Interview with Zeljko Kopanja

International Press Freedom Awards

Interview conducted in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, by Amer Cohadzic of The Associated Press on August 28, 2000

AMER COHADZIC: Mr. Kopanja, can you describe for us what happened on that day when you were attacked, can you give us a detailed description of what was going on and what exactly happened?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: Well, the day before that, I celebrated my 45th birthday, on October 21st last year. That day, I left work earlier and I was with my family. In the morning when I woke up, on the 22nd, as usual, I left my flat, which is on the fourth floor, and I went towards my car. It was a nice day, a fine morning, and I decided to walk. I went some 10-15 meters past my car, and then, I simply decided it was better, after all, to use the car because a friend of mine was waiting for me in my regular coffee bar “Napoleon,” and that’s why I got in my car.

Simply, when I sat in the car, I can’t remember whether I moved the vehicle, but when I started the car I felt this horrifying [choking] explosion. And I looked to my right–I did not feel any pain, I was in kind of half state of shock–I saw my right leg was on the front passenger’s seat. I immediately started touching myself here [showing his chest] to see if I was wounded there. I saw it was all right. My face was covered in blood. I turned and opened the door and that’s when I lost consciousness. I woke up in the hospital shock room that afternoon and I saw right away that I didn’t have my leg anymore. After that they told me I was clinically dead at one point, that my heart had stopped beating, but during reanimation they fixed my pulse and I survived this difficult operation. I woke up aware of the fact that I [didn’t] have a leg.

AC: Do you know why you were attacked, and by whom?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: Well, I think I was attacked … it is difficult to say now why. I think I was attacked because of the opening of war crimes files among the members of my people. Our newspaper stands by the thesis that no nation is genocidal or criminal, but individuals from certain nations are. So, individuals among the Serbian, Bosniak [i.e., Bosnian Muslim], and Croatian people committed war crimes. I think that the Serbian people do not deserve to carry this burden because of the individuals who committed crimes in the name of the people. I do not allow anyone to commit war crimes in my name or in the name of my people, nor does anyone have the right to do that. Therefore, we opened the “Koricani” case in our newspaper, about the crimes of individuals from the Serbian police who killed 250 Bosniaks.

We opened the case from Teslic, and that was the first time that a newspaper from a Serbian entity opened a case of crimes committed by individuals from the Serbian police, army, or paramilitaries. Until then, the press from the [Bosniak-Croat] Federation had been unveiling cases of crimes committed by Serbs. The press from Republika Srpska was unveiling crimes committed by Croats and Muslims, and this was the first time that we faced the fact that we need to open files amongst our own people who committed these crimes.

This is all my assumption. I think, in essence, that this was the issue. Although the investigation, which has been going on for 10-11 months now, has not given a final answer. According to the information I got from the police, all roads lead in one direction: that the persons who ordered this attack on me, my newspaper, and my colleagues are in Belgrade. Because the thesis was developing, through the work of our newspaper, that the paramilitary formations that committed crimes were not so “uncommandered” [i.e., outside of the formal chain of command] as is often presented.

AC: So, your assumption is that the order for this came from Belgrade?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I think that the direct person that ordered this is in Belgrade. I can’t tell you who it is, because I don’t know.

AC: Can you describe your newspaper to us? Is this a political magazine?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: This is a newspaper that was formed soon after the Dayton agreement. The essence of our newspaper is that we have to build a society in Bosnia-Herzegovina where love will win over hatred, where life will win over death, the future over the past. So it is primarily an informative newspaper; but in its concept, we develop this thesis I was talking about, that we have to build tolerant, civilized relationships in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We believed and we still believe that Bosnia-Herzegovina can be a happy country with three constituent nations where people will live for life not for death.

AC: How do you see your role here, the role of independent journalists in this part of the world, in the Balkans?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I think that journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina are in the forefront of forming a tolerant society–not only Nezavisne Novine but also Slobodna Bosna and Dani, Extra magazine, Reporter, and within electronic media Alternative TV and OBN television. Journalists are in the forefront of building this kind of democratic, civilized society where these postulates I was talking about will be put into effect–that life is more important than death. Of course, we cannot forget what happened in the past five, six, 10 years; but we have to forgive, we have to carry on with our lives and turn to our future.

AC: What does this profession means to you, personally?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I’m in love with journalism. I am an economist, by profession. I worked for some time as a chief accountant, but the journalistic virus infected me when I began working with Radio Television Sarajevo, Radio Banja Luka, with Oslobodjenje and Glas. I was infected with it during the eighties and I fell in love with that job. And I think I’ll finish my professional career in this business.

AC: Did your opinion of journalism and journalists change since the day of the attack on you?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: Well, it did not. I would say it forced me to fight even more for my goals, my life’s mission to help in building love. Love can be built only by telling true-life stories, giving truthful information. Seen from that perspective, it was an additional motivation. The second reason is of a pragmatic nature. If I gave up on my life goals, then my sacrifice would be for nothing. From a pragmatic point of view, I would lose only then–that is, if I gave up what I was fighting for.

AC: Why are journalists like you considered dangerous to the powers around us?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: The truth isn’t good for many of those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, those who started this war and committed various crimes among all three peoples. That’s why I and many others like myself in this business are dangerous, because we present the debt that needs to be paid. No one can kill 10, 50, or 500 people and not be responsible for that. Not to mention the so-called minor crimes like robberies, looting. That is the only way to bring back trust in Bosnia. Everyone has to pay for what he did.

AC: It is believed that ethnic tension is still present in Bosnia. What can a journalist do to calm this down?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I said already that I believe that Bosnia-Herzegovina will be a happy country. I am an optimist. The ethnic tensions still exist, but they are loosening up. I think journalists should move more freely into … taboo subjects like war crimes, corruption, creating civil society. That will help create more trust, that’s how people of the three ethnic groups and national minorities will begin to trust each other. Names and surnames will not be the determining factor, but rather what kind of person you are.

AC: Do you think journalists should even try to do that?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I don’t think they should be involved in politics, but exposing the truth is the precondition for creating trust.

AC: What are the main problems and dangers that journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina face today?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: … I think that journalists in the Federation, especially in areas with a Bosniak majority, are in danger because of big corruption, unveiling different affairs. Journalists in Republika Srpska and in parts of the Federation with a Croat majority face additional dangers. Besides revealing corruption and crime, they face danger because of the fact that in Bosnia-Herzegovina it is difficult to achieve a stable peace without stable democratic relations in Belgrade and in Zagreb.

So, the journalists in Republika Srpska are especially faced with danger from certain forces coming from Serbia. I think an unstable Republika Srpska is the best option for the present regime in Belgrade and that is where the danger comes from–because of our concept in Nezavisne Novine, which we have to send secretly to Belgrade, because people are asking us, to read about it and see it. I think this is where the huge danger lies for Republika Srpska journalists. In terms of the Federation, the threats are in terms of uncovering corruption–just look at what’s happening with Slobodna Bosna and Dani, what’s going on with Dnevni Avaz [the largest Bosniak daily in Bosnia, formerly aligned with ruling Bosniak authorities but recently being pressured by them for exposing corrupt Bosniak officials].

People made fortunes by stealing over the course of the war while others were fighting. Now those who stole want to keep their loot. And when journalists reveal this, they bring themselves into great danger.

AC: You are in charge of the first Serbian independent newspaper in Republika Srpska. Do you have non-Serb readers and does this mean anything to you?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: We are not the first Serbian independent newspaper in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We are an independent newspaper, Nezavisne Novine, which comes out in Banja Luka and is a newspaper of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course we are distributed in the Federation as well; we try to cover stories from the Federation as much as possible, including areas with a Muslim majority, as well as stories from Republika Srpska. We have subscribers in the Federation, and a significant number of copies are sold in Sarajevo. We don’t want to say that we are a newspaper of Republika Srpska, we are a newspaper of Banja Luka and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

AC: What does it mean to you to have readers in the Federation?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: That is sort of a proof of our success. It’s all about what I told you at the beginning of our conversation. Our concept is that Nezavisne Novine helps in building tolerance among Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.

AC: As a newspaper editor, what kind of difficulties are you faced with, politically and economically?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: Well, we are fighting political problems. Everyone knows that Nezavisne Novine has become an institution now. It is not easy to put pressure on Nezavisne Novine to change its concept. We proved that after the assassination attempt on me. In terms of economic problems, our main problem is the generally difficult condition of the Bosnian economy. People are not able to buy newspapers regularly. Before the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the reading rate was one to four. That means that four people read one copy of the newspaper. Nowadays, 10 readers read one copy of the newspaper. People don’t have enough money to buy newspapers. It is difficult to put a distribution network in place so that we could increase circulation to the level that [would] make the newspaper itself profitable.

AC: In the U.S., journalists promote the idea of objectivity. Is it possible to be objective in a war-torn country?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: It depends on the people who work at newspapers. We try to be as objective as possible …

AC: What were the reactions of your colleagues in Bosnia-Herzegovina after you were attacked?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I have to say I was thrilled. That helped me a lot to overcome those horrifying days when I woke up after the operation. I had support from colleagues from the Republika Srpska, from the Federation, all my colleagues, editors from Sarajevo came–Senad Avdic, Asim Metiljevic, Senad Pecanin, a colleague from Reporter [named] Perica Vucinic came to the hospital to help me and to encourage me. At that moment the full professional solidarity of colleagues from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina was evident. At that moment, I felt protected. After I left the hospital, some twenty days later, in spite of my pain, I was present at a round table discussion here in Banja Luka about the protection of journalists. I thanked all of them and told them they [had] helped me psychologically to overcome the physical loss I’ve endured.

AC: How did international organizations react? Humanitarian organizations and international journalists?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: I had support from all international organizations. First of all, I had support from representatives of different countries who have their embassies in Sarajevo. I received special support from Mr. Wolfgang Petritsch, who made it possible for me to continue my medical treatment in Austria. U.S. Ambassador Miller expressed a wish to help as much as possible. And finally, in the latter part of my treatment, I was helped the most by Mrs. Kati Marton, who ensured through the Committee to Protect Journalists that I received the best prosthesis available today. This allows me to continue to function and fulfill my life mission as a journalist. These prostheses incorporate the most up to date technology, and after a month or two of exercises I’ll be able to continue my work and continue my journalistic mission without any special difficulties.

AC: Did this support help you overcome these problems and to stick with the same ideas of freedom of speech?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: Yes, by all means, this helped me. At a certain point, the support helped me not to give in at any moment, not to feel sorry for myself. The support helped me not to hand myself over to destiny. On the contrary, it helped me continue to fight for my ideas.

AC: Do you see a future for the free press in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

ZELJKO KOPANJA: When you look back [to] 1992 and in 1995 after Dayton was signed, I think it is better with every day that passes. I think that soon, regardless of the participation of a special community, the legal instrument will be constructed which will ensure that freedom of speech and open journalism exist in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Free press is a precondition for a free society and free life in general. Where you don’t have freedom of the media, there is only dictatorship and slavery.