Attacks on the Press in 2008: Serbia

Nationalists suffered a series of political defeats in 2008 and responded by lashing out against independent journalists and liberal reformers with threats and physical attacks. A reformist-nationalist coalition government led by the conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica during the first half of the year and by liberal President Boris Tadic during the second half failed to adequately protect journalists from these abuses. The nationalists targeted independent journalists, rights activists, and reformist politicians for “betraying” Serbia, while police and prosecutors regularly turned a blind eye.

Geopolitical issues polarized Serbia’s already divided and discontented electorate, delaying important media and legal reforms. During a January 20 presidential election and February 3 runoff, nationalist Tomislav Nikolic advocated for closer ties with an economically and diplomatically resurgent Russia, while the incumbent Tadic argued for strengthening integration with Europe. Tadic’s narrow victory (he gained just over 50 percent of the vote in the runoff) reflected continuing ambivalence over how to address the widespread poverty, resentment, and isolation resulting from three failed wars waged during the 1990s under the guise of Serbian nationalism.

As with many former Yugoslav states, Serbia’s criminal justice system remained weak and politicized, leaving journalists vulnerable to pressures from politicians, businesspeople, police, and nationalists. Independent-minded journalists in Serbia were more vulnerable to threats than their peers in neighboring countries because the wars and isolation of the 1990s created a culture of intolerant nationalism that Serbian authorities had yet to confront fully.

Much of the political debate and news coverage during and after the elections focused on the impending declaration of independence by the southern province of Kosovo–a landlocked, impoverished, predominantly Muslim territory of 2 million residents under temporary U.N. administration since a 1999 NATO air war that expelled Serbian forces for committing widespread human rights abuses.

When the ethnic Albanian government of Kosovo declared independence on February 16, the move sparked several days of intense and sometimes violent protests by tens of thousands of Serbian nationalists in Belgrade. Encouraged to vent their anger by the nationalist Prime Minister Kostunica and Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, thousands of protesters surrounded and burned part of the U.S. Embassy–which had quickly recognized Kosovo as an independent state–and attacked several foreign journalists reporting on the chaos in Belgrade. Groups of hooded youths assaulted Dirk Van Viser of the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, leaving him with three broken ribs, and roughed up Andrei Fyodorov and Andrei Pavlov of the English-language Russian state television channel Russia Today.

During the protests, the independent Belgrade-based radio and television station B92 received a wave of death threats in retaliation for its independent reporting on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. After four days of daily protests, about 200 youths surrounded the B92 building on the evening of February 21, trapping the journalists in the building and accusing the staff of “betraying” Serbia. Belgrade police and prosecutors initially ignored the station’s pleas for protection and dispersed the protesters only after Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac entered the B92 building as a sign of solidarity with the station. CPJ’s Nina Ognianova recounted the tense B92 standoff in the spring edition of the organization’s magazine, Dangerous Assignments.

Nationalists in other Serbian cities also organized protests and threatened journalists and rights activists in a wave of officially sanctioned anti-Western anger, with the police passively looking on in many cases. Milica Ivanovic, a reporter for the independent news agency BETA and the Belgrade daily Blic, was attacked by an assailant wielding a wooden beam while reporting on a protest in the southern province of Medvedja, according to the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), a Belgrade-based media freedom group.

Anger over Kosovo’s independence and the debate over whether to join the European Union caused Serbia’s coalition government to collapse in March and led to divisive parliamentary elections in May, which were marred by nationalists making death threats against reformist politicians. Tadic’s party, For a European Serbia, earned a victory with 38 percent of the vote. That ousted Kostunica from office and gave the party a modest mandate to pursue European integration.

But hopes of a safer working environment for the news media were dashed when Tadic’s party formed a ruling parliamentary coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbia–a nationalist party once led by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Socialist party leader Ivica Dacic was appointed interior minister, leaving the police unreformed and journalists as vulnerable as before. This appointment also ensured that impunity for murder would remain a problem for journalists, as authorities failed to make any progress in investigating the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija, editor-in-chief of the Belgrade daily Dnevni Telegraf, and the 2001 murder of Milan Pantic, a reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernije Novosti.

Journalists faced a second wave of threats and attacks in late July when Serbian authorities apprehended the indicted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade and brought him to the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Nationalists angered by the arrest organized protests around the country and assaulted journalists they considered unpatriotic, ANEM reported. Camera operators for the television stations B92 and Apolo, a photographer for the news agency FoNet, and a reporter with the news agency SRNA were attacked while reporting on the protests in Belgrade and the northern city of Novi Sad. Police failed to arrest the attackers and themselves assaulted BETA news agency reporter Milos Djorelijevski after he presented his press identity card at a protest in Belgrade, according to local press reports.

Conquering Television to Control the Narrative


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