Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: The Mafia and the Press

Resisting underworld pressure on media in southeast Europe
By Dragana Nikolic

A Serbian journalist who was made redundant for publishing an article exposing ties between the Belgrade mafia and the previous government recently had a sudden lucky break.

After months of unemployment, there was at long last the prospect of work: a rich Arab oil dealer proposed to start a newspaper and give him a job.

When the journalist tried to check the identity of this investor, he found the Arab oil dealer was listed on a website as the member of company that belonged to a well-known former Serbian mafia gangster, who had in the meantime legalised his business and reinvented himself as a cigarette manufacturer.

This example shows how mafia encroachment on the media in south-east Europe is often difficult to spot in the first place, let alone to curb.

War profiteers, smugglers and political leaders with dubious pasts are all in the process of legalising businesses in the Balkans – if they have not done so already. There is no better way of buying respectability and influence than through the media.

The lack of transparency about ownership in the region means the real owners of media outlets are often unknown. Nowadays in the Balkans, there are a host of TV and local radio stations and newspapers that all started with illegal proceeds.

The fact that some have now established themselves as “respectable” media bodies should not deter us from asking whether we can really trust them.

Recently, the Belgrade media reported that the owner of TV Jesenjin - a station which is famous in Serbia because its female news readers take their clothes off while reading out the news - was caught handling illegally-trafficked cigarettes that were intended for sale on the streets. Can we imagine this media outlet ever seriously covering a police investigation on tobacco smuggling?

Who owns the media in the Balkans is a big question. The only current major investigation into this is being coordinated by the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia. But this a general probe into the state of affairs throughout the region. What we need is a detailed probe into the media in each country.

We also need a commission in each country that would investigate ownership and prevent people from establishing a media monopoly.

The independent media in south-east Europe have played an important role in the past few years in exposing the structure of organised crime and government corruption in the region.

But journalists investigating organised crime face enormous personal risks. If they are not murdered, they may be beaten up or their families threatened. They are often unable to obtain protection from either police or judiciary.

IWPR recently reported on the pressures faced by the press in Romania whose EU membership application has been brought into the question after series of attacks on reporters investigating links between politics and corruption.

But the problem is not limited to Romania. “We know where you son is and who is taking him to school,” were the chilling words one IWPR journalist in the region heard over the telephone when he was investigating the link between the government and organised crime.

Another obvious example of mafia pressures on the media came to our attention in IWPR only recently. In February, Nezavisne Novine of Banja Luka printed a series of stories on the drug trade, including the production of synthetic heroin in the Republika Srpska.

The articles listed several people believed to be involved in the racket and accused the interior ministry in RS of doing nothing. The paper’s editor soon received threatening phone calls. There was no reaction to these threats from either the police or any other local media.

When IWPR approached a local newspaper to work on this story, the editor said it would be impossible as the journalist would probably be killed.

Finally let me give you an example from Macedonia. Zoran Bozinovski, a Macedonian journalist, was beaten up a few years ago after investigating organised crime links. His attackers belonged to a special police unit. He recognised them and one was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

But Bozinovski believes government officials ordered the attack, and that it was directly to do with his work as a reporter.

After the UN mission in Macedonia, the ICG, NATO and other international organisations sent letters of protest to the Macedonian authorities, the association of journalists organised a demo of several hundred journalists in front of the interior ministry. “We are here, now you can beat us as well!” ran their slogan.

Recently, Bozinovski was again threatened, and even told that his daughters would be raped, after writing articles about a man whom he said was controlling Macedonia's cigarette-smuggling business. Bozinovski says that since he started to investigate the smuggling network, he has been offered 100,000 euro to back down. And when he declined, more threats followed.

As these examples from a number of countries show, none of the structures which in a legal state should protect citizens from this kind of harassment appear to be functioning.

What are the possible solutions? Long term economic growth will of course stimulate beneficial change. Newspapers will never be better than the society around them, and while big money remains overwhelmingly in the hands of shady oligarchs, it is unrealistic to expect the media to resist their pressure.

European integration may also help, as the integration process will force governments in the region to act rather than talk about substantive reform of their judiciary and the police.

In many western countries, public information acts oblige companies to disclose their dealings, their profits and losses and their management structure. There is nothing comparable in our region, which makes it almost impossible for journalists to investigate anyone's finances, let alone find out if they operate legally. We need reform of this type.

Similarly, there is no transparency in our countries when it comes to political party or campaign finances. So it should not surprise us that many mafia men at present enjoy support from within parties.

Publicising information about threats to reporters and demanding help from the international community and western press associations will also improve matters and deter people from pressuring the media in such a naked way.

This is not yet happening widely. The various associations of journalists in our region tend only to react when individuals that have been threatened approach them first. But most do no such thing. In the majority of cases, the issue of threats, bribes or warnings, is just pushed under the carpet and forgotten. As a consequence, editors and journalists in many cases apply a kind of self-censorship when it comes to writing about shady money.

Moreover, none of these changes will occur unless there is a profound change of heart throughout the region. Until people stop looking up to local mafia dons, oligarchs and war lords, until they recognise the connection between corruption and their own dire economic circumstances, simple legal reforms would never be enough.

Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is IWPR's country director for Serbia and Montenegro.

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