Clampdown In Southern Serbia

Journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians in southern Serbia have been jailed or mobilised during NATO's bombing campaign - and the repression seems likely to continue.

Clampdown In Southern Serbia

Journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians in southern Serbia have been jailed or mobilised during NATO's bombing campaign - and the repression seems likely to continue.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Even before NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, Leskovac and Vranje, two towns in southern Serbia, were notorious for the way in which the authorities stamped out dissent.

In the wake of the bombing campaign large numbers of men were mobilised and all potential opposition silenced--and it will take more than the end of the war for a more open environment to prevail.

Vranje and Leskovac are two of the poorest towns in Serbia--the average salary before the war was a meagre 50 German Marks ($27) a month--and state television has always been the principal, if not the only, medium. The circulation of independent newspapers, when available, has been minimal.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Slobodan Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party has won every election since 1990. Moreover, anybody daring to oppose the local authorities has risked interrogation by the secret police, dismissal from employment and even incarceration.

In silencing opposition, the authorities have made the most of the peace-time law on public information as well as extraordinary war-time decrees of the Serbian government.

The most prominent victims of the clamp-down have been Dobrosav Nesic, chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in Leskovac, and Vojkan Ristic, a long-time journalist of the former independent weekly Nasa Borba, and after it was closed, Vranje correspondent of the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti.

Dobrosav Nesic was released from Leskovac prison on June 7 after serving a one-month sentence that was imposed on him on January 21 in accordance with the law on public information. The editor of an independent monthly magazine called The Rights of Man, Nesic had published a text under the headline "To Write Like All Other Normal People" in which he was critical of the way in which the local media in Leskovac operated. In addition to Nesic's 30-day sentence, the Committee for Human Rights, the magazine's publisher, was fined 17,000 German Marks ($9,140).

On his release, Nesic said: "Even in the prison, I continued to speak out against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic who is destroying the future of the entire people. They put me into solitary confinement and forced me to do the most difficult jobs.

"Once they beat me up. I received blows to the stomach and head, and spat blood. I told them that they had taken away my freedom, but not my dignity. I won over to my views many inmates who live in cruel conditions and who are treated in a bestial manner."

Independent observers view the Committee for Human Rights' fine and Nesic's prison term as punishment for their attempts to organise an Albanian-Serbian dialogue on Kosovo. The authorities interpreted such a dialogue as a "betrayal of national interests".

In the wake of the fine and the imprisonment, The Rights of Man has ceased publication. Nevertheless, Nesic says that he is now preparing a new issue "in order to inform the citizens in the south of Serbia about what the authorities are doing in their name and the tragic consequences that this entails."

The independent press in Vranje disappeared with the first NATO bombs. All male members in the newsroom of the weekly Novine Vranjske were immediately drafted and, despite the peace agreement, are yet to be demobilised. As a result, the paper has not been published for the past three months.

The Vranje journalist, Vojkan Ristic, spent the month to May 27 in Vranje prison. His offence, which merited a custodial sentence, was failing to change the place of residence to correspond with the new one in his identity card--for six days. In sentencing Ristic, the municipal magistrate said that, in addition to the police report and war-time legislation, he had taken into consideration "the interests of the security of the country".

Independent observers suspect that the real reason for Ristic's imprisonment is his year-long investigation into and reporting of the corrupt practices of the local branch of the ruling Socialist Party, headed by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Dragomir Tomic.

The most avid readers of his articles, it seems, were the secret policemen who interrogated him in February for 15 hours and "gently" advised him to "stop writing about Tomic". The prison term was presumably punishment for not heeding the advice. Upon his release, Vojkan Ristic refused to talk about his treatment in prison, but vowed to continue his investigative reporting as soon as the war-time legislation curtailing media freedom was lifted.

Independent media in southern Serbia have not been the only casualties of the NATO bombing campaign. In addition to hassling and drafting journalists, the authorities have systematically mobilised leading members of opposition parties, threatening them that they would be sent to the front.

Members of the Democratic Party have had most difficulties, especially after the regime media accused their leader Zoran Djindjic of being "a traitor and a foreign mercenary". A senior member of the party's executive committee in Leskovac, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he has had been receiving threatening phone calls and had been insulted by Socialist Party activists in the street.

"When the war started, the regime decided to move against us. The director of the institution where I work, who is in the top leadership of the Socialist Party, gave me my notice and left me without any means to make a living. "Similar things have happened to other opposition activists and to members of our families. We are living in fear from yet more reprisals," he said..

At the end of May on a few occasions several dozen protestors gathered to demonstrate against the numbers of mobilised men of all ages from Leskovac and the surrounding area. The police broke up the demonstrations using batons and detained several of the protestors to try to find out who the organisers were.

The demonstrators believe that the leading Socialist Party politician from this region, Zivojin Stefanovic, had ordered mobilisation of as many as 50,000 people from Leskovac and the surrounding area in the hope that he would be rewarded with the post of Yugoslav ambassador to Bulgaria.

Stefanovic now regularly surrounds himself with bodyguards from the debt-collection agency that belongs to the notorious war crimes suspect and gangster Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznatovic. Even if the war is over, the structures of power within Serbia remain in place.

The author is an independent journalist from southern Serbia whose identity has been withheld.

Serbia, Kosovo
Support our journalists