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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Serbia and Montenegro

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Serbia and Montenegro, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566b7e.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Serbia's ruling reformist coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, (DOS), struggled to come to terms with the legacy of corruption and extreme nationalism left by a decade of rule under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Political division in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, powerful organized crime groups, and political apathy kept the conflict-ridden DOS coalition on the brink of collapse after the assassination of the prime minister in March.

In February, Serbian officials implemented an agreement made with Montenegrin officials transforming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into a loose union called Serbia and Montenegro, with the southern province of Kosovo remaining under temporary U.N. administration.

On March 12, a sniper assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic while he was stepping out of his car in front of a government building in the capital, Belgrade. Parliament Speaker Natasa Micic became acting head of the government the same day and immediately imposed a state of emergency authorizing the Culture and Public Information Ministry to restrict media reporting on the situation. A week later, Parliament approved Djindjic ally Zoran Zivkovic as the new prime minister.

During the 42-day state of emergency, government officials cracked down on the former special operations officers and members of the powerful Zemun mafia clan who were formally charged with Djindjic's murder. Culture and Public Information Minister Branilsav Lecic used his broad authority to fine and close media outlets that violated vaguely defined media restrictions in their reporting on the assassination and the state of emergency.

Oversight of the media became increasingly politicized in March, when the Serbian government reappointed former Djindjic propagandist Vladimir "Beba" Popovic to head its Communications Bureau. Popovic relied on threats and politicized lawsuits to intimidate and silence journalists who criticized government policies.

Gordana Susa, the host and editor-in-chief of the popular current affairs television talk show "Press Pretres" (Discussing the Press), said Popovic placed a threatening call to her on the evening of April 18, right after she questioned Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic during an interview about Popovic's reappointment to the Communications Bureau. Popovic had been ousted from the post in October 2002 following pressure from U.S. diplomats, who were not pleased with his aggressive attempts to control how independent journalists reported on the prime minister. (Popovic resigned from the Communications Bureau in July 2003 after pressure, again from Western diplomats.)

Zeljko Cvijanovic, editor-in-chief of the independent Belgrade daily Blic News, resigned from his post in June following a campaign of harassment and intimidation by police and government officials – including Popovic – in retaliation for his reporting on organized crime and government scandals. Throughout 2003, the independent Belgrade radio station B92 remained an outspoken critic of attempts by the government and nationalist politicians to silence independent journalists who criticized government policies.

During the state of emergency, the government rushed several long-delayed amendments to media-related laws through Parliament in what was seen as an effort to avoid public scrutiny and retain political influence over the media.

In March, Parliament passed amendments to the Broadcasting Law, creating a Broadcasting Agency to regulate the distribution of national broadcast frequencies. A scandal erupted in April, when Parliament began selecting candidates for the nine-member supervisory Broadcast Agency Council. According to the Belgrade-based Association of Independent Electronic Media and the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, three of the government's nominees were inappropriately appointed to the council in violation of various requirements and nomination procedures. Two council members who represented nongovernmental organizations and media associations resigned in protest.

In April, Parliament passed a new draft of the Public Information Law broadening the ability of courts to close media outlets for using vaguely defined "hate speech" and weakening protection for the identity of journalistic sources.

The overall lack of progress in reforming the regulation of broadcast media worked in favor of the government because it allowed private, pro-government television stations like Pink TV and BK TV to retain their national broadcasting licenses. This limited pluralism in the news and inhibited the broader process of democratization.

While the DOS coalition has been far less heavy-handed with the press than former Yugoslav President Milosevic, politicians still believe that they have a right to influence and guide editorial polices of independent outlets. Journalists covering politically sensitive issues remain vulnerable to politically motivated civil and criminal lawsuits, intimidating police interviews, and threatening calls from politicians, businessmen, and clergy because the government has failed to reprimand or prosecute those responsible for harassment.

In some cases, politicians filed lawsuits against journalists. Former Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic filed a criminal libel lawsuit against Milan Colic, a translator for the independent Belgrade daily Danas, because of an October 2001 article that linked Cosic to war crimes committed by the Yugoslav People's Army when he was head of state. Colic is currently living in the Czech Republic, but in October 2003, a court in the northern city of Novi Sad tried him in absentia and sentenced him to three months in prison.

This impunity was compounded by the fact that at year's end, police and prosecutors had made no progress in solving the June 2001 murder of Milan Pantic, a crime reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti, and the April 1999 assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Dnevni Telegraf. The public prosecutor responsible for the stalled investigation into Curuvija's murder, Sinisa Simic, was temporarily suspended from his duties in March after the police arrested Deputy Public Prosecutor Milan Sarajlic for being on the payroll of the notorious Zemun mafia gang and for obstructing a number of murder inquiries on their behalf.

Constant infighting in the DOS coalition, as well as its inability to reduce widespread poverty, led to significant political apathy, resulting in three presidential elections in just over a year that were deemed invalid because voter turnout rates were under 50 percent. In November – three years after Milosevic's removal from power – the coalition dissolved itself and set parliamentary elections for December, which saw the biggest share of the vote go to the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by an indicted war criminal. In January 2004, a group of pro-democracy parties were struggling to form a coalition government to prevent the SRS from taking power.

In Montenegro, an ongoing debate about the prospect of independence from Serbia and allegations of widespread government corruption dominated the media during 2003. Despite progress in the reform of media legislation, access to basic government information remained difficult, and politicized oversight of the media continued to favor state-run outlets and inhibit independent reporting.

In April, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) charged a journalist for the first time in its history. The ICTY charged Dusan Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Dan, based in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, with contempt of court after he published the identity of a protected witness in the Milosevic trial. The witness received threatening phone calls after Dan revealed the witness's identity. An initial hearing in the case was held in December. If convicted, Jovanovic faces up to seven years in jail and/or a fine of up to US$106,000. Some press freedom groups have argued that Jovanovic should only face financial penalties, and not jail time, for the charge.

In Kosovo, political tensions remained high due to an international crackdown on ethnic Albanian extremists and renewed negotiations with Serbian authorities to determine the final political status of the politically polarized and crime-ridden province. Harassment, political interference, and a lack of access to basic government information continued to plague journalists, who have responded by establishing the Association of Professional Journalists of Kosova and the Association of Independent Media of Kosova to defend their rights.

In July, NATO peacekeeping forces announced that an inquiry was unable to determine whether the Macedonian army or ethnic Albanian rebels were responsible for the March 2001 death of Associated Press Television News journalist Kerem Lawton. Lawton died from shrapnel wounds when a mortar shell struck his car in the village of Krivenik in southern Kosovo.

That same month, the U.N. Interim Administration in Kosovo adopted a new Interim Criminal Code, which retained criminal defamation as an offense punishable by up to one year in prison.


2003 Documented Cases – Serbia and Montenegro

MARCH 3, 2003

Vukasin Obradovic, Novine Vranjske
Goran Antic, Novine Vranjske
THREATENED, LEGAL ACTION

Novine Vranjske
THREATENED

Obradovic, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Vranje-based weekly Novine Vranjske, and Antic, a reporter with the publication, were threatened in retaliation for reporting allegations of sexual abuse made against Serbian Orthodox Bishop Pahomije. The bishop's secular name is Tomislav Gacic.

In early January, Novine Vranjske began publishing a series of articles about five boys from the southern city of Vranjske who have accused Bishop Pahomije of sexual abuse over a period of several years and are pressing criminal charges against him. Bishop Pahomije is the leader of the local Serbian Orthodox Diocese in Vranjske. He has claimed that the charges are false and says they are part of an ethnic Albanian "plot" against him. He has also accused the paper of cooperating with ethnic Albanians.

Lawyers representing Bishop Pahomije filed criminal libel charges against Obradovic and Antic on February 13, the Belgrade daily Politika reported. According to Obradovic, a court hearing was scheduled for March 23.

Obradovic told CPJ on March 4 that he began receiving anonymous threats by telephone after Antic's articles about the bishop's case appeared in Novine Vranjske. He said that he initially chose not to report the threats to the police because such harassment is relatively common in Serbia. But the threats became more serious. On March 3, an anonymous letter arrived at the Novine Vranjske office threatening to kill Obradovic, his family, Antic, and the newspaper's staff in retaliation for the publication's coverage of the case.

CPJ has obtained a copy of the anonymous letter. It is addressed to Novine Vranjske's staff and Obradovic and signed by two unknown organizations, the Serbian Liberation Movement and the Serbian Liberation Front. The letter accuses Obradovic of being a "traitor" and a "homosexual" and says that the editor-in-chief and his family "are sentenced to death," that "the office of Novine Vranjske will be demolished and burnt down," and that he "will be liquidated and cannot escape." The letter also states that Obradovic is being paid by ethnic Albanian separatists to discredit the Serbian Orthodox Church and warns him to stop reporting on the allegations of sexual abuse made against Bishop Pahomije.

Obradovic told CPJ that the letter is "a warning to me, my family, my staff, as well as to the five boys and their families, to withdraw the charges of sexual abuse against Bishop Pahomije or face serious consequences." Obradovic is taking the death threat seriously and expressed "deep concern" about the safety of his family. The Serbian Orthodox Church has not made a formal statement or condemned the threatening letter, Obradovic said.

Church officials at both the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy in Vranjske and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchy in Belgrade refused to comment on the criminal libel charges against Obradovic and Antic, or on the death threats against Antic, Obradovic, his family, and Novine Vranjske staff.

MARCH 12, 2003

All media
LEGAL ACTION

Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and then acting president of Serbia, declared a state of emergency after Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was fatally shot by a sniper in the center of Serbia's capital, Belgrade, placing restrictions on the media.

"I am asking the Army of Serbia and Montenegro, security forces, the judiciary, all media and political parties to unite around these goals [to arrest the assassins]," Micic said in a statement, according to Radio Belgrade. "These measures will remain in force ... until the assassins have been arrested."

Article 9 of Micic's executive order stated that, "Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies." The order required the Ministry of Culture to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but did not specify sanctions for outlets that violated Article 9.

Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets to provide recommendations on news reporting during the state of emergency, the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) reported.

Korac asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences and requested that the media refrain from reporting on "the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests," according to ANEM.

CPJ sources in Belgrade said the media restrictions were not as broad as they sounded and appeared aimed at journalists and media outlets linked to Djindjic's alleged assassins – former special operations commander Milorad Lukovic and members of the powerful Zemun mafia clan.

The state of emergency was lifted on April 22.

MARCH 16, 2003

Identitet
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED

The Ministry of Culture and Information closed the Belgrade weekly Identitet and fined its senior staff. Police and government officials arrived at the magazine's office in the evening and sealed the premises to prevent the publication of the March 18 edition, according to local press reports. The ministry fined the magazine's publisher 500,000 dinars (US$8,300), while the director, editor-in-chief, and deputy editor were each fined 100,000 dinars (US$1,600).

Government officials believe that the magazine is linked to the alleged assassins of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was killed on March 12, and has been inciting violence. Authorities pointed to the magazine's cover story that ran the day before Djindjic was murdered with the headline: "Djindjic a Target for Freelance Assassin – Murder Ordered by Serbs from the Hague."

On March 12, Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and then acting president of Serbia, had declared a state of emergency after a sniper fatally shot Djindjic in the center of Belgrade. Article 9 of Micic's executive order, which established the state of emergency, stated that, "Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies." The order required the Ministry of Culture and Public Information to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but did not specify sanctions for media outlets that violated Article 9.

According to local press reports, Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and several other senior government officials met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets on the evening of March 12 to provide recommendations on how news should be reported during the state of emergency. The authorities asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences. The government also requested that the media refrain from reporting on "the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests," said the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media.

Minister of Culture and Public Information Branislav Lecic and several senior officials held a second meeting with editors on March 17 to inform them that the government had tolerated a number of violations of the media restrictions but would stand for no more, according to local press reports. The government also announced that it would establish a special switchboard for editors to call and check the accuracy of information prior to publication or broadcast.

That same day, the government published an edition of the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia containing an executive decree signed by Micic outlining sanctions for media outlets that violated state-of-emergency regulations, said local press reports. Media companies that violated the regulations faced temporary closure and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 dinars (US$830 to US$8,300), and individuals could be fined from 10,000 to 100,000 dinars (US$160 to US$1,600). There was no procedure to appeal decisions or sanctions, Belgrade's independent Radio B92 reported. The state of emergency was lifted on April 22.

MARCH 17, 2003

RTV Mars
LEGAL ACTION

The Ministry of Culture and Information shuttered the independent television station RTV Mars, which is based in the central Serbian city of Valjevo, for broadcasting films during the three-day mourning period following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was killed on March 12. The station was fined 500,000 dinars (US$8,300), and the station's director was fined 100,000 dinars (US$1,600).

On March 12, Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and then acting president of Serbia, had declared a state of emergency after a sniper fatally shot Djindjic in the center of Belgrade. Article 9 of Micic's executive order, which established the state of emergency, stated that, "Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies." The order required the Ministry of Culture and Public Information to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but did not specify sanctions for media outlets that violated Article 9.

According to local press reports, Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and several other senior government officials met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets on the evening of March 12 to provide recommendations on how news should be reported during the state of emergency. The authorities asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences. The government also requested that the media refrain from reporting on "the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests," said the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media.

Minister of Culture and Public Information Branislav Lecic and several senior officials held a second meeting with editors on March 17 to inform them that the government had tolerated a number of violations of the media restrictions but would stand for no more, according to local press reports. The government also announced that it would establish a special switchboard for editors to call and check the accuracy of information prior to publication or broadcast.

That same day, the government published an edition of the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia containing an executive decree signed by Micic outlining sanctions for media outlets that violated state-of-emergency regulations, said local press reports. Media companies that violated the regulations faced temporary closure and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 dinars (US$830 to US$8,300), and individuals could be fined from 10,000 to 100,000 dinars (US$160 to US$1,600). There was no procedure to appeal decisions or sanctions, Belgrade's independent Radio B92 reported. The state of emergency was lifted on April 22.

MARCH 18, 2003

Dan
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED

The Ministry of Information and Culture banned the distribution of Dan, a daily based in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, and fined its distributor 200,000 dinars (US$3,200) and its director 30,000 dinars (US$500) because the March 17 edition questioned the government's decision to declare a state of emergency.

On March 12, Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and then acting president of Serbia, had declared a state of emergency after a sniper fatally shot Djindjic in the center of Belgrade. Article 9 of Micic's executive order, which established the state of emergency, stated that, "Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies." The order required the Ministry of Culture and Public Information to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but did not specify sanctions for media outlets that violated Article 9.

According to local press reports, Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and several other senior government officials met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets on the evening of March 12 to provide recommendations on how news should be reported during the state of emergency. The authorities asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences. The government also requested that the media refrain from reporting on "the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests," said the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media.

Minister of Culture and Public Information Branislav Lecic and several senior officials held a second meeting with editors on March 17 to inform them that the government had tolerated a number of violations of the media restrictions but would stand for no more, according to local press reports. The government also announced that it would establish a special switchboard for editors to call and check the accuracy of information prior to publication or broadcast.

That same day, the government published an edition of the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia containing an executive decree signed by Micic outlining sanctions for media outlets that violated state-of-emergency regulations, said local press reports. Media companies that violated the regulations faced temporary closure and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 dinars (US$830 to US$8,300), and individuals could be fined from 10,000 to 100,000 dinars (US$160 to US$1,600). There was no procedure to appeal decisions or sanctions, Belgrade's independent Radio B92 reported. The state of emergency was lifted on April 22.

Nacional
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED

The Ministry of Culture and Information banned the printing and distribution of the Belgrade daily Nacional for publishing "several articles on the reasons for the introduction of a state of emergency and the implementation of special measures" and, officials claim, because the paper is linked to some of the alleged assassins of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was killed on March 12. The ministry also fined Nacional's publisher 500,000 dinars (US$8,300) and its director and editor-in-chief 100,000 dinars (US$1,600) each.

On March 12, Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and then acting president of Serbia, had declared a state of emergency after a sniper fatally shot Djindjic in the center of Belgrade. Article 9 of Micic's executive order, which established the state of emergency, stated that, "Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies." The order required the Ministry of Culture and Public Information to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but did not specify sanctions for media outlets that violated Article 9.

According to local press reports, Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and several other senior government officials met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets on the evening of March 12 to provide recommendations on how news should be reported during the state of emergency. The authorities asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences. The government also requested that the media refrain from reporting on "the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests," said the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media.

Minister of Culture and Public Information Branislav Lecic and several senior officials held a second meeting with editors on March 17 to inform them that the government had tolerated a number of violations of the media restrictions but would stand for no more, according to local press reports. The government also announced that it would establish a special switchboard for editors to call and check the accuracy of information prior to publication or broadcast.

That same day, the government published an edition of the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia containing an executive decree signed by Micic outlining sanctions for media outlets that violated state-of-emergency regulations, said local press reports. Media companies that violated the regulations faced temporary closure and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 dinars (US$830 to US$8,300), and individuals could be fined from 10,000 to 100,000 dinars (US$160 to US$1,600). There was no procedure to appeal decisions or sanctions, Belgrade's independent Radio B92 reported. The state of emergency was lifted on April 22.

Vecernje Novosti
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED

The Ministry of Information and Culture banned distribution of that day's edition of the independent Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti for publishing an article titled "Small Village, Big Rat," which praised one of the individuals arrested for alleged involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was killed on March 12.

On March 12, Natasa Micic, president of the Serbian National Assembly and then acting president of Serbia, had declared a state of emergency after a sniper fatally shot Djindjic in the center of Belgrade. Article 9 of Micic's executive order, which established the state of emergency, stated that, "Public information, distribution of press and other information about the reasons for the declaration of the state of emergency is prohibited, excluding carrying the official statements of competent government agencies." The order required the Ministry of Culture and Public Information to enforce the media restrictions in cooperation with the Interior Ministry but did not specify sanctions for media outlets that violated Article 9.

According to local press reports, Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and several other senior government officials met with the editors-in-chief of Belgrade-based media outlets on the evening of March 12 to provide recommendations on how news should be reported during the state of emergency. The authorities asked editors to report only on official announcements from government agencies, representatives of political parties, or press conferences. The government also requested that the media refrain from reporting on "the reactions of those who will be arrested, their lawyers, and analysts who could complicate the arrests," said the Belgrade-based Association for Independent Electronic Media.

Minister of Culture and Public Information Branislav Lecic and several senior officials held a second meeting with editors on March 17 to inform them that the government had tolerated a number of violations of the media restrictions but would stand for no more, according to local press reports. The government also announced that it would establish a special switchboard for editors to call and check the accuracy of information prior to publication or broadcast.

That same day, the government published an edition of the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia containing an executive decree signed by Micic outlining sanctions for media outlets that violated state-of-emergency regulations, said local press reports. Media companies that violated the regulations faced temporary closure and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 dinars (US$830 to US$8,300), and individuals could be fined from 10,000 to 100,000 dinars (US$160 to US$1,600). There was no procedure to appeal decisions or sanctions, Belgrade's independent Radio B92 reported. The state of emergency was lifted on April 22.

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