Senad Pecanin: One of Bosnia’s True Open Minds

Dangerous Assignments
Senad Pecanin, publisher and editor of Dani, a Sarajevo-based investigative newsweekly, is under fierce attack from the one group in the Bosnian conflict the West prefers to see as “the good guys”: the Bosnian Muslim government, based in Sarajevo. Pecanin, one of Bosnia‘s few truly professional and independent journalists, has incurred the wrath of the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and of Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic for his magazine’s investigations into SDA practices.

On May 11, Dani ran a cover story on Izetbegovic’s secret police, reporting that they maintain closed dossiers on intellectuals and politicians which date back to the communist era. The article further revealed that the party wiretaps its cabinet ministers for blackmail purposes as Pecanin explained, “to keep their own people and the opposition under control.”

“It is exactly the same as during the communist period,” Pecanin observed. “Instead of Marx, now we have God and Islam. Instead of the CP [Communist Party], now we have the SDA.”

Since November 1997, when Dani ran an article chronicling Muslim wartime atrocities against Serb residents of Sarajevo, Pecanin has been publicly lambasted and privately harassed by the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) government, which denies all such accusations and continues to present itself as the innocent victim of the recent war. Izetbegovic has called Pecanin a “traitor”; “blasphemer”; “spy”; “Chetnik” (the pejorative term used during this last war for Serb soldiers); “Ustashe” (the name for Croatian Fascists during World War II, used during the Bosnian war to characterize Croatian soldiers); “Western-paid” (which Pecanin says is “blasphemy here”); and “anti-Muslim.”

Like all the independent publications and broadcast stations, Dani struggles to compete with the SDA-funded media outlets. In a move that has aggravated the magazine’s difficulties, the state-owned printing house abruptly increased Dani‘s rates following the November article, and the state-owned distribution company is stymieing its delivery. In late April, Pecanin received a notice charging him with having illegally accepted a foreign donation of 2400 Deutsche Marks (US$1411) for Dani. “This is totally stupid,” he said, since “everything in this country right now is paid for with foreign donations.”

Pecanin’s most bruising battle, however, has been in the courts, where he was convicted in January on a criminal libel charge for having published a story in April 1997 that outlined the cozy relationship between the SDA and Fahrudin Radoncic, editor of the supposedly independent daily newspaper Dnevni Avaz. Pecanin was sentenced to two months in jail. CPJ protested the judgment, which was the first criminal libel conviction in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and expressed concern that it portends an atmosphere of reprisal against journalists who attempt to work independently. As Pecanin awaits the outcome of the appeal, he is gearing up for two more trials on criminal libel charges — one filed by Dzemaludin Latic, editor of the weekly Ljiljan, and other by former prime minister Hasen Muratovic — for critical articles published in Dani.

Reflecting last spring on his legal woes and the death threats he has received, Pecanin says, “My biggest problem is worry for my family — my baby, [then] 22 months old, my parents, my parent-in-law, my wife. This is very difficult for them. It is unpleasant to hear, when the president says your son or son-in-law is the ‘biggest enemy of the state,’ or ‘a friend of Salman Rushdie.'”

Pecanin was the defense ministry spokesman when Bosnia first gained independence in April 1992. But he quit five months later because, he says, “They wanted me to speak lies.” It was then that Pecanin decided to resurrect Dani, which, during the communist era, had been “the magazine of socialist youth” and had shut down after Yugoslavia’s first multiparty election in 1990. According to Pecanin, Nasa Dani, as the magazine was then known, published strong critiques of the communist government in its last years and had a circulation of more than 100,000.

Pecanin recruited some of the best Bosniak journalists for the new Dani, many of whom had worked on the magazine before. Now a must-read among the many Bosnian-speaking internationals in the country, Dani currently has a national circulation of 30,000. When the SDA-controlled distribution company obliges, the magazine can be found in all parts of the country except the hard-line Bosnian Serb area around Pale, which is still in the grip of forces loyal to former Bosnian Serb president and indicted war criminal Radovan Karazdic.

Pecanin says he is “very disappointed” when Dani‘s hard-hitting stories on judicial corruption or nepotism within the Sarajevo government fail to move concerned Bosniaks to action.

“That’s one of the consequences of a half-century of Communism: people know they have no chance in a clash with authority,” Pecanin says. He finds it demoralizing that so many of Bosnia’s young people, rather than choosing to stay and rebuild the country, are desperately trying to leave. But he concedes that, “it’s practically impossible to create a modern, open-minded society, a reintegrated Bosnia. Sometimes I feel like a Don Quixote.”

In May, Ismet Bajramovic — a.k.a. Celo (forehead), a man reported by Dani as a “godfather” of organized crime –barged into the magazine’s offices with four other men, threatened to destroy equipment and to return armed. They said they were there because President Alija Izetbegovic’s son, Bakir, and SDA member Senad Sahimpasic, were “dissatisfied” with Dani‘s articles. At 4:00 a.m. on July 29, a grenade exploded in front of the magazine’s offices. Nobody was injured, and Pecanin says he’d like to believe the attack was not aimed at Dani, but the blast underscored the animosity of the weekly’s foes. Yet Pecanin himself is by no means ready to give up.

“When I started my career,” he recalls, “it was during the communist period; Izetbegovic was in jail. When he left jail, the first interview he gave was to me. I was punished, suspended from my job at the radio, and fought with the government for the right to speak openly. I was the favorite journalist of Izetbegovic and all the dissidents at that time.

“But when they came into power, we came under the same accusations as we had during the communist period. One former communist party official told me, ‘Look, I thought you were really a spy. But now when I see how you continue with your critiques of the government, I must apologize to you.’

“Now I want, in a few years, when this government goes out of power, to hear the same thing from them.”

Susan Blaustein is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.