Attacks on the Press 2003: Serbia and Montenegro

Serbia’s ruling reformist coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, (DOS), struggled to come to terms with the legacy of corruption and extreme nationalism left by a decade of rule under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Political division in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, powerful organized crime groups, and political apathy kept the conflict-ridden DOS coalition on the brink of collapse after the assassination of the prime minister in March.

In February, Serbian officials implemented an agreement made with Montenegrin officials transforming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into a loose union called Serbia and Montenegro, with the southern province of Kosovo remaining under temporary U.N. administration.

On March 12, a sniper assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic while he was stepping out of his car in front of a government building in the capital, Belgrade. Parliament Speaker Natasa Micic became acting head of the government the same day and immediately imposed a state of emergency authorizing the Culture and Public Information Ministry to restrict media reporting on the situation. A week later, Parliament approved Djindjic ally Zoran Zivkovic as the new prime minister.

During the 42-day state of emergency, government officials cracked down on the former special operations officers and members of the powerful Zemun mafia clan who were formally charged with Djindjic’s murder. Culture and Public Information Minister Branilsav Lecic used his broad authority to fine and close media outlets that violated vaguely defined media restrictions in their reporting on the assassination and the state of emergency.

Oversight of the media became increasingly politicized in March, when the Serbian government reappointed former Djindjic propagandist Vladimir “Beba” Popovic to head its Communications Bureau. Popovic relied on threats and politicized lawsuits to intimidate and silence journalists who criticized government policies.

Gordana Susa, the host and editor-in-chief of the popular current affairs television talk show “Press Pretres” (Discussing the Press), said Popovic placed a threatening call to her on the evening of April 18, right after she questioned Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic during an interview about Popovic’s reappointment to the Communications Bureau. Popovic had been ousted from the post in October 2002 following pressure from U.S. diplomats, who were not pleased with his aggressive attempts to control how independent journalists reported on the prime minister. (Popovic resigned from the Communications Bureau in July 2003 after pressure, again from Western diplomats.)

Zeljko Cvijanovic, editor-in-chief of the independent Belgrade daily Blic News, resigned from his post in June following a campaign of harassment and intimidation by police and government officials–including Popovic–in retaliation for his reporting on organized crime and government scandals. Throughout 2003, the independent Belgrade radio station B92 remained an outspoken critic of attempts by the government and nationalist politicians to silence independent journalists who criticized government policies.

During the state of emergency, the government rushed several long-delayed amendments to media-related laws through Parliament in what was seen as an effort to avoid public scrutiny and retain political influence over the media.

In March, Parliament passed amendments to the Broadcasting Law, creating a Broadcasting Agency to regulate the distribution of national broadcast frequencies. A scandal erupted in April, when Parliament began selecting candidates for the nine-member supervisory Broadcast Agency Council. According to the Belgrade-based Association of Independent Electronic Media and the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, three of the government’s nominees were inappropriately appointed to the council in violation of various requirements and nomination procedures. Two council members who represented nongovernmental organizations and media associations resigned in protest.

In April, Parliament passed a new draft of the Public Information Law broadening the ability of courts to close media outlets for using vaguely defined “hate speech” and weakening protection for the identity of journalistic sources.

The overall lack of progress in reforming the regulation of broadcast media worked in favor of the government because it allowed private, pro-government television stations like Pink TV and BK TV to retain their national broadcasting licenses. This limited pluralism in the news and inhibited the broader process of democratization.

While the DOS coalition has been far less heavy-handed with the press than former Yugoslav President Milosevic, politicians still believe that they have a right to influence and guide editorial polices of independent outlets. Journalists covering politically sensitive issues remain vulnerable to politically motivated civil and criminal lawsuits, intimidating police interviews, and threatening calls from politicians, businessmen, and clergy because the government has failed to reprimand or prosecute those responsible for harassment.

In some cases, politicians filed lawsuits against journalists. Former Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic filed a criminal libel lawsuit against Milan Colic, a translator for the independent Belgrade daily Danas, because of an October 2001 article that linked Cosic to war crimes committed by the Yugoslav People’s Army when he was head of state. Colic is currently living in the Czech Republic, but in October 2003, a court in the northern city of Novi Sad tried him in absentia and sentenced him to three months in prison.

This impunity was compounded by the fact that at year’s end, police and prosecutors had made no progress in solving the June 2001 murder of Milan Pantic, a crime reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti, and the April 1999 assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Dnevni Telegraf. The public prosecutor responsible for the stalled investigation into Curuvija’s murder, Sinisa Simic, was temporarily suspended from his duties in March after the police arrested Deputy Public Prosecutor Milan Sarajlic for being on the payroll of the notorious Zemun mafia gang and for obstructing a number of murder inquiries on their behalf.

Constant infighting in the DOS coalition, as well as its inability to reduce widespread poverty, led to significant political apathy, resulting in three presidential elections in just over a year that were deemed invalid because voter turnout rates were under 50 percent. In November–three years after Milosevic’s removal from power–the coalition dissolved itself and set parliamentary elections for December, which saw the biggest share of the vote go to the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by an indicted war criminal. In January 2004, a group of pro-democracy parties were struggling to form a coalition government to prevent the SRS from taking power.

In Montenegro, an ongoing debate about the prospect of independence from Serbia and allegations of widespread government corruption dominated the media during 2003. Despite progress in the reform of media legislation, access to basic government information remained difficult, and politicized oversight of the media continued to favor state-run outlets and inhibit independent reporting.

In April, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) charged a journalist for the first time in its history. The ICTY charged Dusan Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Dan, based in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, with contempt of court after he published the identity of a protected witness in the Milosevic trial. The witness received threatening phone calls after Dan revealed the witness’s identity. An initial hearing in the case was held in December. If convicted, Jovanovic faces up to seven years in jail and/or a fine of up to US$106,000. Some press freedom groups have argued that Jovanovic should only face financial penalties, and not jail time, for the charge.

In Kosovo, political tensions remained high due to an international crackdown on ethnic Albanian extremists and renewed negotiations with Serbian authorities to determine the final political status of the politically polarized and crime-ridden province. Harassment, political interference, and a lack of access to basic government information continued to plague journalists, who have responded by establishing the Association of Professional Journalists of Kosova and the Association of Independent Media of Kosova to defend their rights.

In July, NATO peacekeeping forces announced that an inquiry was unable to determine whether the Macedonian army or ethnic Albanian rebels were responsible for the March 2001 death of Associated Press Television News journalist Kerem Lawton. Lawton died from shrapnel wounds when a mortar shell struck his car in the village of Krivenik in southern Kosovo.

That same month, the U.N. Interim Administration in Kosovo adopted a new Interim Criminal Code, which retained criminal defamation as an offense punishable by up to one year in prison.