The Protector of Citizens Mr. Zoran Pašalić in “The Dawn” TV show on K1 TV

The procedure of taking away the children of Mr. Đorđe Joksimović from Kragujevac, based on which the film “Father” was made, is being reconsidered. The Ombudsman also targets the Tax Administration regarding the freelancers issue. This morning, I’m talking to Mr.Zoran Pašalić about it, and about the Aleksić case. He’s the Protector of Citizens. He’s my guest. Good morning, welcome. Thank you for being at “The Dawn”. Tell me, personal initiative, so a personal question. Why did you launch a personal initiative for a personal reinvestigation of the work of the Kragujevac Social Welfare Center, which omissions were made in the case of Đorđe Joksimović?

- First, I have to say that what you have the right to, what the citizens of Serbia have the right to, we don’t have with respect to work, and that’s an emotional response to each of these situations, so to speak, which aroused public interest. The case we’re talking about was before the Institution in 2015, when Mr. Joksimović from Kragujevac approached us because he was dissatisfied with the work of the Social Welfare Center, primarily with the removal of children to foster families, but also with the fact that the Social Welfare Center’s appeal triggered the procedure of deprivation of parental rights. And that procedure was completed in a way it was, in the sense that the institution that approached the Ministry competent to control the work of social institutions didn’t acknowledge that one right of the parents was violated. What we initiated the day before yesterday is a re-investigation of the entire case, and we expect, considering that the investigation began one or two days ago, that in a couple of days, in communication with Social Welfare Center, we’ll receive complete documentation and then launch the investigation again. The reasons lie in the fact that there are some new details that we have to reconsider, I tried several times to get in touch with Mr. Joksimović, I hope that today I’ll manage to have a phone talk, because I want to hear his story, as they say – let the other party be heard. Only when we have all that, colloquially speaking, on the table, can we make some conclusions. Otherwise, it’d be too soon and prejudging.

I see. However, at the same time, there are reasons why something that the institutions have put an end to is being launched.

- We don’t make closures in situations when there are some new facts. Since this case, as I said in July 2015, and we’re in 2021, it’s been five years. We’ll reinvestigate the new facts that might impact making a different decision.

Good. So, you don’t challenge work and decisions…

- We reinvestigate what’s new in reference to what happened before.

OK and what happened actually? So, for those that haven’t heard about Đorđe Joksimović, he’s a man whose children were taken away, as far as I understood, correct me if I’m wrong.

- Yes, three daughters.

Three daughters were taken from him because of poverty and placed in a foster family.

- Sorry, I’ve got to interrupt you. Due to poverty, no one was deprived of their child.

OK, but why?

- Because there’s children welfare relative to living conditions of those children. Nutrition, hygiene, upbringing, I’m not saying that those conditions haven’t been met nor do I prejudge our decision, we’ll see how true all that is. In general, when the children are taken away and placed in a foster family, in that situation you need to act very cautiously and very carefully. I’m not saying that Center’s mistakes are non-existent, nor that they exist. We’ll see, we’ll investigate in detail and then we’ll make a decision. The point here and the most important thing for us is to protect the interests of children. Not because we react emotionally, because it got media attention, but to protect the interests of the three little girls.

Okay, and then again, if I understand right, the fresh thing is actually that he’s now financially better off than when his children were taken away. Right?

- I don't know that, nor will the institution deal with it at all. The institution will handle the children’s position. One can be more or less financially secured and provide what children need. Even within the limits drifting to poverty, it’s absolutely not that.

Okay, I'm just asking you.

- It is not a requirement, we reconsider…

And what’s the requirement?

- The requirement is that there’s no child neglect, that you don’t have a position of children that’s not adequate in relation to their needs. Hygiene, nutrition, parents' attitude to children. You see, anything I might say now would again drag the emotions of the public to one side.

Fine, but I'm asking you what's new ... What's new that got you involved in the entire case?

- We always get involved in the case when there is a suspicion that something that was done in the previous period, whether by our institution, or by another institution, is subject to changes that could affect making a different decision at this point. So, things change in every person's life, including here.

Yeah, I understand, you said that there have been some new circumstances, so I’m asking you what are the new circumstances that occurred in the case of Đorđe Joksimović, on the grounds of which you decided to get involved and reinvestigate the entire case.

- I told you that before we ascertain every detail, so, both sides, I won’t answer that question. Only when we find out…

Oh. Well, he can't do that either, I understood that you can answer the question why you got involved and what the new circumstances are, so I insist on that, otherwise…

- Circumstances are, firstly, the passage of time, and then whether the conditions that are now relatively different, not in relation to his property status but to the status of the children, have changed significantly so that the decision can be changed. Certainly, we are concerned exclusively with the interest of children, nothing else is important to us at the moment.

Okay. So, when talking about Social Welfare Centers in general, and we’re talking about the Social Welfare Center "Sloboda", then the experts who appeared here have said that in the first place here the endangered rights were those of children, as well as those of the father. Do you perceive the father as a figure you should stand behind?

- Absolutely. Both sides are always looked at, and the priority is the interest of the children of course.

Both sides or one side?

- They’re two sides, I'm not saying that they’re opposing, but two of them, so you have the interests of children and the interests of parents. They may be common; they may not coincide in some things. That is why I said at the beginning, we cannot see things emotionally, we’ve got to see the real picture, what the best interests of children are, but certainly if a parent, in this particular case the father, is denied a right, we’ll react in that situation.

What can you do as an institution? So, are you an institution that will get all other competent institutions up on their feet, or have you got some executive power to put an end to this in this particular case, or at least to solve it temporarily?

- Thanks for the question. We don’t have executive powers, we don’t have a sanction behind us in the true sense of the word, as the public expects, and that’s someone to be punished. There is a sanction for someone to be laid-off, dismissed from office, but to raise the public to its feet as well as the highest institutions that deal with this issue, that we can do.

Okay, and that's important, it's important to point that out, and it's important at that very moment if it happens. Let's not prejudge, if you think that the decisions that were made are wrong, I believe that you and the public by your side will get this through.

- That's right.

This case and we all hope for that.

- But we have to ascertain that and prove it with concrete facts.

How much time do you need, approximately?

- According to this law, which is currently in force, we are bound by some deadlines that are longer, but this situation is being done in an urgent procedure that should shorten that time. As soon as we get, I hope in the following few days, all the documentation we asked for, we’ll talk to the father, to see his point of view, no matter how subjective or objective, and then we’ll do it very quickly.

Okay, quickly meaning days or weeks?

- Quickly meaning days.

Well, when speaking about what’s on in Serbia, I’ll leave the story of teacher Aleksić as the final topic, but I’m interested in what’s actually happening with freelancers and the Tax Administration, you’re monitoring that situation these days as well? So who made the omission here? Citizens complain that they have to pay tax for which no one has submitted anything and which concerns previous few years, is the payment of debts or the way it’s carried out, in your opinion, controversial here.

- We must first determine exactly the one who is responsible, and who does what and what’s whose obligation. On the one hand, there’s the obligation of citizens to pay taxes, on the other, there’s the obligation of the Tax Administration to treat citizens as tax payers, the ones who finance everything, including my Secretariat, in the work they do, so they must be treated in the right way. According to Article 24 of the Law on Tax Procedure and Administration, there is no obligation of the Tax Administration to provide information in terms of mass information, but must respond to each individual contact. To make it simple, you start a business, you go to the Tax Administration and ask for everything that relates to some of your future allowances based on that activity. But, if the Tax Administration quarterly in the media, I don’t know if it was in yours, it was on RTS, announces in two days or three days you have to pay property tax, the quarter ends, then the question of activities in each of these situations arises.
What is a problem in Serbia, that’s the so-called tax culture. In Serbia, you do not have tax advisors; in Serbia you have accountants, bookkeepers, no offence to anyone, or lawyers. With lawyers dealing very little with taxes or very few of them. You don't have anyone to turn to. Let one of these people, tax advisors, explain to you during any action that you take in order to become a taxpayer, and that is now the situation of citizens and freelancers who have to pay taxes. I think a compromise needs to be found in all this. Because what we have come to, although that procedure is far from over, there’s truth on both sides.
If the Tax Administration said - no, they had an obligation and we don't care, they have to pay tax, that’d be one thing. And they say, yes, but we haven’t been informed, that’s another matter. In all this, we’ll do literally everything to solve this problem. Why? I’d draw one comparison that may not be the most adequate: it’s a saying that an organism is as old or young as its blood vessels are old, or young, so in good state. The tax system is the bloodstream of the state. Without it, the state cannot function, and it must really be arranged so that you know at all times what your obligations are, that the state gives you all the information and what I may have pointed out too colloquially, and that’s when you come to the Tax Administration, everyone in the Tax Administration knows that you are a gentleman, a taxpayer, from whose giving when they add up, the whole state that’s on the budget makes a living or the one part that’s on the budget.

What are the omissions, I don't understand, what are the omissions made by the Tax Administration with freelancers then?

- We’re just figuring that out, you see that case…

You are just determining. Okay, but what are ...

- There are situations where you can react urgently, there are things where you have to go through the complete documentation, not just the story but individual solutions, statements by the Tax Administration, calculations, the manner of calculations, whether what’s called relative or absolute statute of limitations is being handled, obligation which the taxpayer has, as well as the obligation that the Tax Administration has towards him.

Right. Then you’ll state your position.

- That's right.

Okay. Finally, I am interested in the Aleksić case. Yesterday, believe me, we spent the day on the phone, looking for who’s in charge of acting, sports, singing, modeling schools, which institution in the country issues permission to you, or anyone to open a school of something, to be called a teacher, to engage in pedagogical work, and to be remunerated for that pedagogical work. Do you know who that institution is?

- For this type, let’s call it a school, you used that term, as far as I know, the only Ministry, the Ministry of Education, should be in charge, but it does not deal with this type of school.

Yes, so not at all?

- This is an ad hoc school; I don't want to underestimate anyone. And there’s many of those.

All children go to those, as you said, ad hoc schools of acting, singing, which the state doesn’t recognize in any other way except in the APR and as those who pay taxes. I didn’t know that if you don’t issue a diploma recognized by the institutions of Serbia, you may operate as an economic entity and bear absolutely no consequences for that.

- Not the consequences, but you aren’t subject to checks relative to the kind of pedagogical work you do, what your methods in that pedagogical work are, what the consequences for the psyche of those children are.

Absolutely, that’s very important.

- That’s the most important thing, because it’s not a matter of you teaching someone to act, do ballet, I apologize maybe it’s not the right expression, but to have serious pedagogical work. What we have, I must say, neglected, we talk all the time in these schools as well, which we call regular schools, about education, and there’s little talk about the thing used a hundred years ago when I was in school, and it’s pedagogy and education.

May I ask you something?

- Go ahead.

I’ll ask you publicly, because I cannot believe that apart from paying taxes there’s absolutely no obligation of any school owner, anything in Serbia which works with children, to, as the Protector of Citizens, take the initiative that the schools where we send children, be them sports, acting, art, whatever, are placed under the auspices of the functioning of the laws of this state in the sense that only the one who is a pedagogue, who has proper education, and with a license issued by the state may work with children.

- Certainly, thank you for the initiative, what’s most important here, and that’s the educational inspection which must, pardon for the wording, no offence to anyone, visit those ad hoc schools and control them in that way.

They are not competent, someone must...

- I know they aren’t competent, but someone has to be.

But that's why I'm asking you who to turn to?

- We turn to, or you, you’ve started the initiative, we, as the official institution that handles it, turn to the Ministry of Education to regulate this area. Because it turned out in this case, which I do not want to prejudge, I said at the beginning that we cannot work under emotions but following the facts, that this area must be regulated because there is an incredible number of these ad hoc schools.

And well, what are we doing now, please tell me?

- The law is being changed; a legal initiative is being launched to amend it, to state exactly what and who must fulfill when opening such a… sorry but its’s firm.

It is a firm, there’s nothing to apologize for, it’s a firm, it’s the only thing registered in the APR.

- It must meet certain conditions, if you have to meet the conditions when you open a bakery, and that’s the height of the tiles, the conditions of the workers and so on, the assumption is that there should be much stricter conditions here.

Okay, who’s launching this initiative now?

- The Protector of Citizens.

Are you going to launch it?

- We’ll launch it, for sure, because that’s the point, you‘ve hit right at the center. I mean, this is going to end with a court epilogue, what’s it going to be, I don't want to prejudge. I don’t want to violate the presumption of innocence, nor do I want to say anything in the sense that we do not protect the victims. We’re an institution that primarily protects victims, i.e. someone who has experienced a behavior or an action or a crime that has survived. We have been doing it all the time, but the point of this is that someone has to control that field seriously.

Thank you very much for being our guest.

- Thank you for inviting me.