Bittersweet Freedom

My release from prison was wonderful, but I remain troubled by my role in the dispute between the old regime and the independent press.

Bittersweet Freedom

My release from prison was wonderful, but I remain troubled by my role in the dispute between the old regime and the independent press.

I should be happy, now that I'm suddenly free after five months in a military jail in Nis. But despite my liberty, a bitterness remains.

I am only a local journalist from Kraljevo, in southern Serbia. Under the Milosevic regime, I was sentenced this summer to seven years' imprisonment for "espionage and spreading false information".

The charge resulted from a series of stories I wrote on atrocities by individual members of the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo and other sensitive issues, which were published on the internet by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

The sentence was a very heavy burden, made worse by my health problems and obvious anxieties over my family.

When Slobodan Milosevic fell, I listened to events on the radio, along with many of my fellow inmates, who happened to be Albanians. They knew why I was in jail, and we got along quite well. Rumours quickly started that I would soon be pardoned by President Vojislav Kostunica. Radio reports mentioned the possibility constantly.

I had mixed feelings. Naturally, I wanted my freedom at all costs. But I preferred to see my sentence lifted through the courts, rather than an act of mercy, which would forever leave a suspicion that I am guilty.

Then, on Tuesday, October 10, exactly at noon, as in a beautiful fairy tale, I heard a broadcast on Radio Index that the Supreme Military Court had accepted my lawyer's appeal, and had annulled the original verdict due to "procedural irregularities" in the investigations. It meant that a retrial is possible, but also that I would be released that day.

Once again, I am a free man, able to recover my health, join in the excitement of the new Serbia, and most of all see my family again.

The support I received from my family, my friends and my professional colleagues, in Serbia and internationally, was simply incredible. Media, diplomats, press freedom and human rights groups mobilised around the world on my behalf, and in my prison cell this meant so much to me. I will always be deeply grateful.

Immediately following my release, I became subject of great interest to my colleagues around the world. I gave endless interviews to local and international media.

Almost everyone told me I had become a hero and a symbol of the struggle for free expression in Serbia. I was praised as a brave man and journalist whose case had contributed to the mobilisation of the Serbian electorate. It was even said that I had served to deliver a few more percentage points to the vote for the democratic opposition, thus bringing about a change of regime.

But I don't feel like a hero at all. Nor do I consider myself particularly brave. To put it simply, I just did my job and shared the information I collected with my readers. I obviously came too close to the invisible line set for journalists by the previous regime.

The regime's reaction following my arrest on May 8 this year was so strong that no media in Serbia republished my stories, or mentioned anything about their contents. The authorities set me up as an example, as a warning, and it worked.

During my sleepless nights in a prison cell, I asked myself many times whether I had indeed made a mistake, needlessly exposing myself and my family.

Should I have waited for "a better time" to speak on the "hot issues" of the Yugoslav reality? Did I really have to be, in the humorous words of one of our colleagues, "the cockerel who crowed too early"? Many times I did repent and regret that I had not been more careful.

But how could I have been a hypocrite? The stories that I wrote were only based on the information known by many people in my hometown of Kraljevo. As a professional journalist, I felt compelled to do my job.

So I stand by my stories, no matter how uncomfortable it was for the people of Serbia. My first priority is to vindicate myself and my stories, to prove beyond doubt that I wrote nothing but the truth.

Yet to those colleagues who ask whether I will continue writing about the issues which put me in prison, I say: It's not just up to me.

This is not because I lack courage, but because I do not believe I should remain the only one in the new democratic Serbia who dares to write about atrocities, war crimes and other sensitive themes. I will again take up my place within my profession, but I will do so like every other journalist: story-by-story, not as a self-proclaimed freedom fighter, but as a reporter, each fact and each text at a time, to the best of my abilities and my conscience.

I do believe that the actions of Serbian citizens in the wars on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, will one day lead to public trials, within Serbia or at The Hague tribunal. The whole point of my articles, in fact, is that no crimes were committed by the Serbian nation or the Yugoslav Army as a whole, but by individuals through individual acts.

Ultimately, I hope this will also involve a regional process of truth and reconciliation, through which people from all territories of the former Yugoslavia will reflect on the wars of the past decade and be brave enough to confess their mistakes, misconceptions, and unlawful actions.

Until then, when my "case" is mentioned, people won't point to what I wrote about. Instead, my imprisonment will be seen only as part of the struggle for free expression under the old regime - and my release, as proof of the success of the new.

We shall celebrate our fresh victory for a long time to come. But in doing so, we may remain quiet about the very things we need to discuss. And in this silence, we may show that the departing regime was not the sole problem of citizens of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

Miroslav Filipovic is a journalist from Kraljevo and regular contributor to IWPR. His IWPR articles, and further information about his case, can be found on-line at the Filipovic File.

Balkans, Serbia, Kosovo
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