The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned about a series of government actions over the last several months that have further deteriorated Serbia’s already poor press freedom conditions.
In particular, we are concerned about government officials’ continued use of verbal threats, politicized lawsuits, and state censorship to harass journalists and silence news outlets because of reporting that criticizes government policies. What is even more disturbing is that in all of these instances you and other top Serbian leaders have failed to reprimand government officials for their behavior toward journalists, effectively sanctioning these press freedom abuses.
The most recent case involves the banning of the June 3 edition of the weekly tabloid Svedok because it contained an interview with Milorad Lukovic-Legija, the leader of the powerful Zemun mafia clan and the prime suspect in the March 12 assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. A district court in the capital, Belgrade, ordered the police to confiscate and destroy the edition because the interview was deemed anti-constitutional and propagated war, according to the independent daily Danas. As a result of this government intervention, about 28,000 copies, or 40 percent, of the weekly’s print run, were not distributed, said Svedok editor-in-chief Vladan Dinic.
In a separate case of government harassment of the press, the Interior Ministry last month filed libel charges against Zeljko Cvijanovic, editor-in-chief of the independent Belgrade weekly Blic News magazine, a supplement to the daily Blic, and one of his reporters, Jovica Krtinic. The charges stem from a May 21 article by Krtinic that criticized a police investigation into the June 2002 murder of Serbia’s deputy chief of police, Bosko Buha. If convicted, the two journalists cold face a substantial fine and up to three years in prison.
This is only the latest attempt to silence Blic News. In February, Communications Bureau chief Vladimir “Beba” Popovic filed a lawsuit against Cvijanovic because of a July 3, 2002 article that accused Popovic and a former senior military official of carrying out dirty propaganda wars on behalf of senior politicians. On May 30, a municipal court found Cvijanovic guilty and fined him 50,000 dinars (US$900).
Cvijanovic resigned from his post as Blic News editor-in chief on June 4 because of the growing pressure on him and his paper. “I concluded that in Serbia today, it is impossible to edit Blic News in line with the principles of open and free journalism,” Cvijanovic said in a statement issued the day of his resignation.
In another case in April, Gordana Susa, the host and editor-in-chief of a popular talk show Press Pretres, has said that Communications head Popovic placed a threatening call to her on the evening of April 18 in retaliation for a question she had asked earlier in the evening on her show. In interviewing Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic on her program that evening, Susa had inquired about Popovic’s status at the Communications Bureau since he was reported in the press to have been dismissed from the post in October 2002. Popovic has reportedly denied calling and threatening Susa. Attempts by CPJ to contact Popovic were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, CPJ remains extremely concerned about the government’s delayed implementation of the Broadcasting Law and the establishment of a nine-member Broadcasting Agency Council to supervise the broadcast media and allocate national radio and television frequencies. Parliament approved the law in July 2002 but legislators missed an October deadline to choose Council members (four government appointees, four non-government appointees, and one appointed by the Council) and only started making appointments in April. Two of the government’s candidates were chosen in violation of the nominating rules, and the member chosen by the Council was approved by Parliament despite allegations that he was not qualified for the job. Two of the non-governmental appointees have resigned in protest, and thus the Council currently favors the government.
Delaying the implementation of the Broadcasting Agency Council has serious repercussions for Serbia. Without a mechanism for the distribution of national frequencies to independent broadcasters, pro-government broadcasters dominate the airwaves, compromising media pluralism and access to public information in Serbia.
This legal and physical harassment of journalists, along with the delays in implementing the Broadcast Law, reflect the government’s increasingly confrontational and intolerant attitude toward critical media coverage. As an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the protection of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ calls on Your Excellency to do everything within your power to stop these politically motivated lawsuits against members of the media, whose job is to report the news, even if it is displeasing to the government. We also urge you to prosecute those who threaten journalists in reprisal for their reporting, and to see that the Broadcast Law is implemented in a way that provides for a variety of views to be heard.
While we appreciate the tremendous amount of pressure you are under in stabilizing your country, we urge you to make a strong commitment to press freedom. An environment that tolerates a variety of opinion is crucial to preserving social stability.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper