Yugoslavia: Independent journalists under siege

November 10, 1999

Goran Matic
Minister of Information
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Belgrade, Yugoslavia Dear Mr.Matic,

I am writing once again to express CPJ’s ongoing concern about the deterioration of press freedom conditions in Serbia, and about the continued harassment and prosecution of journalists there.

I last wrote on September 30, to remind you of the commitment you made during our September 20 meeting in Belgrade to investigate a number of press freedom abuses. In your October 6 response, you objected to statements I made to the Serbian press regarding the April 23 bombing of Radio and Television Serbia (RTS). As you well know, the concerns I raised about RTS officials not taking sufficient action to safeguard the security of their employees prior to the NATO attack have been voiced repeatedly in the local press, and by the families of the victims.

Meanwhile, CPJ is distressed that no progress has been made in the investigation into the April 11 murder of editor and publisher Slavko Curuvija, notwithstanding your personal commitment to me. In an October 12 press conference, Serbian Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic stated that there was no new evidence in the investigation. He then added that journalists were “misusing the case to present it as an attack on freedom of the media.”

Let me remind you that it was the series of repressive measures taken against Curuvija just prior to his murder that have led many, including CPJ, to ask that the investigation examine the possibility of official involvement in the crime. Curuvija, the owner of the newspaper Dnevni Telegraf and the magazine Evropljanin, was ambushed and shot by two men as he and his wife were returning to their home in downtown Belgrade after an evening stroll. In the months prior to his murder, he faced systematic government harassment. On March 8, judge Krsto Bobot sentenced Curuvija to five months in jail for “spreading false information,” a violation of Serbia’s restrictive information law. The charges resulted from an article he published linking the killing of a Belgrade doctor to Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Milovan Bojic. Curuvija refused to pay the fine, and was appealing the sentence at the time of his death. Finally, just days before his murder, state television broadcast accusations against Curuvija alleging that he supported NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia

During our meeting in September, you also promised to look into the criminal prosecution of journalist Zoja Jovanov, a former financial editor with Dnevni Telegraf. Jovanov faces criminal charges over an article about the possible devaluation of the dinar that she published in September 1998. (The dinar was in fact devalued six weeks after the article appeared.) If convicted for “distributing false information,” Jovanov could go to prison for five years. Her trial is scheduled to begin in late November.

CPJ is concerned that Jovanov faces any sort of prosecution on this ridiculous charge. We are also troubled that Krsto Bobot, the same judge who sentenced the late Slavko Curuvija, will preside over her trial, despite a motion from her attorney that a new judge be appointed.

While these current cases remain unresolved, new attacks against journalists continue to occur. As CPJ noted in its October 1 letter to you, at least eight journalists were attacked by police forces during two days of anti-government protests in Belgrade on September 29 and 30.

It is equally dismaying that, despite your promises to review cases involving alleged violations of Yugoslavia’s draconian Serbian Information Law, fines continue to be levied against the press. In the year since that law was passed, over 30 separate charges against various media have resulted in fines totaling over 19.6 million dinars (US$1.6 million).

In the months since our meeting, at least three separate media outlets have been fined for not registering with the “proper authorities” and for subsequently violating the law by continuing to publish. As of October 29, ABC Grafika, the main publisher of independent newspapers in your country, and its editor Slavoljub Karacevic, were fined over 1 million dinars (US$84,745) on 21 separate violations for printing issues of the opposition news bulletin Promene.

In a separate case, Promene itself was fined 320,000 dinars (US$27,119) for violation of the information law and is being sued for defamation by the Deputy Serbian Information Minister, Radmila Visic. A group of concerned citizens calling itself Team 29 reportedly paid the fine.

Also, on October 22, Belgrade’s Municipal Court fined the Dan Graf Company, which publishes the independent Belgrade daily Danas, 280,000 dinars (US$23,729) for “taking advantage of press freedom.” The complaint was brought by Vojislav Seselj, vice-president of the Serbian government and leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. The complaint was based on an October 19 interview with Novak Kilibarda, Vice-Prime Minister of Montenegro. In the interview, Killibarda stated that he overheard Seselj threaten to expel Montenegrins from Serbia or force them to wear identity bands. Journalists cannot work in an environment in which they know they can be fined for reporting the comments of a public official.

Finally, CPJ is distressed by the recent ban that your government placed on Reporter, a popular Bosnia-based weekly. On October 13, the Yugoslav Ministry of Information was reported to have officially “declined approval for importing” the magazine. Several weeks earlier, Serbian border guards had confiscated 8,000 copies of Reporter. The publication’s editor, Perica Vucinic, says he believes the ban is related to an article which implicated many of Serbia’s wealthier families in a series of embezzlement and corruption scandals.

As Minister of Information, it is your obligation to ensure that journalists in Yugoslavia are free to practice their profession, as guaranteed under your country’s constitution and in international law. We are I urging you once again to meet this important responsibility.


Joel Simon
Deputy Director

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Goran Matic
Minister of Information
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Belgrade, Yugoslavia