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

Serbia: Don't Mention the War

Journalists and NGOs face bombs threats, beatings and insults if they probe too deeply into Serbia’s role in the Balkan wars.
By Tanja Matic

Serbian media outlets and NGOs campaigning for the country to face up to its recent past are enduring a hate campaign, which they claim police and government are making no effort to stop.


Journalists and NGO workers claim the death threats, assaults and racist graffiti common in the Milosevic era have made an unwelcome return in the past year, all with the tacit approval of the authorities.


Among the targets have been the Humanitarian Law Fund, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, RTV B92, the daily paper Danas, the weekly news magazine Vreme and others who opposed Milosevic’s policies in the Nineties, and today insist that crimes committed during the Balkan wars be openly discussed.


In the latest incident, B92 received an anonymous text message on October 16 saying a bomb had been planted in a garbage can in front of the building.


That the warning came during an interview with the local Helsinki Committee president Sonja Biserko seems too much of a coincidence. A previous bomb threat was made when Humanitarian Law Fund director Natasa Kandic appeared as a guest on a programme about crime in Bosnia.


B92 was also exposed to a verbal assault in mid-August when journalist Ana Veljkovic asked Serbian government minister Velja Ilic at a press conference why criminal charges against Marko Milosevic, the son of Slobodan Milosevic, had been dropped.


Ilic responded with insults and threats. “Listen, we've come here to do a very serious job, and you ladies and gentlemen from B92, whenever you come, you wreak havoc, you make some provocation,” he said. “You're sick. You're for a psychiatric clinic. You should be cured collectively.”


In a recent report on such attacks against the media and NGOs, the Humanitarian Law Fund said, “NGOs and media outlets which advocate the establishment of the rule of law and bringing to justice those who have violated other people’s human rights in the past, are exposed to insults, threats and attacks by nationalist political parties, extreme nationalist political groups, some media and individuals glorifying indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj.


“The Serbian government has not yet responded to this, which further encourages extremists in the Serbian parliament and other institutions to call on members of the public to display hostility towards treacherous NGOs and media.”


IWPR/BIRN asked the Serbian government to comment on the wave of intimidation, but none was forthcoming. A spokesman for the police said that they were investigated the reported incidents, but would not say how much progress they’d made.


In Serbia, NGOs and independent media in the Nineties were often exposed to abuse at the hands of the police and were frequently labeled as “foreign mercenaries” or “a fifth column”.


After the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, pressure exerted by state institutions came to an abrupt halt, but recently verbal and other forms of aggression have once again been on the rise.


Nazi swastikas were sprayed on both the Humanitarian Law Fund and the Helsinki Committee headquarters along with graffiti calling Biserko a “Jewish pawn” and a “humble servant of the Jewish world order”. Graffiti declaiming “Serbia for the Serbs” accompanied by a traditional national Serb symbol defaced the committee’s office door.


Similar graffiti regarding Jewish sympathies was written about Kandic, whose Humanitarian Law Fund is unpopular with the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, after it made allegation that the party’s vice-president, Tomislav Nikolic, was involved in war crimes committed in Croatia.


The deputy head of the SRS caucus group in the Serbian parliament, Aleksandar Vucic, publicly labeled Kandic “a pathological liar and criminal gang leader waging a campaign against the Serbs”.


The Women in Black, a Belgrade-based NGO, said they received a recent visit from a police officer who questioned them about the number of their employees, their working hours, visitors and the group’s associates.


"We were hoping this repression would stop once the Milosevic’s dictatorship collapsed,” the group said in a statement. “However, with the coalition headed by Vojislav Kostunica now in power we have once again become interesting for the security services and dangerous – most probably because we have persisted in our efforts to fight denial of the criminal past and bring the perpetrators to justice.”


Andrej Nosov, director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, believes the Serbian authorities are reluctant to send a clear message to the public that those responsible for the attacks will be punished.


“Violence is being induced directly from the system,” he said.


“If we have a minister for capital investments who openly insults and threatens the RTV B92 director and journalists, if we have senior officials insulting members of non-governmental organisations, then this is a clear signal to those who are on the opposite of the political spectrum from our position,” said Nosov.


Natasa Esbjornosn, director of the Swedish Helsinki Committee office in Belgrade, shares this view.


“When people in the parliament are allowed to attack and verbally abuse NGOs and media outlets with impunity then they are sending a message to everybody else that this way of conduct is perfectly all right.


“The absence of any response by the government and police is indeed unusual because they are not reacting to something which would be considered totally unacceptable in the society where I come from.”


Nosov believes special interest and lobby groups are behind these attacks, as they were during the wars of the Nineties.


“The campaign being waged against us ... is linked to the state apparatus from the Milosevic era,” he claimed.


“There are people in the secret police and the Serbian interior ministry who are afraid ... they might be exposed, and they are doing everything in their power ... to attack everyone who deals with facing up to the recent past.


“They live in fear that the truth might come to light, and their main problem is that their horrid secrets are slowly being unraveled.”


Biserko, who has been physically assaulted and her apartment broken into, said, “ These attacks are ever more frequently targeting those who are critical of certain policy issues in Serbia. It’s as if someone’s trying to curb any criticism or critical thinking in Serbia.”


Despite the problems, Biserko is optimistic about the future.


She points out that Serbia has been given a green light for the talks on stabilisation and association with the European Union, which she hopes will mean the state will be forced to deal with civil society sector in a more professional manner.


“I believe the status of non-governmental organisations will significantly improve thanks to the process of European integration as Europe will need partners in this country who are thoroughly pro-European,” she said.


To that end, amendments to the criminal code were adopted two weeks ago to bring domestic legislation in line with European standards. The revisions make it a crime to attack or offend any person or organisation that advocate equal rights for the country’s citizens.


Esbjornson considers the passage of these amendments a step forward, though is pessimistic they will ever be implemented.


“Many laws have been adopted here so far, but they are not being enforced,” she said. “It is necessary to change the consciousness of the people and raise their awareness before the application of the law, but I fear Serbia is at very beginning of this process.”


Tanja Matic is an IWPR/BIRN reporter in Belgrade.


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