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

Serbian Journalism on Trial

The arrest of Miroslav Filipovic came as part of a concerted campaign by the authorities to brand all independent journalists foreign mercenaries and spies
By Anthony Borden

Miroslav Filipovic, 49, seems a modest man. A Yugoslav of the old school, he lives in a town in southern Serbia and has worked as a journalist throughout the darkest days of the communist period.


He has written a tome on the social impact of aircraft manufacturing in Kraljevo from 1926-44, and helped organise food and other aid for his hometown in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign. He has a wife and two children, both of whom are studying to become journalists like their father.


But suddenly, he found himself sitting alone in jail, awaiting a decision from a military court over whether he would be tried for espionage.


Belgrade authorities did not comment, but the reason for his detention, May 8, was clear. For the past few months, this quiet figure has been on a journalistic tear. In a series of exposes for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, he put a spotlight at the core of the Yugoslav establishment: the military and security services.


In a remarkable dispatch, he reported on atrocities committed by the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo through the soldiers themselves, describing their stories -- and their remorse. In an extended report, he detailed military build-up not in Montenegro, where it is widely expected, but in the Sandjak, the Muslim-majority territory in Serbia.


Another article detailed efforts by the authorities to smuggle police and other armed individuals into Kosovo. A recent text reported on three senior army generals jumping ship from the Belgrade establishment and throwing their lot in with renegade Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic.


Notably -- although the regime does not draw attention to this -- Filipovic also reported in detail on the plight of Serbs, both those remaining in Kosovo under pressure from Albanian radicals and those refugees from Kosovo now in Serbia and poorly cared for by the authorities.


Such pieces showed the true nature of the establishment in Belgrade -- through the establishment itself. Filipovic's reporting has been distinguished by the depth of its sourcing from within the military and security services. This was no speculation or political posturing. He had the story cold.


Filipovic further showed the splits within regime, not only among deserting generals but also among uneasy soldiers. Even among those carrying out Yugoslav policy, there is substantial dissent.


Crucially, Filipovic himself signals the divisions within Serbia. Colleagues who worked with him say his determination to continue his courageous reporting -- even after being warned -- was based on his own disquiet over the actions of the government carried out in the name of its citizens. Filipovic saw his ground-breaking journalism as his expression of patriotism -- on behalf of his own country gone wrong.


Recent massive demonstrations in Serbia confirm that he is hardly alone. There have been a handful of other arrests -- mostly temporary detentions -- and the Belgrade opposition Studio B TV and independent B2-92 radio were temporarily taken off the air. The investigations into war crimes by Zeljko Kopanja of the Bosnian Serb daily Nezavisne Novine -- for which he lost his legs in a car bomb attack -- also stand out.


During the bombing campaign, Slavko Curuvija, editor of Dnevni Telegraph who had penned a vicious attack on Milosevic, was gunned down in front of his home. But, in the seriousness of Filipovic's work and clarity with which he addressed the central issues in Serbia, he is certainly distinguished.


Then, in a moment, he faced an extended jail sentence, up to 15 years. On Monday, state security servicemen seized him from his home, also taking his computer hard drive, a dossier of papers, his contacts book and diary, and his passport. Wednesday, May 10, the Kraljevo court referred the case to the military prosecutor in Nis, to determine whether to open a formal investigation for espionage.


The magistrate's denunciation specifically cited Filipovic's recent stories, all written for IWPR. Filipovic confirmed that, during the hearing in front of the investigative judge, it became clear that he would be charged with espionage, with the explanation that since October 1999 he had been involved in "gathering information crucial for the defence of the country and was passing it to a foreign organisation specialising in intelligence"--namely, IWPR. Such writing, the investigators claimed, "undermined the defence of the country".


Filipovic's case quickly garnered local and international attention. Along with IWPR, he contributes to Agence France Presse and the Belgrade daily Danas. Filipovic is also associated with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, for which he prepared an important report on the Sandjak. A petition from Danas supporting his case was immediately circulated among journalists in Belgrade, while the Democratic Party released an exaggerated statement, suggesting that he had been seized by paramilitaries. There was some risk in this: his profile has been journalistically independent rather than directly politically engaged.


His plight also shows the limitations of any outside pressure. "We don't have much leverage these days with Slobodan Milosevic" is a comment I heard in almost exact echo from representatives of the British Foreign Office, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.


Colleagues in Belgrade feared that the prosecution would exploit Filipovic's relationship with an international media support organisation (IWPR is a registered charity in the United Kingdom) to press its argument that he is a foreign agent working with western money to undermine the regime.


The case comes two months into an intense campaign by the authorities to brand all independent media (who naturally depend on outside support) as foreign mercenaries. The concern was that the government would use the case to "prove" -- especially for the benefit of its heartland peasant constituency -- that all independent journalists are spies.


Yet it must also redouble efforts to support independent society as well as democratic opposition in Serbia. Many have spoken out in general terms against the Yugoslav president. But in the thoroughness of his reporting and thus the precision of his critique, Filipovic stands as one of the first real dissidents to emerge from within Yugoslavia, certainly in the post-Kosovo period. His is exactly the kind of spirit which represents the best of Serbia, and which proves that ultimately the society can change.


In the event, the military court dropped its case. On May 12, the prosecutor, apparently concluding that he did not have enough evidence to pursue espionage charges, ordered Filipovic's release. The move may also illustrate divisions within the establishment, as civilian and military wings of the state structure work out how to handle dissent-with Filipovic and others caught in the middle.


"I deny any possibility that I committed the criminal act of espionage," Filipovic said upon his release. "If someone is involved in such an activity that person would not publish the information using his full name and surname." His articles are all available, under his byline, at .


Despite his release, he is still not in the clear. When IWPR called to inform the family of his imminent release, his wife Slavica reacted in shock and then, in a trembling voice, asked, "Is it finished then? Or do I have to be afraid that he will be arrested again in Kraljevo?"


Indeed, his lawyers blocked a post-release press conference in Belgrade until they can confirm whether any other charges may be pending against him. It remains very possible that the Kraljevo district court will press charges, possibly under the Information Law for "spreading lies", which could result in substantial heavy personal fines. Filipovic, for now, is free, but the media in Serbia is still bound.


Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.


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