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Serbia: Popovic Inquiry Calls

Members of ruling coalition urge probe into activities of government information supremo.
By Daniel Sunter

Two parties in the ruling Serbian coalition are demanding an investigation into the role of the government’s controversial spin-doctor during the state of emergency.


The Democratic Centre, DC, party and the Democratic Alternative, DA, announced on April 23 that they want an inquiry into the behaviour of bureau boss Vladimir Popovic’s towards the media.


The move suggests that part of the Serbian government is making efforts to improve relations with the press, which have been under strain due to conflicts with the bureau and the hasty implementation of media legislation under the state of emergency.


Since the state of emergency was introduced in Serbia, following the March 12 assassination of premier Zoran Djindjic, the bureau began holding press briefings for leading Serbian editors. The aim was to inform the media on the latest developments in the operation to catch Djindjic’s assassins and on the progress made in the fight against organised crime.


But as time went on, the press briefings were expanded to include attacks on some journalists with a history of criticising the government. The bureau claimed that some had formed a media pressure group whose aim was allegedly to demonise Djindjic and his government.


Popovic’s bureau suggested that the Belgrade journalist and one-time advisor to former Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, Aleksandar Tijanic, Blic News editor in chief Zeljko Cvijanovic and the editor of the banned daily Nacional Predrag Popovic were all members of this group.


Both Tijanic and Cvijanovic have dismissed the accusations, accusing the bureau chief of exploiting the fight against organised crime to settle old scores.


Amidst the fevered atmosphere of the state of emergency fears grew of a media witch-hunt. Rumours of Tijanic’s arrest rapidly spread and the families of journalists listed by the bureau lived in fear of repercussions.


"Popovic is spreading the atmosphere of the lynch mob, exploiting the state's long overdue showdown with the mafia. He has assumed the position of public administrator of all media," said Tijanic in an open letter published on April 22 refuting the allegations made against him.


The bureau also sought to discredit IWPR - which had published several stories critical of the unit - by claiming on April 15 that its Balkan editor, Gordana Igric, had made secret arrangements with the magazine Srpska Rec, run by the wife of prominent nationalist Vuk Draskovic, to publish the banned daily Nacional. Igric firmly denies the allegations.


“I have never made any plans to publish anything with Srpska Rec, the first I knew of this was when I read it in the Serbian papers. Moreover, there was no conspiracy in the media to undermine Djindjic. This is simply an attempt to silence those who have criticised the government in the past,” she said.


Although the activities of the bureau frightened many, Popovic has not gone unopposed. Finally, it seems, Belgrade’s media is rebelling.


The weekly Vreme hit back on April 17, publishing a lead article accusing the bureau of using its briefings to deliberately mislead and manipulate the public.


Editor of the independent production company Video Weekly, VIN, Gordana Susa said on April 18 that she had been verbally threatened and insulted over the phone by Popovic for one of its broadcasts, aired the same day. It featured an interview with one of Serbia’s six deputy premiers, Nebojsa Covic, in which she had asked him to explain the bureau’s activities and the status of its chief, who had been effectively axed by Djindjic last November.


"I have never experienced anything like this ever in my life," Susa told IWPR, adding that during their phone conversation Popovic had used information from the file kept on her by Milosevic's security services. Popovic denied that he ever threatened her.


The attack on Susa triggered a strong reaction from Serbia's leading media union, the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists, NUNS, as well as Otpor, the anti-Milosevic movement.


"We remind all government employees that it is the journalists' job to ask questions, and that the government representatives' job is to give answers to questions of public interest. The public and media representatives are entitled to know the status of the person who holds press briefings for editors in chief on behalf of the government, under the state of emergency," said a NUNS statement issued on April 22.


Popovic’s position has remained somewhat vague after he was sidelined by the slain premier, following his alleged pressure on different media. Djindjic announced in November that Popovic was to leave to devote more time to his private businesses. However, on March 13 - the day after prime minister was killed - Popovic appeared at his old post, provoking suspicions that he was trying to re-launch his political career.


The Serbian authorities do not speak with one voice when it comes to the activities of the bureau.


On the one hand, Deputy Prime Minister Cedomir Jovanovic, who was appointed to his post following the Djindjic’s murder and who is believed to be close to Popovic, openly sided with the bureau, emphasising that the government stands behind everything it says.


On the other, Deputy Prime Minister Miodrag Isakov announced that the government would discuss claims that the bureau chief had threatened Susa.


The DA and the DC also announced the launch of an investigation into the bureau's activities.


"A government employee cannot point his finger at, blackmail or threaten journalists. We will demand that this incident be investigated and that responsibility be established for the fact that pressure had been exerted on a journalist. The very least that can be done is to make sure that this man no longer occupies the post that he currently occupies, because this way the government would show that it does not stand behind such employees," said DA spokeswoman Nada Kolundzija.


The voices of criticism were reinforced by respected NGO the Humanitarian Law Centre, which issued a statement on April 24, saying, “The government, through Popovic exerted daily pressure on the media and journalists. Some members of the government, during the state of emergency, behaved as prosecutor and judges at the same time.”


Belgrade media discontent culminated on April 24, with a meeting of 14 Belgrade based editors in chief who sent an open letter to the government calling for a discussion of the deteriorating relations between the two.


They are particularly keen to talk about the alleged threats government employees made against journalists, insisting that officials provide evidence to back up claims made against some journalists and media companies.


In addition to their criticism of the bureau, media representatives have stressed that during the state of emergency, when press freedoms were limited, the government should not have adopted the Public Information Act and formed the long-awaited Broadcast Council tasked with defining and regulating the very sensitive matter of broadcasting frequencies.


The Public Information Act included previously unannounced restrictive provisions, including media injunctions.


NUNS president Milica Lucic-Cavic said that changes should not have been made under the state emergency to this draft legislation, carefully prepared for months in consultation with the Council of Europe and OSCE.


"With these restrictive provision, this act looks like an attempt to retain the harsh attitude towards journalists and the media even once the state of emergency is lifted," said Cavic. Nevertheless, she approved of the media regulation, and expressed hope that it would be amended over time.


Plans to set up the Broadcast Council had been under intense scrutiny due to two members of the governing DOS coalition, Nenad Cekic and Vladimir Cvetkovic, being part of the board.


The two men are well known for having a negative stance towards the independent media. It is believed that by appointing the pair, the Serbian government is merely continuing its campaign against the leading independent station B92, which reached a pitch last year with a salvo of attacks against the station by pro-governmental media such as TV Pink and TV BK.


On April 21, NUNS and ANEM, Serbia’s Association of Independent Electronic Media, sent a request to parliament demanding the dismissal of Cekic and Cvetkovic. Besides doubts over their impartiality, the two unions questioned whether the correct legal procedures had been followed during their appointment.


Representatives of the international community, which had financially supported the creation of the Broadcast Council, also criticised the manner of the two appointments.


Charge d'affaires of the European Commission delegation to Belgrade Jan Vilem Blankert said that the NUNS and ANEM request for the dismissal of the two council members was a reason for worry.


During his visit to Belgrade on April 22, OSCE chairman and Dutch foreign minister Jaap De Hoop Scheffer also expressed concern. "Laws may never be broken, anywhere, whether in Serbia-Montenegro, the Netherlands or anywhere else," he said.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR’s coordinator in Belgrade.


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