Sidebar: A New Start on Old Murders in Serbia
Slavko Curuvija was killed 15 years ago, but Veran Matić, a veteran journalist of Serbia’s independent media, never forgot.
Curuvija, an influential independent newspaper owner in what was then Yugoslavia, was shot in the back on April 11, 1999, by two men outside his apartment building. Curuvija was well known for his criticism of President Slobodan Milosovic, and there was evidence implicating Milosovic’s intelligence services in the attack—but no one was ever brought to justice. Other murders of journalists in what was then Yugoslavia also went unsolved, including the 2001 fatal assault on crime reporter Milan Pantic, and the death of Radoslava Dada Vujasinovic. Vujasinovic, who investigated corruption in Milosovic’s government, was found in her apartment with gunshot wounds in 1994. Her death was labeled a suicide.
“I am a contemporary of my colleagues who were brutally murdered,” Matić told CPJ in an interview.
Milosevic died in 2006 in The Hague while on trial for war crimes and the Balkans political landscape has changed, with Serbia becoming an independent republic in 2006, but these cases were never solved. Threats and attacks against Serbian journalists continued. “As every newly appointed coalition, government, newly inaugurated prime minister, and newly elected president promised at the beginning of their term of office that they will find the killers, with no results to follow, the matrix was clear: There was no intention to resolve those murders,” Matić said.
When a political opportunity presented itself, Matić grabbed it. After the 2012 elections that brought to power the Serbian Progressive Party, once a partner to Milosevic’s party, he approached the new deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, with the idea of forming a commission that would bring together the investigative work of both journalists and government institutions to solve these killings. Matić figured that, as the information minister at the time of Curuvija’s murder, Vučić would welcome an avenue to demonstrate a departure from his political past. “I thought that, for him, also finding out the killers and those who ordered those killings was the most constructive way of facing his own flawed past,” he said. Vučić, who became prime minister in April 2014, approved the idea, and the Serbian Commission for the Investigation of Murders of Journalists was soon launched.
The commission is made up of representatives from the journalism community, the ministry of internal affairs, and Serbia’s national security body, the Security Information Agency (BIA). It oversees mixed investigative teams of police inspectors and representatives of security services for every murder case. The commission saw the cases of Curuvija, Pantic, and Vujasinovic reopened, with the goal, Vučić told CPJ by email, of “straightening out all the mistakes that the representatives of the commission notice.” It reviewed existing evidence, and began fresh investigations into unfollowed leads. There is also a public awareness component in cooperation with the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The audacious campaign, which won an award at the 2014 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, circulated to the public newspaper inserts of faux letters of threat, taken from actual wording of messages received by journalists. There is a video counterpart.
The results after nearly two years are compelling. In Curuvija’s case, four suspects have been charged, with the journalist’s criticism of the holders of political power and ability to influence public opinion cited as motives for the crime. Two were arrested this year. A third, the former national security chief Radomic Markovic, is already in prison for the 2000 assassination of the politician Ivan Stambolić. The fourth suspect is being sought outside the country. Their lawyers have contested the charges, and a trial date has not been set, according to Matić. Some suspects have been identified in the other two cases.
These are not small accomplishments in a global context where hundreds of unsolved cases of journalist killings around the world lay dormant.
The balance between civil and institutional involvement is a key factor behind the commission’s success, according to Matić. Vučić agreed. “The role of the media community representatives had proved to be crucial in this case,” he told CPJ. The journalists involved have the will and skills to critically review and analyze the previous work of authorities and advocate new lines of investigation, while the government can give access to investigative materials and support prosecutorial action. The commission also communicates regularly with high levels of government. Full transparency in the commission’s work is essential, Vučić said, for “full demystification of the mysteries, secrecy, and other ambiguities surrounding those murder cases.”
At the same time, the collaboration has had challenges. “I found the most difficult cooperation was with the military intelligence agency,” Matić said, “and we still have certain doubts whether we were introduced to all significant information and documents.”
CPJ posed this concern to Vučić, who said, the “Serbian government and I personally have made all efforts to provide all documentations so that the prosecutor’s office and working groups have all the evidence at their disposal, but also to allow the commission to be informed about the actual situation.”
The commission’s work is not finished, but its beginnings are encouraging. “I think it already serves as a model for other countries in this respect,” said Deniz Yazici, assistant research officer of the OSCE’s Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media. Yazici pointed to a similar initiative launched in late 2013 in Montenegro and inspired by the Serbian commission. She noted one important caveat. “The ultimate responsibility remains with government institutions,” he said, “and although such a commission can play a key role, it should in no way be perceived as relieving the government of this responsibility to investigate murders.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The sixth paragraph has been corrected to specify that the public awareness component is in cooperation with the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, not the OSCE as a whole, as previously stated. The gender of Deniz Yazici in the final paragraph has also been corrected.