Attacks on the Press 2010: Serbia

Top Developments
• Authorities win convictions in anti-press attacks, improve access to information.
• Constitutional Court strikes down restrictive media ownership regulations.

Key Statistic
3: Suspects convicted and sentenced to prison for threats against B92 journalist.

Serbian authorities stepped up law enforcement efforts in attacks against journalists, winning convictions in high-profile cases, even as they pursued some restrictive media policies. These sometimes contradictory media practices reflected the broader political goals of President Boris Tadic, who pursued liberal policies such as seeking European Union membership and reconciling with neighboring Balkan states, while appealing to conservatives by refusing to recognize Kosovo’s independence and failing to arrest indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic.


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Interior Minister Ivica Dacic was a somewhat surprising leader of the coalition government’s newly assertive efforts to combat anti-press attacks. Head of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Dacic was a protégé of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who ruthlessly suppressed media throughout the 1990s. While the Socialist Party remained suspicious of independent journalists, its leaders appeared to accept reformist media policies as a condition of joining the ruling coalition.

Journalists praised government efforts to improve access to public information, singling out the work of a senior information official, Rodoljub Sabic, for expediting requests. Some progress was also reported in the privatization of local state-owned media outlets, although the effort stalled in mid-year. “There was strong obstruction from mayors and city councils around the country to this privatization because they wanted to retain control over these media outlets,” said Slobodan Kremenjak, a legal adviser for the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), a local press freedom group.

Politicians and government officials continued using advertising contracts, financial subsidies, secretive ownership structures, and politicized processes for issuing broadcasting licenses, according to ANEM. The global recession and Greek debt crisis also led to a drop in advertising revenue, exacerbating the media’s dependence on government subsidies and advertising revenue from politicians, businesspeople, and politicized government agencies, according to local journalists and media analysts.

Authorities obtained convictions in two high-profile attacks on the press. In July, Teofil Pancic, a reporter for the Belgrade weekly Vreme, suffered a concussion and injuries to his arms after being attacked by two masked assailants wielding metal bars, according to news reports. “This was no mistake, no robbery, but a personally targeted attack,” Pancic told the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The journalist was known for his critical coverage of Serbian nationalists and sports hooligans. The president personally condemned the attack and, in August, police detained two men whose DNA was found on the metal bars, according to news reports. The suspects, described as members of an ultranational group, were convicted on assault charges but received sentences of just three months, half the minimum term under the law, according to news reports.

For the first time, prosecutors made use of a 2009 law that made “endangering the safety of a journalist” a crime, according to local and international press reports. Three defendants were convicted under the statute in 2010 for threatening Brankica Stankovic, an award-winning journalist for the Belgrade-based television station B92. The threats stemmed from her 2009 documentary revealing that members of a nationalist sports club had escaped prosecution on drug trafficking and murder. The three suspects, identified as members of the club, were sentenced to prison terms of three to 16 months in connection with the threats. Police provided Stankovic with guards throughout the year due to ongoing concerns for her security, according to ANEM and local press reports.

Serbian authorities moved forward in prosecuting suspects in the October 2008 car bombing in neighboring Croatia that killed Ivo Pukanic, owner and editorial director of the Zagreb-based political weekly Nacional, and Niko Franjic, the paper’s marketing director. Three suspects detained in Serbia in 2009–Sreten Jocic, Zeljko Milovanovic, and Milenko Kuzmanovic–went on trial in April in Belgrade because there is no extradition treaty between the two countries. The trial was ongoing at the end of the year. Authorities said organized crime figures had targeted Pukanic to prevent his paper from publishing a series of articles exposing tobacco smuggling in the Balkans. (Six suspects detained in Croatia were convicted in November.)

Despite responding more aggressively to some recent cases of violence and threats against journalists, Serbian police and prosecutors reported no progress in the most prominent unsolved cases from previous years, such as the April 1999 murder of Dnevni Telegraf owner and editor Slavko Curuvija, and the June 2001 murder of Vecernje Novosti correspondent Milan Pantic.

In some cases, journalists faced risks from authorities themselves. In May, Belgrade District Court officers repeatedly punched Masanorije Josida, a photojournalist with the daily newspaper Alo, after he took photos of a nationalist club leader being brought into the court building, news reports said. At the direction of a judge, court officers then erased the journalist’s photos. Josida had accreditation and permission to take photos in the court building, ANEM said.

Journalists expressed concern regarding a new electronic communications law passed by parliament and signed into law in June, according to press reports. The law made it easier for authorities to identify journalists’ sources through telephone records, ANEM reported, as it allows civilian and military security services to obtain customer call logs from telecommunications companies with only a letter signed by their directors.

In July, journalists and press freedom advocates hailed a decision by the Constitutional Court to strike down restrictive 2009 amendments to the Law on Public Information. The amendments would have allowed only “domestic legal entities” to establish media outlets, presumably barring individual citizens and foreign entities. The amendments also raised fines for media violations such as failure to obtain government registration. While pleased by the ruling, journalists were dismayed that the government adopted such amendments in the first place.