Attacks on the Press 2004: Serbia and Montenegro

Serbia and Montenegro

Political paralysis consumed Serbia for much of 2004. Conservative reformists and ultranationalists argued over the bloody legacy of former President Slobodan Milosevic and refused to extradite Serbs indicted for war crimes to The Hague–based U.N. -tribunal. Amid a chaotic and polarized atmosphere, journalists were vulnerable to -intimidation from politicians, government agencies, businessmen, accused war criminals, and organized crime.

In April, the bodyguard of Investment Minister Velimir Ilic beat Radislav Rodic, owner of the Belgrade dailies Glas Javnosti (Voice of the Public) and Kurir (Courier), in a parking lot. The attack came several days after Ilic had threatened the editor of Kurir, according to local press reports. Kurir had recently criticized the minister’s investment policies.

Reformist Boris Tadic was elected president of Serbia in June, narrowly defeating a candidate from the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which dominates Parliament and routinely threatens journalists who do not support its ultranationalist platform. However, the SRS and Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia made a strong showing in September local elections after independent and public radio and television stations were pressured to provide positive coverage of the parties’ politicians, the Belgrade-based Association of Independent Electronic Media reported. Once the nationalists took office, many appointed political loyalists as editors and executives at publicly funded media outlets.

Widespread support for the nationalists allowed war crime defendants and unreformed military and security agencies to retain great influence, making it particularly dangerous for journalists to investigate abuses committed by Serbian forces during the 1990s. In March, military police detained author Vladan Vlajkovic for a month and confiscated 250 copies of his book Vojna tajna (Military Secret), claiming that his account of war crimes in Kosovo contained state secrets, according to international press reports.

In June, unidentified men broke into the Belgrade apartment of author Svetlana Djordjevic, forced her to drink an unknown liquid, injected her with an unknown substance, and demanded that she publicly renounce her work on human rights abuses in Kosovo, according to press reports. Djordjevic, who recovered after the attackers left her unconscious, did not renounce her work. She had begun receiving death threats after the July 2003 publication of her book, Svedocanstvo o Kosovo (Testimonies About Kosovo), which details abuses by Serbian police.

Serbian courts also discouraged reporting on government abuses. Two journalists were convicted under outdated criminal libel laws, although neither served prison sentences. A court in the western city of Sabac sentenced Hanibal Kovac, a correspondent for the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to a two-month suspended prison sentence in April for a story on a politician who confiscated a building in 1997. A month later, a court in the northern city of Novi Sad sentenced Ljiljana Jokic-Kaspar of the independent daily Gradjanski List (Citizen’s Newspaper) to a six-month suspended term for reporting that a medical officer with the special police also served as a sniper in the unit.

Impunity in the murders of journalists remained a major problem in 2004. Police and prosecutors reported no progress in solving the June 2002 murder of Milan Pantic, a crime reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti (Evening News), or the April 1999 assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Dnevni Telegraf (Daily Telegraph).

In April, the Interior Ministry announced the formation of a special police unit to probe the Pantic and Curuvija cases, as well as two other high-profile murders. Although the Interior Ministry publicly claimed that it had no evidence in the Curuvija case, former Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said that an eyewitness had come forward and that police had identified several suspects, according to local press reports.

The Serbian government retained significant influence over national television stations, the main source of news for most of the country. The government appointed controversial journalist and one-time Milosevic Information Minister Aleksandar Tijanic as director of the state broadcaster Radio Television Serbia (RTS) in March. Little progress was reported in turning RTS into an independent public broadcasting service.

Private, pro-government television stations benefited from a politicized regulatory environment that allowed them to retain the national broadcasting licenses they had gained without due process during Milosevic’s rule. For their loyalty, these stations enjoyed government perks; BK TV, for instance, was allowed to broadcast its programming on 40 powerful military transmitters spread throughout the country.

Despite protests from Serbian journalists organizations, Parliament revised the Broadcasting Law to give legislators greater control over membership of the influential Broadcasting Council, which is responsible for allocating broadcasting licenses.

In the southern province of Kosovo—administered by the United Nations since the NATO air war against Serbia in 1999—journalists worked in a lawless, politically polarized environment in which an ethnic Albanian majority is seeking independence and an ethnic Serb minority is seeking reintegration with Serbia.

In March, international officials blamed sensationalist news for sparking two days of rioting by Albanian mobs against Serb enclaves. Local journalists countered that they were being blamed for U.N. policies that exacerbated tensions, and for the failure of NATO peacekeepers to protect Serbs during the riots.

Self-censorship remains widespread in Kosovo, with politicians, businessmen, and former guerrilla commanders using threats and intimidation to silence critical reporting. In September, an unidentified gunman shot Fatmire Terdevci, a reporter for the independent daily Koha Ditore (Daily Times), while she was driving near Pristina. Terdevci, who specializes in official corruption and organized crime, survived the shooting, which local journalists believe may have come in retaliation for her work.

Journalists in the southern coastal republic of Montenegro also work in a politically charged climate. The population is deeply divided over whether to break away from Serbia in 2005 and try to join the European Union.

The May 28 murder of Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Dan, (Day) in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, sent a shock wave through the journalism community, which has rarely faced violence since the brutal wars in neighboring Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the 1990s. Jovanovic had received death threats prior to his murder and faced numerous lawsuits for accusing Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic of links to tobacco smuggling and sex trafficking.

A suspect in his murder went on trial in the fall, but the editor’s family and colleagues criticized police for failing to identify accomplices who may have ordered the killing or to probe possible links to Montenegrin authorities.

Political parties and government officials in Montenegro encourage self-censorship by pressuring editors and journalists who report on sensitive issues. Veseljko Koprivica, news editor at the independent weekly Monitor, received numerous threats for reporting on drug trafficking, the Serbian Orthodox church, and Montenegro’s role in the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik in neighboring Croatia.

The influential state broadcaster, Radio and Television Montenegro, remained heavily dependent on government financing and guidance. Promised reforms that would insulate the broadcaster from political influence have been slow to take effect.