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Closed Belgrade Paper 'Victimised'

Nacional editor says move against his newspaper reminds him of the old bad days.
By Boris Drenca

The closure of a high-circulation Belgrade daily and its publishing company has sparked allegations that members of the Serbian government are resorting to Milosevic-era tactics against the media.


Nacional's chief editor, Predrag Popovic, says that the paper was closed on the orders of senior figures seeking revenge for articles written against them.


The ministry of culture issued a temporary ban on Nacional on March 18, during the state of emergency imposed after the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic. It said the ban was imposed for "publishing a number of articles relating to the state of emergency and for questioning the reasons behind the state of emergency".


On April 1, the Belgrade city commercial court started liquidation proceedings against Nacional's publisher in Belgrade, Info Orfej. The court ruling cited a law that allows the government to close a firm when "the reasons for the company's activities no longer exist".


Despite an appeal, the company's equipment, including 118 computers, was seized on April 21, two days before the state of emergency ended. The liquidation procedures meant that another Orfej-owned title, the Ekskluziv magazine, also stopped publication.


Nacional is a sensationalist tabloid specialising in scandal and celebrity gossip, and has a circulation of 100,000. It has published articles attacking prominent figures across the political spectrum in Serbia. Many of its stories have proved to be unsubstantiated or false, and it is viewed with distaste by many Serbian journalists.


The government's allegations are serious. It says the paper has links to the Zemun gang, a mafia group accused of Djindjic's murder.


It also implies a connection between Nacional and Momcilo Mandic, a Bosnian Serb businessmen said to be a close associate of indicted Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. Mandic was arrested in Belgrade on April 13. The government says that he is linked to Orfej, a Bosnian publishing firm which is the parent company of Info Orfej in Belgrade. Orfej is based in Bijeljina in Republika Srpska, RS.


Culture minister Branislav Lecic said on March 20 that "there is a suspicion that associates or founders of the paper have links with the criminal clan". The day before, a senior policeman, Dragan Karleusa, said, "There are substantiated suspicions that members of the Zemun clan are founders or associates of these newspapers. The police will find out the truth."


But when IWPR contacted the ministry, Lecic would not comment on what evidence the government has collected on these allegations.


"Links to the Zemun and Bosnian lobby are matters for investigation, and we cannot discuss matters under investigation," said a ministry spokesperson.


Nor was the commercial court judge, Goran Kljajevic, available for comment, despite repeated phone calls from IWPR.


Nacional editor Predrag Popovic rejects the allegations that Nacional was linked to either the Zemun gang or Mandic, and says the action now being taken against it comes straight out of the Milosevic era.


"I was editor of Dnevni Telegraf under Slavko Curuvija (killed in 1999, allegedly on Milosevic's orders) when the Milosevic regime forced our closure. The government used a combination of economic and political pressures. They manipulated the courts. I see identical tactics being used now," he said.


He told IWPR that Nacional has had no contact with the Zemun gang, except for threats it received from a former member of the group. He points to numerous articles exposing the gang's activities as proof of his paper's impartiality. "We printed everything about everyone," he said.


He also notes that none of Nacional's journalists was arrested in the police round-up that followed Djindjic's killing. "If any journalists had been linked to the Zemun gang, they should have been arrested. It is strange that we are all free men," said Popovic.


According to Popovic, the accusations are a smokescreen for a vendetta waged by influential figures within the government after Nacional carried articles attacking them. He alleges that he received direct threats from Cedomir Jovanovic, a senior figure in the Democratic Party, and Goran Vesic, an influential government advisor.


IWPR attempted to talk to Jovanovic and Vesic, but they were unavailable for comment.


After its criticism of officials, Nacional began to run into difficulties. From March 2002, it began to receive anonymous threats, says Popovic. Despite increased circulation figures, companies such as Zastava began withdrawing their advertising in June 2002. Access to printing facilities was also limited, despite an increase in demand.


In an attempt to smooth relations with the government, Popovic says he met the late prime minister on September 22 last year, and told him about the threats. Djindjic's response was that "Cedomir Jovanovic and Goran Vesic are young and not used to the political pressures of being in office", according to Popovic.


He says he talked with Djindjic by phone five times after their meeting. But following the premier's death, elements within the government were able to make their move.


Jovica Petkovic, who owns Orfej in Bijeljina, denies the charges that his firm had links with Mandic. In March the Office of the High Representative, OHR, froze the assets of Mandic's companies.


So why, he asked, has OHR not acted against Orfej too, "It's logical that the High Representative would have frozen Orfej's accounts if we were linked to Mandic. I have myself met the man twice, but that's normal if you are a journalist working in RS."


OHR spokesman Oleg Milisic told IWPR, "As far as OHR is concerned there is no current investigation into Orfej."


Petkovic points to an inspection of Orfej conducted by RS financial police as further evidence of its probity. The police ran the check in June 2002 at the request of their colleagues in Serbia who were inspecting the sister firm in Belgrade.


Milorad Antonic, owner of Info Orfej in Belgrade, said the check showed there was no connection to Mandic, "We have been subjected to extensive financial checks by both the financial police and the tax police. We had nothing to hide, and we got a clean bill of health."


IWPR has obtained copies of Belgrade tax police reports which cover audits conducted on Info Orfej from June to December 2002 and in March and April this year. "All financial records matched tax returns and distribution costs," the report said.


The closure of Nacional has caused some unease among Belgrade journalists. Many are concerned that officials have used the state of emergency to settle personal scores, and that media independence is under threat.


"If no evidence is produced by the government, then this case demands serious investigation," said Dejan Anastasijevic, a veteran correspondent for Vreme and Time magazine. "The government cannot simply move from temporarily banning one publication to liquidating an entire company. The events of the last few months have shown that our society should be based on the rule of law."


TV B92 news editor Antigona Andonov told IWPR that "everything connected with Nacional happened very fast, as if somebody could barely wait to ban it".


But the condemnation has been muted, not least because of the general consensus among supporters of the government both at home and abroad that the clampdown on mafia groups justifies a certain amount of tough measures.


In addition, Nacional's reputation for printing scandal has won it few friends. In a TV interview, Milica Lucic-Cavic, who heads the Independent Association of Journalists, said the paper sometimes failed to check stories because it was trying to be a serious daily and a tabloid at the same time.


Nacional has been taken to court and forced to publish apologies on a number of occasions. One case, in which it wrongly reported that a Serbian student was murdered in Kosovo, illustrates why international media watchdog organisations have so far proved reluctant to investigate the paper's claim that it is being victimised.


"Nacional published a wholly unsubstantiated article claiming that a Novi Sad student attending our summer courses in Pristina was knifed to death by Albanian extremists. The student had in fact died of a heart attack," says Yannick du Pont, chairman of the Academic Training Association based in Amsterdam.


"We received death threats and the parents of the student were extremely upset. Rumours still circulate in Novi Sad, and this report damaged relations between the ethnic groups."


However, the government's allegations against Nacional are not about the quality of its reporting. Although a culture ministry spokesperson distanced the government from the court order against Info Orfej, the rapid shift from a temporary ban issued under a state of emergency to the closure of an entire publishing firm is also troubling.


It is unclear whether details of the two sets of allegations will be made public, and if so when. But in the current environment, where allegations about mafia links and involvement in Djindjic's murder are flying around Belgrade without much in the way of substantiation, the Nacional case looks worth watching closely.


Vesna Bjekic is IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade. Boris Drenca is a regular IWPR contributor in Serbia. Hugh Griffiths is freelance journalist working in Belgrade.


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