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

Journalists Defy Intimidation In Republika Srpska

The Serbian part of Bosnia remains a violent place for journalists who expose the ugly underside of life here.
By Branko Peric

Zeljko Kopanja, owner and editor of the daily Nezavisne Novine, is now confined to a wheel chair having lost both legs in a car bomb attack on October 22, 1999.

The motive for the attack on Kopanja is linked to the publication of a series of articles on war crimes committed by Serbs during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kopanja's daily and weekly publications have the highest circulation in the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska (RS).

The attempted assassination of Kopanja was the culmination of a series of attacks on the independent media which began on March 6 with a bomb attack a new radio station "Osvit" in Zvornik.

Discontented elements within the Serbian Radical party (SRS) are suspected of being behind the attacks. Following the decision by United Nations High Representative for Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, to dismiss the President of the RS, Nikola Poplasen (leader of the SRS), the offices of rival Social Democrat and Socialist Parties were also attacked.

Poplasen's nationalists pinpointed Radio Osvit, claiming the station was broadcasting treasonous and collaborationist material. The radio station's property and equipment were completely destroyed in the attack.

With the commencement of NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia, attacks on independent journalists intensified. Dragan Gacic, a photojournalist on Nezavisne Novine, and Predrag Milasinovic, a cameraman for Alternative Television, were physically assaulted outside the United States embassy in Banja Luka.

Ten days after the attack on Kopanja the president of Doboj municipality, Mirko Stojcinovic, assaulted Mirko Srdic, correspondent for TVBH and the news agency BETA. Srdic claims he was attacked following a series of reports exposing criminal activity among senior political figures in the Doboj municipality.

According to unofficial statistics, around 40 journalists have been attacked this year.

Risto Basic, head of the analytical department at the RS Ministry of Interior Affairs, says that 7 attacks on the journalists were reported to the police in 1999 and that charges were brought against the assailants in all those cases.

Basic went on to say, however, that the actual number of attacks was definitely higher as not all incidents or threats are reported to the police.

Sinisa Karan, head of the Police Crime Department, admitted that many journalists do not have confidence in the police and are often reluctant to cooperate with investigations.

"The journalists do not taking the threats seriously. Even when they report anonymous threats, they refuse to help us track down the perpetrators," Karan complains.

Radmilo Sipovac, editor of the weekly edition of the Nezavisne Novine agrees journalists don't take threats seriously.

"Zeljko Kopanja used to get anonymous threats, but he did not believe they were serious," Sipovac says. Kopanja now admits he had not believed someone would try to kill him because of some "written words."

The attack on Kopanja was finally provoked journalists into calling a round table discussion in Bosnian Serb Banja Luka on the safety of journalists on November 12. Colleagues from neighbouring federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina also joined the debate.

Senad Pecanin, editor of Sarajevo's most popular magazine Dani, said that "the risk to which journalists are being exposed has crossed the line of reason for people who think about themselves and their families."

Pecanin admitted that following the attempt on Kopanja's life, he seriously considered leaving the profession.

Borka Rudic, secretary of the Union of Professional Journalists of Bosnia-Herzegovina, argued insufficient solidarity among journalists is exacerbating the problem. She pointed out that the Association of Journalists of Bosnia-Herzegovina failed to issue a statement on the attempted assassination of Kopanja.

"If there had been more solidarity among the journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past years, maybe Zeljko Kopanja would not have experienced what he did," Rudic said.

All the journalists present at the round table meeting agreed they could not rely on the authorities for protection.

Zeljko Kopanja said "I don't have confidence in the police. I do not believe the police want or are capable of finding the assassins."

Pecanin went further, claiming that without the political support of the authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina it was not possible to be either a major common criminal or a major war criminal.

Robert Menard, president of the media rights NGO Reporters Without Borders, noted that "over 500 journalists were killed in the last ten years and in 95 per cent of these cases the perpetrators were never found".

At the end of the discussions the journalists insisted they would not be intimidated into silence and instead adopted a defiant declaration: "We are affected and we are worried. But, we are not frightened. Time is definitely not on the side of those who place their trust in our giving up."

Branko Peric is Banja Luka editor of the Alternative Information Network and a regular IWPR contributor.

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