Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Filipovic Story
One of the most damning reports on atrocities in Kosovo in the past few years was in fact as much about Montenegro as the disputed Albanian-majority province.
In his award-winning report for IWPR," Serb Officers Relive Killings", journalist Miroslav Filipovic cited a top-secret document on Kosovo war crimes, which the Yugoslav army leaked in spring 2000, in an effort to stop Slobodan Milosevic provoking a new conflict in Montenegro.
For his efforts, Filipovic was jailed last year by the Milosevic government, and later released by the new administration.
While feted internationally - last week he was named Internet Journalist of the Year at the prestigious British Press Awards - his reports remain subject of bitter controversy and debate in a Serbia still unwilling to face up to the realities of war crimes.
The Filipovic saga began one day last March, when an officer in the army intelligence service invited him for a coffee.
The source - a long-time acquaintance - handed Filipovic an extraordinary, eight-page report (four pages double-sided) into army morale.
According to this source, the report was carried out by the army intelligence service specifically to test the mood of officers in advance of Milosevic's planned war in Montenegro.
The top-secret document presented a disturbing picture of Yugoslav army officers still deeply troubled by crimes committed by their comrades in Kosovo. It did not bode well for a military operation against Montenegro.
The report explicitly raised the question of whether such troops could be relied on in any new civil conflict.
The study - and its conclusion that war in Montenegro could be a disaster - was presented to Milosevic. But the then Yugoslav president disregarded the document.
Either he didn't believe it, didn't care about the morale question, or simply didn't trust anything coming from army intelligence - rivals to his main power base, the police. So the army chose to go public.
Filipovic's source let him read the document, and then allowed him to leave his office with a copy. He refused to give him a copy of an additional report on the status of "sleepers", army officers secretly left behind in Kosovo after the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops, to stir up fresh trouble.The latter bore the signature of Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the then commander of the Third Army.
At the time, Filipovic was a relatively unknown provincial correspondent in Kraljevo for the Belgrade daily Danas and the press agency Agence France Presse, covering southern Serbia and the Muslim-majority Sandjak region.
From a military background, he had good credentials as a Yugoslav loyalist, having written a book on the local aerospace industry and having helped organise humanitarian aid after the NATO bombing campaign.
Personal and professional contacts gave him good access to local military sources in a sensitive area. It was in central Serbia, Sumadija, that signs of an internal revolt among reservists returning from Kosovo first emerged.
They spoke openly at homes, in cafes, and even sometimes on local radio stations, about what they had seen. An opposition Citizens' Parliament was launched in nearby Cacak led by a fiery mayor who would play a key role in overthrowing the regime.
With Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic asserting increasing control over state and security functions, Milosevic did what he has always done: planned the next confrontation.
The plan was worked out in some detail. According to the internal military documents Filipovic received from his source, the conflict would start with a provocation: the killing by paramilitaries of a few Yugoslav army soldiers in Montenegro. Their deaths would be blamed on Djukanovic's special forces.
The army's Seventh Battalion, based in Montenegro, would arrest the Montenegrin president and declare a state of emergency. The strongest base of internal opposition within the Yugoslav federation would be defeated - and exploited to fire up, yet again, support for the Milosevic regime.
In preparation, troops and materiel were mobilised in Serbia near the Montenegrin border, the Sandjak area, which was also the source of much internal discontent.
Filipovic began to file for IWPR around this time. IWPR is registered as an educational charity in the United Kingdom. It is best known for its online publication of reports by local journalists in crisis zones; training, media monitoring and other media development projects in the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia. It also collaborates frequently with international media.
IWPR first engaged Filipovic to work on a documentary project for Britain's Channel 4 television and the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
IWPR was contracted by the producers to provide local expertise and research, especially to unearth first-hand accounts from reservists about their experiences in Kosovo. For this purpose, IWPR asked Filipovic to find subjects, interview them, and persuade them to go on film with their testimonials.
The interviews, conducted by Filipovic and producer Simon Chinn, secured after much coaxing, several visits by London film crews, and shot with faces concealed, were dramatic.
"I watched with my own eyes as a reservist lined up around 30 Albanian women and children against a wall," one officer, named Drazen, recalled.
" I thought he just wanted to frighten them, but then he crouched down behind an anti-aircraft machine-gun and pulled the trigger. The half-inch bullets just tore their bodies apart."
This and other interviews were broadcast on British and US networks, and around the world. They would also serve as crucial components of the article which led to Filipovic's imprisonment. The direct quotations in the article from reservists were drawn from the Channel 4/PBS research and other independent reporting.
But other pieces would be published first. After the TV research, Filipovic suggested an alarming piece on army mobilisation in the Sandjak. Some months later, he produced a still more provocative piece on splits among army officers over potential conflict in Montenegro - an article which, according to the sources providing the information, was directly relayed to Milosevic by his aides and angered him.
The facts suggested that many senior officers did not want to partake in any action against Podgorica - some even considered switching their allegiance to Djukanovic. "I am sure that the majority of officers and soldiers will refuse to follow an order that might cause bloodshed in Montenegro," claimed the commander of one motorised unit.
Equally important, the piece confirmed that army officials were taking direct steps - including leaks to the press - to forestall any Montenegrin campaign.
These were the military sources feeding Filipovic. Some contacts came from long-time local and professional connections. Others came to him, he reckons, because of IWPR's role through its website and e-mail distribution as a provider of in-depth information for international diplomats, politicians and others working on the conflict.
But the real scoop was the Kosovo document. IWPR's editorial team, and Filipovic himself, were keenly aware both of the explosive nature of the material, and the risks posed to the author. One sentence in the article was particularly disturbing: "combined testimonies of field officers . . . suggest that VJ units were responsible for the deaths of at least 800 Albanian children below the age of five."
As part of IWPR's intensive editing process, the text went through a process of heavy checking and revision. Filipovic's immediate editor, Gordana Igric, pushed him hard to provide additional information and clarification, while taking care to clear all textual and factual changes.
The foreign desk at The Independent reacted immediately to the piece, agreeing to pick up the story for the next day. From its experience in war zones, IWPR has consented in special circumstances to use pseudonyms, and the last question from the editors turned out to be prophetic: "It's an award-winning piece, but it's also a big risk. Do we keep the by-line or not - it's up to you."
"Keep it," was Filipovic's defiant reply. The text was published April 4, 2000 (http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/bcr/bcr_20000404_1_eng.txt).
A month later he was arrested. Filipovic and other colleagues became aware the security services were suddenly very curious about IWPR and its activities in Serbia. But no one was prepared for the events of May 8, when police arrived at the reporter's home in Kraljevo, seized stacks of documents, his computer hard-drive and passport, and jailed him.
From the start, the political nature of the arrest was evident. As one IWPR correspondent explained at the time, "Two hunters [the army and the police] are playing a dangerous game, and Miroslav is the rabbit caught in the middle".
In detention, police officials quizzed Filipovic on all his recent contributions to IWPR, asking in particular about sources - which he refused to provide.
When a few days later, the army took over the case, he was released straightaway. In what would be only a hiatus in his imprisonment, Filipovic made two decisions.
The first was not to attempt to flee Serbia. Discreet exit routes into Montenegro could be found. But this would be seen - rightly or wrongly - as confirmation that he was in fact guilty of something.
The second was to communicate with his army source about the report. In the event of further questioning, what would be their story? And what to do with the internal report? The source made his position completely clear, "Say what you want, but I will deny that the report exists, or that we ever met".
The source's instruction on the second point was also clear: "Destroy it." He did so immediately.
Despite their search of the apartment, the arresting officers had not found the most important document. Only a few days later, the army prosecutor was replaced by a Milosevic loyalist, and Filipovic was arrested again.
The case immediately took a darker turn, as the seriousness of the charges emerged - spreading false information and espionage. These set Filipovic up for the dubious distinction as perhaps the first journalist ever to be convicted for espionage for reporting over the Internet. Following a closed trial, he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Public support - locally and internationally - was substantial. Once the intensive campaign, spearheaded by IWPR with support from many other media and NGOs, got under way, press and diplomatic attention was heavy, with reports on CNN, the New York Times editorial page, and features and news coverage of the case in all major European dailies.
In the UK, Filipovic was named European Internet Journalist of the Year at the Netmedia Awards, while Amnesty short-listed him for its prestigious human rights reporting prize.
The European Union issued formal demarches, and many national governments formally registered their concern with the Belgrade authorities. Several foundations generously donated funds for legal fees, family support and other assistance.
Equally important, the case rallied supporters locally, especially in Cacak, Kraljevo and other southern Serbian towns, which held rock concerts in support of Filipovic. Anem and B-92 Radio (then B2-92) also consistently reported on the case, and Danas awarded him a journalism prize.
All of this effort ensured that the case remained high on the agenda, and may even have played some modest role in contributing to the momentum for change. On October 10, The Supreme Military Court released Filipovic. President Vojislav Kostunica granted him a pardon one month later.
But under the surface, throughout the period of imprisonment and until today, a gossip campaign emerged in Belgrade, casting doubts on the credibility of Filipovic, his Kosovo article and IWPR.
Some of the remarks seemed to stem from jealousy. But all were potentially serious, coming from the very media and NGO community which publicly lent support.
They said there was no way a provincial reporter could have such inside sources; that it was wrong of Filipovic, and irresponsible of IWPR, to publish a top-secret document; that, in fact, Filipovic hadn't written the article at all - it was the work of IWPR editors who did it to make a good story regardless of the consequences for their man on the ground.
Most pointedly, Belgrade criticism focused on the figure of 800 slaughtered Albanian children - a number questioned even by leading Serbian human rights activists. Some cast doubt on whether such an internal army intelligence report existed at all.
Much of this arose in the café chatter - the heart-beat of local journalism and debate - but some of it was made more explicit, including an extended critique this February in Nin, Belgrade's leading weekly, which argued that Filipovic's "accusations, until they are made by people with a first and last name, remain shaky and unproven".
The veracity of the quoted testimonials - mostly from separate research - should be beyond question. Through the collaboration with the TV documentary, many - e.g., the interview with Drazen - are on videotape and some even available in transcript form online.
As for the number of children killed, IWPR, and Filipovic, stand by the article as written - the internal document used the figure of 800. What cannot be confirmed is the veracity of the internal report itself. Clearly the army intelligence unit had an explicit motive in producing the report, and in leaking it through Filipovic. IWPR has not made any claims about the credibility of the document itself - except that it was produced.
Filipovic, as noted, destroyed his copy. But he confirms that General Pavkovic, still serving as head of the army, was personally aware of the report and has confirmed that it was shown to Milosevic.
Independently of this, a second IWPR reporter has also confirmed, through Serbian ministerial sources, that the report was produced, but can no longer be located.
"After the Filipovic article and probably before October 5 [the fall of Milosevic], a lot of these kinds of documents were shredded," said one senior Belgrade government minister, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Now, he says, the new administration is also reluctant to delve into such matters, "There is a political decision not to deal with the past, with events in Kosovo. No one is interested in the question. They are trying to forget it, to wish it never happened."
As for the numbers of children killed, the ministerial source says there is no official estimate, and there have been other reports ranging from 200-700, all difficult to verify. But, he said, "many of the examples from the article seem true or at least very close to the truth".
Yet while the international media community continues to acclaim Filipovic - "a courageous journalist who makes us all proud of our profession," according to judges at the British Press Awards - no media in Serbia have published his articles. (Danas, his former paper, published excerpts drawn from the international press.) And some continue to dispute the underlying truth of the report.
For his part, Filipovic is philosophical. He asserts that the series of IWPR articles may have contributed to curbing the mobilisation for war in Montenegro.
He believes covering war crimes is no more popular in Serbia now than a year ago, "The attitude of this government towards the war crimes tribunal is no different from the previous government, he said. " The reasons these stories have still not been published is that no stories about war crimes are published now.
"Even a letter from Father Sava ( a leading Kosovo Serb) about the stories and war crimes in Kosovo have not been published. When Milosevic was in power, we thought it was because of him. But now he is gone and we see that you still cannot read these stories in the press. It seems the reasons are greater than just Milosevic himself."
As for the army intelligence source, Filipovic is sworn not to reveal his identity. But he surfaced a few months ago during a call-in programme on TV Cacak.
"Samo da pozdravim gospodina Filipovica" (All the best Mr Filipovic), and the surprised journalist immediately recognised his source, with whom he had not spoken since May.
He made no comments about the events in which he had played such a critical part. But he extended his regards, and said perhaps they would be in touch in the future. Then he quickly signed off, without giving his name.
Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight