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Media Intimidation in South Serbia

Campaign of threats and violence waged against radio stations and newspapers that dare to criticise local government.
By Nikola Lazic

South Serbia’s few genuinely independent media are complaining of a campaign of outright intimidation against them for daring to ask probing questions about their local authorities.


In the latest dispute, the governor of Vranje, Miroljub Stojcic, a member of the Serbian Socialist Party, SPS, filed a lawsuit against Novine Vranjske at the beginning of October, over the cover of its New Year edition last year.


Stojcic said the lawsuit was a private act and was not a matter of putting pressure on media. “I am just trying to protect my own integrity,” he said.


Novine Vranjske’s owner, Vukasin Obradovic, disagreed, saying the case was just another example of how the local authorities are trying to obstruct media criticism.


“It is a classic attack on independent media, whose key role is their critical attitude through various forms of journalism and satire,” he told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR.


The local authorities in Vranje, the largest town in southern Serbia, are currently involved in more court cases against the only two local independent media - OK Radio and Novine Vranjske - than they were in the era of Slobodan Milosevic.


Analysts say after recent open threats made to OK Radio, the lawsuit represents fresh pressure on those media that are trying to report independently.


Meanwhile, the local Albanian media has been spared the intimidation directed against their Serbian counterparts. The former depend on the municipal authorities for money so rarely conflict with their paymasters over editorial content.


In Bujanovac and Presevo, where most residents are Albanian, the managers and editors of the local radio and TV stations are chosen by the political parties in the local assembly and the mayor.


A media analyst in the region said this is why the Albanian media are not exposed to the same threats and lawsuits as their Serbian counterparts.


“There’s no conflict between the authorities and the media in Albanian because of the simple fact that they are not critical of the authorities,” he said. “They themselves are dependant on the local council budget.”


The local authorities in Vranje since last September have comprised the SPS, the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS and the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, led by the Hague prisoner Vojislav Seselj.


They appear to have marked down OK Radio and Novine Vranjske as their main opponents.


Dissatisfied by OK Radio’s reports, a senior municipal figure and DSS member allegedly threatened Goran Vladakovic, the owner and editor, with arrest and physical violence.


The official is said to have telephoned OK Radio in September and insulted a journalist, warning he would personally “beat up and arrest Vladakovic”.


Vladakovic said he never expected such a reaction. “When the new local government was formed I thought the DSS would be the antithesis to the old retrograde forces of the SPS and SRS,” he said. “It seems as if the mechanisms of Milosevic’s totalitarianism are being reborn in the worst form.”


The public prosecutor in Vranje took no action over the alleged threats to the radio station.


There have been similar reports of intimidation and other forms of pressure on the remaining small independent media outlets in southern Serbia.


Obradovic told BCR that the authorities are trying to silence his magazine, which has been running for 11 years.


First, the regional administration ordered the paper to pay an annual communal tax of 240,000 dinars (3,000 euro), which was ten times higher than the amount they had sought before.


The authorities announced high taxes on all private sector press and NGOs, while exempting all the media and cultural institutions under their jurisdiction.


Under the pressure of street protests, they backed down, however.


“The authorities wanted to financially exhaust all of us who point out their wrong moves, machinations and abuses,” said Obradovic.


His magazine has been especially out of favour with local nationalists because of its reporting of a court case involving the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Vranje, who is accused of the sexual harassment of four teenage boys.


“We followed the trial since the beginning and immediately after the indictment was made published the confessions of the boys who filed the lawsuit,” said Obradovic.


“Since then, the windows of our headquarters and my car have been broken several times and I have received many anonymous letters threatening me and my family.”


Obradovic said no one from the authorities has come to his aid, including the police, even though he had contacted them after every threat and attack.


None of the local publicly-funded media, namely Radio Television Vranje and the magazine Slobodna Rec, have once covered this case of intimidation.


The independent journalist’s association of Serbia, NUNS, led by Nebojsa Bugarinovic, has now signed an appeal to the police in Vranje to protect Vladakovic and the employees of OK Radio.


“Vulgarity and insults are becoming the dominant means of communication in many local communities,” said the appeal.


Nikola Lazic is a regular BCR contributor.


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