
Firstly, nobody rejected anything, and, today, I will not comment on anybody’s incompetence, ignorance, arbitrariness, superficiality. There is a system established by the Law on the Protector of Citizens, I am not happy with such a system, that is why I started changing a law that should have been changed back in 2016 in terms of deadlines, in terms of the fact that citizens have to exhaust all legal means. For instance, for us, since I have been the head of the Institution, all citizens are treated equally and all citizens' associations are treated the same, be them the citizens' association Belgrade Center for Human Rights or the citizens’ association Young Enthusiasts from Kragujevac, which is also active or not to mention tens of thousands of associations, they have equal status for us. Secondly, a question that is very...
I don’t understand it.
Please let me finish.
If it wasn’t rejected, then what happened?
Please let me explain first, you have a question that is very, very sensitive, and that is the death toll. First and foremost, it has always been disgusting to me to bid on the number of the deceased. There are divergent data. One piece of information that is highlighted in that, I don't know how to call it, it could be complaint, now someone may call it...
They say citizens’ application.
Well, they may call it whatever they want, it is well known that the Law sets out the form of application, it is specified that the Protector of Citizens works upon complaints or on his own initiative. Own initiative does not mean ex officio. Ex officio includes an obligation, duty is an obligation, it means that you have to work on it mandatorily, and the law says yes, but let's get back to the topic, that is the point. This boils down to the fact that the union of doctors, I think both dentists and pharmacists, released the fact that 74 doctors had died during the epidemic from Covid. Another fact that appears is that the Medical Chamber of Serbia announced that 45 doctors had passed away. Well, then, there’s data that in neighboring countries you have a situation where either no doctor has died or one has died, which is absolutely not true.
But, that’s not the topic now?
Please let me finish, it is very much of a topic.
Even if there were ten.
Of paramount importance, even if it was just one, let alone ten.
Is it important to determine whether there were omissions by the competent institutions?
Well, it certainly matters, but you can't work by giving one piece of information, which is by the way unverified information because it came from a notification. The first and the second and the third piece of information that came from the consultation with the families of the deceased, from the information from other doctors, that's why I started this story, the point is this: no one included in that number, in the whole region or in the whole world, nobody took into consideration those doctors who committed suicide, it means that they did not die of Covid, but committed suicide because they couldn’t stand such a pressure on their health systems. Out of respect for those people who did it, and I am familiar with the figures in neighboring countries as well.
Well, how many are there?
Well, I'm not going to tell you that, because it's not the topic and because I have a lot of respect for the victims, but it's not the figure that is being manipulated, I feel free to say that publicly. That number is far higher in neighboring countries. You know very well and the public knows very well that I am in constant communication with the Ombudspersons in the region, in Europe and in the world, and that I know that information well, so you cannot present one piece of information and now request that one piece of information be a base, maybe it used to be possible before my arrival, now it’s not. We do not work according to affinities, nor animosities, we work according to the proven facts in this case as well.
But the facts need to prove it.
Please let me finish, in the case you mentioned as well.
The Belgrade Center for Human Rights also says that you have cooperated well so far, that they have addressed you and that you have initiated investigations on the grounds of theirs.
We cooperate well with everyone.
So what's the problem, because of the doctors who are alive now, who are working now, who are in the Covid zones, so what's the problem with you requesting information from Batut and the Ministry of Health?
I need to finish first. First of all, we handle the data, those that we have, but I repeat, we do not work on the basis of some arbitrary speculations, but only on the basis of proven facts. What we will do in this case is that we will subject everything that has been collected so far to analysis, and as far as cooperation with any citizens' association is concerned, we have, as you said, I quote you, we have nice cooperation, but we check every fact that comes to us as information. As you know, we mostly act on the information we receive from the media, much more than on the citizens’ complaints, but we check each one. Because it turned out that some pieces of information were absolutely not true, so you started the show with one statement that is completely erroneous, and that was that the children of Mr. Đorđe Joksimović had been taken away because of poverty.
Okay, now you want to say that this is also untrue.
I strongly claim that they were not taken away from him because of poverty.
If this is also untrue, then what?
No, I'm not saying it's untrue, I'm just saying...
What are you going to do?
That everything must be checked first in order for one thing to work on, and that we, following what is based on our law, informed that citizens’ association about the legal paths, just as we would inform which path any citizen needs to take, because the law strictly states that all legal means must be used first, I am changing that now in the new law, because it slows down, that’s when you ask me in what time frame you will do it, just to follow the form that no one remembered to change over ten, 11, 13 years of the institution's existence, but we now remembered that, even though it was Serbia's obligation to change it and to shorten the deadlines and to shorten the procedure, but only when we obtain facts that can be absolutely proven.
And where will you get them? Because Rade Panić says that he addressed both Batut and the Ministry of Health in order to get that information and that he encountered silence.
Then why didn't Mr. Panić contact us, because we just...
Well, the Belgrade Center for Human Rights did.
Mr. Rade Panić is not the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, you will agree.
Does it matter?
How can it not matter?
Can you initiate any investigation on your own initiative?
We may initiate an investigation either following a complaint or own-initiative, I repeat and I urge Mr. Panić now to address us, because if these institutions that you mentioned did not respond, it is called the classic administrative silence and in that case, it is the primary job of the Protector of Citizens. So let Mr. Panić contact us and we will respond, I tell you again, Mr. Panić and any citizen of the Republic of Serbia, and not only the citizen, but the one who is on the territory of the Republic of Serbia, and all citizens’ associations amounting to tens of thousands, they have the equal status with us, we never favor. If someone thinks they are special, that’s their problem, for us no one is special and everyone, I repeat, has the equal status.
Thank you very much for being a guest of "New Day".
So, Mr. Rade Panić to address the Protector of Citizens, that is the message at the end of this interview.