Breaking the Silence

The verdict against Filipovic has criminalised the truth. But the case has also helped force open the issue of war crimes in Serbia, and free speech, in the end, never loses.

Breaking the Silence

The verdict against Filipovic has criminalised the truth. But the case has also helped force open the issue of war crimes in Serbia, and free speech, in the end, never loses.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

It is a vengeful and cowardly verdict. With a sentence of seven years' imprisonment for a Serbian journalist, the Belgrade authorities have officially criminalised the truth.

 

Miroslav Filipovic becomes the first known journalist convicted as a spy for reporting over the Internet, and with such a draconian sentence his family, friends and professional colleagues and admirers are devastated. In the context of the massive on-going attacks on all sectors of civil society within Serbia, the verdict was matched with an explicit warning against other local journalists that they too can expect the Filipovic treatment.

 

Riven with contradictions, the judgement is nothing more than shooting the messenger. According to the judge himself, the information in most of Filipovic's articles was "correct and true". There was no effort to suggest that Filipovic published secret or purloined documents or obtained information unlawfully or even furtively.

 

Filipovic was found guilty of "spreading false information", but intriguingly the case may have at least in part served to vindicate the accuracy of some of his reporting on Kosovo, as well as on military mobilisation over Montenegro.

 

Yet the main penalty was for "espionage". Filipovic's real crime was to send (or even supposedly to intend to send) information on military mobilisations to foreign organisations, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting as well as Agence France-Presse. There was no argument that these are espionage organisations - being foreign is enough.

 

This is a distinction that cannot hold: in the world of the Internet, local media have equal ability to disseminate reports across the globe and the position of IWPR as a foreign organisation becomes meaningless. The judge saw no contradiction in condemning Filipovic for his presumed aim, through his reporting to international organisations, of creating "dissatisfaction" among the local population.

 

This only recognises the power of the new electronic samizdat, and the reality that free speech is truly indivisible. Local independent media - all of whom depend on international connections and support - have been put on direct notice, and the Serbian media community faces a difficult dilemma.

 

So far, none of Filipovic's key articles have appeared locally, and press stories often avoid even mentioning his Internet reporting. Would it not be more effective to pursue true solidarity with Filipovic - in the first place by republishing his key texts - than to exercise further caution and self-censorship? The same question can also be put to the Serbian opposition. The only sure way to combat attacks on free speech is more free speech.

 

This strategy question goes to the core issues of the case: war and war crimes. Rather than attack a journalist, the authorities would do far more to uphold the dignity and laws of Serbia by further and openly investigating the allegations in Filipovic's reporting of atrocities against infant Yugoslav citizens in Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign.

 

These are the taboos in Serbia, and the silence so professionally broken by Filipovic. One can say almost anything about Milosevic himself, but touching on the real issues that sustain the regime is strictly out of bounds. As with Zeljko Kopanja, whose legs were blown off by a car bomb in Banja Luka last year after he reported on atrocities by Bosnian Serbs, Filipovic has shown the extraordinary penalty meted out to those who investigate war crimes.

 

Serbia thus seems bent on turning only further from the world - and ensuring that its citizens, too, are equally cut off. In the days before the trial, the authorities refused to accept a meeting with the presidency of the European Union in Belgrade, at which a demarche on the case was to be presented.

 

For several weeks, the foreign ministry has rejected the efforts of former Finish President Martti Ahtisaari - the man who negotiated the end of the bombing campaign - to serve as an intermediary in the case. Freimut Duve, the media representative for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe who has also raised the case, has been accused of CIA-sponsored "media aggression."

 

Yet the strategy, in time, will fail. Free speech never loses. A low-key and in fact loyal Serbian professional has overnight become an international symbol for courage and honesty - and a fresh campaigning point for diplomats and human rights activities. Every single day Filipovic remains in jail will present glaring proof of the authorities' fear of their own people - not Croat or Muslim or Albanian but Serb.

 

More important still, Filipovic from his cell stands as a constant reminder that the silence has been broken - and once disturbed, cannot be restored.

 

Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.

Serbia, Kosovo
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