Attacks on the Press 2001: Yugoslavia

The revolutionary political changes of late 2000 and early 2001 that ousted former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ended a decade of repression for Yugoslavia’s independent journalists. But after a year in power, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which replaced Milosevic, failed to enact needed reforms in media-related laws. And while the DOS proved far less heavy-handed than Milosevic, its leaders have not hesitated to apply more subtle pressures on independent media that do not embrace DOS policies.

The 18-party DOS coalition represented a broad array of political and ideological loyalties: Serbian nationalists, former Milosevic allies, and pro-Western reformists. The coalition took power in two stages. Stage one came in the aftermath of federal presidential elections, held in September 2000, which Milosevic tried to steal. A popular uprising in early October drove Milosevic from power, clearing the way for DOS presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica to take office. Then, in December 2000, the DOS won a majority in the Serbian parliamentary elections, and appointed coalition member Zoran Djindjic prime minister the following month.

Kostunica’s presidency brought a dramatic, and almost immediate, end to the intense state-sponsored persecution of journalists that marked Milosevic’s reign. Within four months, the Yugoslav courts and parliament had dismantled the notorious Public Information Law, used under Milosevic to impose huge fines and equipment confiscations on media outlets that criticized the government.

The new rulers promised further media reform, sending a wave of optimism through the independent press corps. Veran Matic, chairman of the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) in Belgrade, said local media groups enthusiastically submitted ideas for new laws on broadcasting and information. But, said Matic, with the exception of the new telecommunications minister, Kostunica’s government “did not wholeheartedly engage in” the reform process. In fact, although the independent reporting of ANEM and other media had played a key role in Milosevic’s fall, the coalition that replaced him soon came to see truly independent journalism as a threat to the cohesion of its 18-party alliance.

Within that alliance, informal political factions began to form, most significantly around Kostunica, who enjoyed strong public support, and Djindjic, who was less popular but more committed to the reform process. The growing competition between Kostunica and Djindjic heightened each politician’s efforts to harness media support for his own political benefit.

Independent and wealthy television stations such as TV Pink and BK TV were particularly attractive to DOS politicians because of their large national audiences. Because they were loyal to the Milosevic regime, these stations benefited from subsidies and regulatory favor throughout the 1990s. When the DOS took power, they quickly switched their allegiance to the new government.

Meanwhile, a decade of physical abuse, legal harassment, heavy fines, and periodic confiscation of property under Milosevic left other media outlets financially weak but determined to preserve their independence under the new government. But without government patronage, ANEM’s broadcasters and other independent media lacked both the financial support and political protection to compete in the new market.

This vulnerability was noticeable in early May, when CPJ conducted a fact-finding mission to Serbia. In meetings with senior Yugoslav and Serbian government officials, CPJ urged greater accountability for individuals who target journalists, with particular emphasis on the April 1999 assassination of Dnevni Telegraf editor-in-chief Slavko Curuvija. CPJ also called for a timely reallocation of broadcast frequencies to ensure that a broad range of views is available on television and radio. And CPJ urged a thorough government audit of private, pro-Milosevic media that had profited from illegal financial support during the 1990s.

Several weeks after the CPJ mission, two attackers killed Milan Pantic, a 47-year-old crime reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti, as he was entering his apartment building. Pantic had received numerous telephone threats in response to his articles, which covered corruption and organized crime. Local authorities launched an investigation into the case, but no progress was reported at the end of the year.

The media reform effort stalled in July, when the government abolished the Federal Telecommunications Ministry, the only government office that had aggressively supported new media laws. The ruling coalition took no further action to push reform. As a result, smaller, independent media outlets remained financially vulnerable. Long denied national broadcast licenses by the Milosevic regime, they were still unable to obtain them under the new government–and thus could not compete for national advertising revenues that went instead to state television and the two pro-government broadcasters, BK TV and TV Pink.

Government inaction on several other crucial issues exacerbated the economic bias in favor of pro-government broadcasters. Despite calls from international press freedom groups and independent media outlets, the ruling coalition never audited the financial gains that pro-Milosevic stations made during the 1990s. Furthermore, only some of the equipment confiscated from independent media outlets under Milosevic’s Public Information Act was actually returned, despite promises to the contrary. And though the government pledged to return the 31 million dinars (US$450,000) that the independent media paid in Public Information Law fines during the last years of the Milosevic regime, only about a third of that amount had been repaid as of August, according to ANEM.

Government efforts to reform the bloated state broadcasting service, Radio Television Serbia (RTS), also lagged significantly. RTS broadcasts, which had been a crucial element of Milosevic’s efforts to control public opinion, now enthusiastically supported the coalition that replaced him. RTS journalists apparently feared losing their jobs if they criticized the coalition, and the network’s financial dependence on the state seemed to guarantee its docility.

Security conditions in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo remained difficult, with journalists reporting physical threats and intimidation from political parties and organized crime figures.

On October 19, an ethnic Albanian journalist for the Albanian-language daily Bota Sot, Bekim Kastrati, was killed in a drive-by shooting. United Nations police were still investigating Kastrati’s murder at the end of the year. Local sources told CPJ that another passenger wounded in the attack, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, was the likely target of the shooting.

Kerem Lawton, a British national and producer for Associated Press Television News, died on March 29 when a mortar shell struck his vehicle in the village of Krivenik, in Kosovo. Lawton had arrived to cover NATO operations along the border with Macedonia.

Political debate in Montenegro, meanwhile, continued to focus on whether the republic should remain in the Yugoslav federation. With Milosevic’s dictatorship gone, international and domestic support for Montenegrin independence weakened considerably. As a result, President Milo Djukanovic and his pro-independence allies barely held on to power in April parliamentary elections, with former Milosevic supporters and pro-Yugoslav politicians gaining new seats.

Podgorica’s political establishment was shaken in the spring by the “tobacco affair.” In neighboring Croatia, the sensationalist Zagreb weekly Nacional published a series of articles alleging that Djukanovic was skimming money from an illegal cigarette smuggling operation. The Podgorica daily Dan reprinted the articles, whereupon Djukanovic filed libel charges against Dan editor-in-chief Vladislav Asanin. On December 6, Asanin was convicted and given a three-month prison sentence. The judgment was under appeal at press time.

March 29

Kerem Lawton, Associated Press Television News

Lawton, 30, a British national and producer for Associated Press Television News, died from shrapnel wounds sustained when a shell struck his car. At least two other civilians were feared dead in the attack, and at least 10 others were injured.

On March 28, the Macedonian Army launched a mini-offensive against Albanian insurgents in the village of Gracani in northern Macedonia. Just across the border in Kosovo, NATO-led peacekeepers stepped up patrols to intercept Albanian guerrillas crossing into Macedonia.

At the time of his death, Lawton had just arrived in the village of Krivenik to cover the deployment of additional NATO-led peacekeeping forces. Both Macedonian military officials and ethnic Albanian insurgents denied responsibility for Lawton’s death and the other civilian casualties.

June 11

Milan Pantic, Vecernje Novosti

Pantic, a reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti, was killed shortly before 8 a.m. as he was entering his apartment building in the central Serbian town of Jagodina.

Pantic had gone to fetch a loaf of bread. As he entered the front door of his building, attackers grabbed him from behind, broke his neck, and then struck him several times on the head with a sharp object as he lay face down on the ground, according to Vecernje Novosti.

An eyewitness saw two attackers–both aged 20 to 30 and wearing masks and black shirts–running from the scene, sources at Vecernje Novosti said. Local authorities launched an investigation, but no progress was reported at year’s end.

The 47-year-old journalist worked as the Vecernje Novosti correspondent for the Pomoravlje region of central Serbia. He reported extensively on criminal affairs, including corruption in local companies. His wife, Zivka Pantic, told Vecernje Novosti that Pantic had received numerous telephone threats in response to articles he had written.

June 28

Milos Petrovic, Studio B Television
Suzana Rafailovic, Beta
Petar Pavlovic, Fonet

Petrovic, of Studio B Television; Rafailovic, a reporter for the Beta news service; and Pavlovic, a photographer with the news agency Fonet, were attacked by enraged supporters of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic at a rally in central Belgrade.

The attacks against the journalists occurred in Belgrade’s Republic Square, where several thousand supporters of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and the allied Serbian Radical Party (SRS) were protesting Milosevic’s sudden extradition to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague earlier that day. The demonstrators were also angry at the local media’s coverage of the story.

The first attack occurred just before 7 p.m., when reporters from Studio B Television were walking toward the rally. Several men approached the journalists and punched cameraman Petrovic, knocking him to the ground.

At approximately 10 p.m., Rafailovic was interviewing an SPS activist when several people approached to inquire which media outlet she worked for, Beta editor-in-chief Dragan Janjic told CPJ. When the SPS activist responded that the journalist worked for Beta, the men started threatening and manhandling her.

About 30 minutes later, a group of SPS supporters assaulted Pavlovic when he approached the rally to take pictures, Fonet editor-in-chief Zoran Sekulic told CPJ.

Several SRS supporters then surrounded Pavlovic, tried to take his camera, and began punching and kicking him. Pavlovic was knocked to the ground several times but eventually escaped to the safety of a nearby park.

On June 29, CPJ issued an alert about the attacks.

Jelena Bozovic, Reuters
Zoran Culafic, Fonet

Reuters reporter Bozovic and Culafic, a journalist with the Fonet news agency, were attacked by Serbian Radical Party (SRS) supporters at a pro-Milosevic rally in front of the Federal Parliament building in Belgrade, Fonet reported.

Two SRS supporters approached Bozovic and asked for her affiliation. When she identified herself, they accused her of being a traitor on the payroll of foreigners. One of the men grabbed Bozovic’s arm and took her notepad.

When Culafic attempted to intervene, he was thrown to the ground and roughed up by several SRS supporters.

Fonet reported that a cordon of police officers standing nearby made no effort to intervene.

CPJ issued an alert about the attacks on June 29.

October 19

Bekim Kastrati, Bota Sot
KILLED (motive unconfirmed)

Kastrati, an ethnic Albanian journalist for the Albanian-language daily Bota Sot, was shot on October 19 at around 8 p.m. in the village of Lausa, west of the provincial capital, Pristina, along with two other men who were riding in his car at the time. One of the passengers was killed, and the other was wounded.

Kastrati’s employer, the Geneva-based Bota Sot, supports politician Ibrahim Rugova and his leading ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo.

A second man killed in the attack, Besim Dajaku, was reported to have been a current or former bodyguard of Rugova. The third man injured in the attack, Gani Geci, was a former member of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army. According to local sources, Geci was believed to be the true target of the shooting, but the murder investigation is still open.

November 22


The Third Municipal Prosecutor’s Office began investigating the independent Belgrade weekly Reporter the day after its November 21 edition went on sale, local sources reported.

The investigation was apparently triggered by an article listing the names of Yugoslav police officials that the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia suspected of complicity in war crimes in Kosovo.

On Friday, November 23, two police investigators made an unannounced visit to Reporter‘s office to question editor-in-chief Vladimir Radomirovic and reporter Jovica Krtinic, author of the article in question.

Later that day, investigators also questioned Veselin Simonovic, editor of the independent Belgrade daily Blic, which reprinted Reporter‘s list in its November 22 edition.

The two police investigators who questioned Radomirovic and Krtinic invoked two Milosevic-era laws in an attempt to pressure the journalists into divulging their sources for the list. Article 218 of the Serbian Criminal Code proscribes “spreading false information” and was used to imprison several Serbian journalists in the late 1990s. The journalists were also threatened with prosecution under Serbia’s notorious Public Information Law, which had in fact been repealed in February.

“We stand behind the story that the list is accurate,” Radomirovic, according to the Belgrade daily Danas. “We expect further steps from the government and are ready for anything.”

On the evening of November 25, Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic claimed that Reporter had published the war crimes list in order to “…upset the police, and turn them against the government,” Belgrade’s Radio B92 reported. That same day, Djindjic’s Democratic Party issued a statement encouraging police officers named in Reporter’s list to sue the publication for damages.

On December 4, police spokesman Milorad Simic confirmed that Serbia’s Interior Ministry had notified all police departments that the ministry would cover legal expenses for any officer interested in suing Reporter or Blic for libel, according to local news reports.

Three days later, 12 police officers from the town of Valjevo whose names appeared on the list announced that they were filing a libel suit against the two publications.

A week later, 13 police officers from the city of Nis filed libel lawsuits against Simonovic.