Several media were shut down or fined during the seven-week state of emergency that lasted from the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic on 12 March 2003 until 29 April for putting out reports about the killing that were not confirmed by the authorities or for criticising the state of emergency itself. Two journalists were imprisoned as part of the murder enquiry.
Amid unstable political and institutional conditions, media reform, a key to press freedom since the fall of the Slobodan Milosevic regime, was suspended. The July 2002 media law, to turn the state radio and TV, RTS, into a publicly-run body, was not implemented and for lack of independent funding and new management, it remained totally dependent on the government and subject to all kinds of pressure.
The election in April of members of the Broadcasting Council, in charge of routinely and impartially assigning broadcasting frequencies, was marred by irregularities that reduced its legitimacy and independence from the start. The European Reconstruction Agency, the European Commission and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) decided on 27 August to suspend their aid to the council in protest.
Parliament approved another media law on 22 April, during the state of emergency, that recognised the right of journalists not to reveal their sources except in cases of "serious crime" and guaranteed access to public data. It also allowed media to be banned if they spread war propaganda, incited people to violence or national or religious hatred or published news likely to have "serious or irreversible consequences." The government did not keep its promise to send parliament a bill on access to information.
The year also saw a disturbing rise in lawsuits against journalists, notably by former government communications chief Vladimir Beba Popovic, who was forced to resign in mid-July because of his attitude to independent media.
New information about journalists killed before 2003
The special prosecutor’s office and the police anti-gang department announced jointly on 9 December 2003 that a new eye-witness had identified two unnamed suspects in the 11 April 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija, publisher of Dnevni Telegraf and Evropljanin. Curuvija’s brother Jovo was very dubious about the revelation, which came three weeks before parliamentary elections.
Sinisa Simic, the state prosecutor investigating the, was sacked on 21 March 2003, a few days after a state of emergency was declared following the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, and deputy chief state prosecutor Milan Sarajlic was suspended and arrested along with other legal officials suspected of links with organised crime.
The interior ministry said Sarajlic confessed in prison to working with the powerful Zemun gang and actively obstructing the enquiry into the murder of Curuvija, who was shot dead in front of his house by two hooded gunmen as he returned home with his wife.
The journalist had been constantly harassed for criticising the Milosevic regime. In March 2001, some Belgrade media reported that police knew who killed him and who was behind the murder. They quoted them as saying the actual killer was dead, that the mastermind would soon be arrested and that the murder had nothing to do with state security officials. But Curuvija’s widow said the latter were trying to hide the identity of the organisers.
A former editor of Ekspres Politika, Djordje Martic, said on 14 April 2001 that an article in the paper on 6 April 1999 (a few days before the murder), calling Curuvija a "traitor" and supporter of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, had been written on the orders of President Slobodan Milosevic’s wife, Mirjana Milosevic.
Montenegrin police arrested former Serbian Radio and TV (RTS) chief Dragoljub Milanovic on 2 April, after hunting for him since he was sentenced on 21 June 2002 to 10 years in prison by a Belgrade court for causing the death of 16 employees during the NATO bombing of RTS headquarters at night on 23 April 1999 during the Kosovo war. The government said he had been hidden by members of the Zemun gang that reportedly killed Djindjic.
He had not reported to Belgrade prison to serve his sentence and police issued an international arrest warrant for him in February 2002. The court convicted him of failing to obey an order to evacuate staff to a safer place even though he knew the building could be a target and that people would be killed.
Legal action against him began on 12 February 2001 to determine if he had prior knowledge of the bombing. The victims’ families also took the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but their suit against the 17 NATO countries who are also ECHR members was rejected on 19 December that year by the court, which said the European Human Rights Convention did not apply to actions outside the territory of the 41 Council of Europe member-states that have ratified the Convention.
The former police chief of the central Serbian town of Jagodina, Zivojin Trifunovic, and the ex-head of the town’s brewery, Jovan Stojanovic, were arrested on 13 April 2003 in connection with the murder on 11 June 2001 of Milan Pantic, the local correspondent for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novost. They were later released but put under formal investigation for their financial dealings during the Milosevic regime. Pantic, who was killed in front of his home when he was hit on the head with a heavy object, had written about organised crime in the area. Stojanovic was a patron of the Obilic Football Club, owned by the widow of former paramilitary chief Zeljko Raznatovic (Arkan).
Two journalists imprisoned
Milovan Brkic and Dragisa Petrovic, correspondents in Belgrade and Kragujevac for the Podgorica (Montenegro) daily Dan, were arrested on 4 April 2003 as part of the investigation of the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic. The government said three days later that articles they wrote accusing the government of underworld ties aroused suspicion that they themselves were linked to the Zemun gang thought to be behind the murder.
They were said to have deliberately misled the public about the murder investigation at the request of the gang. The state of emergency allowed police to detain anyone "threatening the safety of other citizens" for up to 30 days, during which time they could not contact a lawyer or family members or see a judge.
The journalists appeared before a Belgrade court on 14 April accused of putting out false news about interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic during the state of emergency. Ties with the Zemun gang were not mentioned. Brkic was freed on 15 April and sued the government for defamation. Petrovic was released on 23 April without being charged and lost his job as a correspondent for Radio Belgrade, which is part of RTS.
A journalist arrested
Dragan Alimpijevic, bureau chief of the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti in the central town of Sumadija, was questioned by an examining magistrate in Kragujevac on 23 June in a libel suit filed by Sumadija judge Zarko Stevanovic against the journalist, who had written that the judge had ties with the Vodojaza Football Club.
Three journalists physically attacked
Freelance journalist Vladimir Jesic was physically attacked on 1 June 2003 by Velimir Ilic, mayor of the central town of Cacak, during an interview shown on the Novi Sad station TV Apolo. The journalist said the mayor insulted and threatened him and hit him on the knee when asked him about his brother, Strahinja Ilic, who was arrested after the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic. Ilic denied he had hit him. The next day, the station filed a complaint against the mayor and called for people to boycott all his activities. The mayor was not charged.
Vladimir Mitric, of the Belgrade daily Vecenje Novosti, was insulted, hit and punched in a restaurant in Loznica (south of Belgrade) on 28 July by Dobrivoje Sgojnic, owner of the firm Stobeks, and Stojan Rankovic, who was convicted in the murder of paramilitary chief Zeljko Raznatovic (Arkan). Rankovic wanted an apology for an article written about him.
Security guards of the municipal council of the eastern town of Smederevska Palanka hit a cameraman from the local station Television Devic on 5 September after refusing to allow his crew into a council session. Aleksandra Nestorov, a reporter of the station who was present, accused the mayor, Radoslav Ljubisavljevic, of harassing the station after it reported he had been convicted of theft.
Threats and attacks
The staff of the independent weekly Novine Vranjske, in the southeastern Serbian town of Vranje, received a letter on 3 March 2003 signed by two unknown extremist groups, the Serbian Liberation Movement and the Serbian Liberation Front, threatening to kill editor Vukasin Obradovic and journalist Goran Antic and their families and destroy the paper’s offices. They accused the journalists of writing articles in early January accusing Bishop Pahomije, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Vranje, of sexually abusing children.
The letter called the journalists traitors and mercenaries in the pay of Albanians. Soon after the reports appeared, the bishop accused the journalists of working with Albanian rebels he said were funding the paper. Obradovic’s car was damaged on 19 April, the day the prosecutor announced he would prosecute the bishop. The windows and main door of the paper’s offices were damaged by thugs on 18 May.
TV Apolo, in Novi Sad (Voivodina), went off the air on 20 June in protest against death threats to one of its journalists, Dimitrije Vidanovic. Colleagues said they had been made by a regional businessman, Dragan Amidzic, who owned two gas-stations. The public prosecutor began action against Amidzic, who denied the accusation.
The car of Radisav Rodic, owner of the Belgrade dailies Glas Javnosti and Kurir, was blown up outside a city restaurant on 7 July without causing any casualties. Rodic, who was dining at the restaurant, said he had received several threats in previous days about the newspapers, which (especially Kurir) regularly print sensational material. Police are still investigating.
Harassment and obstruction
Media reporting about reasons for the state of emergency and about its implementation was restricted in a 17 March order which banned publication and dissemination of news about Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic’s murder that was not confirmed by the government. It provided for fines of up to 500,000 dinars (8,200 euros) and suspension of the media concerned. Deputy prime minister Zarko Korac had advised editors of several Belgrade media on 12 March how they should operate under the state of emergency.
The Belgrade weekly Identitet was banned on 17 March and fined 500,000 dinars (8,200 euros) for commenting on the reasons for the state of emergency. Publisher Srdjan Mijailovic was suspected of involvement in the Djindjic murder, along with Milorad Lukovic Legija, who funds the paper and is the fugitive former head of the Serbian police special forces who is suspected of involvement in the Djindjic murder.
The TV station RTV Mars, in the central Serbian town of Valjevo, was cut off briefly on 17 March after it broadcast music during Djindjic’s funeral and comments on him and the government. The station and its general manager were fined respectively 500,000 dinars (8,200 euros) and 100,000 dinars (1,640 euros).
Publication and distribution of the Belgrade daily Nacional was banned on 18 March for the duration of the state of emergency after it carried articles criticising the emergency and related measures. The paper’s publishers, NIP Info Orfej, were fined 500,000 dinars (8,200 euros).
The culture and information ministry suspended distribution of the Podgorica (Montenegro) daily paper Dan the same day and for the same reasons. The Belgrade-based Stampa Komerc distribution company was fined 200,000 dinars (3,300 euros). The ministry also warned the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti after it printed an article that day headed "Small village, big rat," referring to the arrest of a suspect in the Djindjic killing.
On 24 March, the culture and information ministry banned the production and distribution in any form, including online, of the 21 March issue of Prst (registered in Bosnia and printed near Belgrade) which criticised the state of emergency.
The southern Serbia station TV Leskovac was fined the equivalent of 5,000 euros and its chief, Mirjana Dimitrijevic, 730 euros on 2 April for breaking the state of emergency media laws with an interview in which Obren Joksimovic, an official of former President Vojislav Kostunica’s Serbian Democratic Party, criticised the investigation of Djindjic’s murder.
The central Serbia station TV Trstenik was fined 730 euros on 15 April and its boss Dragan Rajevic 430 euros for criticising the state of emergency in the station’s "Open Programme" on 10 April.
Gordana Susa, editor of the programme "Vin" on TV B92, received insults and phone threats on 18 April from government communications chief Vladimir Beba Popovic after the station aired an interview with deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, who was asked by Susa about the role of Popovic during meetings to advise editors how to do their job under the state of emergency. Deputy prime minister Miodrag Isakov admitted on 23 April that Popovic’s treatment of Susa had harmed the government’s image.
Zeljko Cvijanovic, editor of the weekly Blic News, was fined 50,000 dinars (750 euros) by a Belgrade court on 30 May for libelling Popovic in a 3 July 2002 article by calling him a participant in "the dirtiest propaganda war in Serbia," who tried to discredit the advisers and colleagues of former federal President Vojislav Kostunica.
A Belgrade court banned distribution of the current issue of the weekly Svedok on 3 June at the request of the public prosecutor’s office and ordered all copies to be seized because they contained an interview with the ex-head of the special forces unit of the Serbian police, Milorad Lukovic Legija, a suspect in the Djindjic murder who was in hiding.
The firm Borba halted distribution of Svedok during the night of 3-4 June without telling editor Vlanad Dinic. The culture and information ministry said the paper had tried to disturb public order and minimise the results of police investigations and had been unethical. The ban was based on articles 17 and 18 of the 22 April state of emergency press law which said when and how a media outlet could be suspended and seized, notably (article 17) by a court involving material likely to have serious and irretrievable consequences that could not be prevented otherwise. The vague definition enabled a very broad interpretation of what material was covered and risked a ban.
Zeljko Cvijanovic, editor of the Belgrade weekly Blic News, resigned on 4 June in protest against police harassment of the paper and a lengthy campaign against him by some members of the government. A week earlier, he and journalist Jovica Krtinic were prosecuted for an article that criticised the police enquiry into the murder of Belgrade police chief Bosko Buha.
Government communications chief Vladimir Beba Popovic sued the Belgrade weekly Vreme and journalist Milos Vasic on 26 June for a total of 30,000 euros in damages for libelling him and the communications department in articles on 17 and 23 April. Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic said lawsuits against the media by government officials were "personal" and nothing to do with government media policy. Popovic also sued the weekly Nin, the daily Vecernje novosti, Radio B92 and the weekly Blic News and the first hearings were held in a Belgrade court on 2 and 3 July.
Deputy prime minister Cedomir Jovanovic said on 27 June that the media were running a campaign against Popovic as a way of ducking responsibility for the climate that led to Djindjic’s murder.
The spokesman for the Voivodina parliament, Nenad Canak, accused the Belgrade weekly Vreme, the Radio B92 group and the Association of Independent Electronic Media on 2 July of conducting a witch-hunt against him, his Voivodina Social Democratic Party, and all the people of Voivodina.
The Serbian parliament voted on 15 July to confirm the appointment of three members of the Broadcasting Council - Nenad Cekic (president), Vladimir Cvetkovic and Goran Radenovic - whose nominations violated the broadcasting law. The first eight council members were elected on 11 April and the ninth on 24 April, all of them under the state of emergency.
Four members of the council, which began work on 4 June, are appointed by the Serbian and Voivodina parliaments, two by the universities and churches and two by NGOs and professional associations. The ninth member, representing Kosovo, is chosen by the eight others. The candidates’ names and biographies have to be made public at least 30 days before their election. But the Serbian parliament’s nomination of Cekic was only disclosed three days before the election and its nomination of Cvetkovic not until the day of election. The Kosovo representative, Goran Radenovic, also did not fulfil the requirement of living and working in Kosovo.
Snjezana Milivojevic, representative of the professional associations, and Vladimir Vodinelic (NGOs) resigned in protest against the irregularities. Immediately after the election, Cekic and Cvetkovic publicly accused Veran Matic, president of the Association of Independent Electronic Media and editor of Radio B92, of waging a witch-hunt against them and called for a legal and financial investigation of Radio B92’s affairs since 2000. Two anonymous complaints were filed against the radio’s managers for supposed irregularities when the station was privatised, but the privatisation office said there were none.
Former government communications chief Vladimir Beba Popovic sued the editor of the daily Balkan, Momcilo Petrovic, on 22 August for 7,500 euros in libel damages for an article in which the journalist had repeated charges by Ivo Pukanic, publisher of the weekly National, that someone should ask Popovic who bought him an apartment in Vienna and an armoured BMW car.
The firm Duvan refused without explanation to distribute the 4 September issue of Balkan. Editor Petrovic said this was because of an article noting that businessman Stanko Subotic, a co-owner of Duvan, was involved in international cigarette smuggling.
Police from the organised crime squad asked the daily paper Kurier on 11 September to provide details of documents and accounts by former secret police chief Radomir Markovic and former special forces commander Dusan Maricic Gumar that the paper published on 10 and 11 September. The request was part of the enquiry into the murders of former President Ivan Stambolic and Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. The journalists refused to hand over the material, which they said they got from the public prosecutor’s office.
Interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic’s lawyer, Aleksander Lojpur, filed a complaint on 6 November against three editors - Aleksandar Timotejev, of the privately-owned radio and TV station B92, Slavoljub Kacarevic, of the daily paper Glas Javnosti, and Djoko Kesic, of the daily Kurir - for "inventing and printing false accusations" about the minister and the construction firm Kolubara Mionica. Lojpur said he would also sue the independent radio station Radio B92 and the website b92.net.
The opposition party G17 Plus and the head of the government’s anti-corruption council, Verica Barac, were sued in the same case. The prosecuted media had repeated the party’s statements that the firm (in which the minister had shares) had doubled its bill for building a pipeline near Belgrade. Mihajlovic’s lawyer said the minister wanted to use his right of reply in the media concerned, as well as obligatory publication of the lawsuit’s outcome and symbolic damages of one euro.
A Belgrade court rejected on 4 December a suit by former government communications chief Vladimir Beba Popovic for 30,000 euros in damages against Slobodan Reljic, editor of the weekly paper Nin, which said in April Popovic had probably been sacked after US pressure because of his campaign against Radio B92 and its editor, Veran Matic. The paper later (26 June) printed a statement by US ambassador William Montgomery confirming the report. The judge noted that public figures must expect to be criticised by the media and that Popovic could have denied the accusations at a press conference.