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Serbian Journalists at Risk

Milosevic may be gone, but the mafia and the police continue the old habit of attacking the messenger.
By Ivan Nikolic

In early June Milan Pantic, a correspondent for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti, was entering his apartment block in Jagodina, central Serbia, when he was struck on the head with a blunt object. Pantic, 47, who had been investigating industrial crime in the months leading up to the attack, died from the blow. No one has been arrested.


Slobodan Milosevic may no longer be in power in Serbia, but journalists are still at risk. Anonymous phone calls, interrogations in police stations, even murder - all these are part of journalistic reality in the new Serbia.


Although government persecution of journalists is a thing of the past, the democratic authorities have been criticised for failing to impose control over certain segments of society, in particular the mafia. As a result, criminal elements feel free to intimidate journalists.


At the same time, sections of the police also remain hostile to the media. This attitude dates back to a period when police and journalists were on different sides of the barricades - the former defending Milosevic with batons, the latter attacking him with words. The government has not reformed the police force, parts of which are still filled with Milosevic supporters. Journalists accuse the police of failing to provide adequate protection, and of intimidating them through the old procedure of "informative talks".


Several days after Pantic's funeral, Predrag Ilic, another Vecernje Novosti journalist based in nearby Paracin, was threatened, too.


"I had sat down after Pantic's funeral with people I have known for four, five years, when one of them said to me, 'So, what's going on? They've begun to exterminate you? Now it's your turn.'" Ilic recalls. "I recently reported about tax [evasion]. One businessman telephoned and asked, 'Would you like your son to be run over by a car?'"


Such stories are legion. Milica Ivanovic, a correspondent for the Belgrade daily Blic, received anonymous telephone threats after publishing a series of articles about the expulsion of an Albanian craftsman from his business premises in the southern Serbian town of Leskovac. An unknown caller said he would kill her, and that he didn't care if she told the police. She reported the incident, but no action was taken.


Ljiljana Aleksic-Arandjelovic, a Blic correspondent from Paracin who was threatened by thugs on her doorstep, blames the new authorities. "The situation since October 5 [when Milosevic fell] is worse than it used to be," she said. "Local authorities do not cooperate with journalists. The only thing that matters to them is that journalists are not making waves."


In Novi Sad, Marina Fratucan, editor-in-chief of the TV programme Urbans, was threatened in early June after airing a programme about the ethnic cleansing of the Croatian population from Hrtkovci, Vojvodina, in 1992. The programme directly linked Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, to the expulsions.


"Unfortunately, that man is still among us and not in prison," said Fratucan. "This is not our fault, but that of the new authorities who are unable to make a break."


Other examples of intimidation this year have included a threat against TV Novi Sad in January, after a programme in which Natasa Kandic of the Humanitarian Law Centre talked about Serb crimes in Kosovo, and a bomb threat against the Belgrade weekly Reporter.


Since none of these cases have been solved by the police, police themselves are also deemed by journalists to be part of the problem. Last month, Predrag Radojevic, a correspondent for Blic from Valjevo, in central Serbia, was interrogated by the police after covering local crime.


"They interrogated me as if I were a criminal, without any explanation," Radojevic said. "They wanted to know if I knew anything about a shoot-out between local criminals that ended with a murder, Also if I knew anything about a robbery, something I had only read about in the newspapers."


Jasmina Kelecevic, a spokeswoman for the Valjevo police, told the newspaper that the interview had been conducted for the purpose of solving a crime. But the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia condemned the police. "Such conduct is identical to that which we witnessed during Milosevic's tyranny," the association stated.


Indeed, many journalists say little has changed since the Milosevic era. They claim that police only watched from the sidelines while protesters beat journalists at rallies held by the Socialist Party and the Serbian Radical Party to protest against Milosevic's extradition to The Hague. In June, a large number of local and foreign journalists were brutally beaten in Belgrade's Republic Square. Milosevic supporters furiously attacked anyone they recognised as a journalist, exclaiming, "It's all your fault." No one was arrested.


"What's been happening in Serbia since 5 October shows that some things cannot be changed easily here," said Gordana Susa, chairwoman of the journalists' association. "The abuse of journalists is proof that this society is in crisis."


The situation has become so alarming that international organisations have appealed to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica to protect the media. In June, Susa's association organised a working group on the safety of journalists, including representatives of the police and the media, as well as Federal Information Secretary Slobodan Orlic and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister, Zarko Korac.


The group agreed to set up a special SOS hotline, which police have pledged to accord top priority.


"What's happening is terrible and is not helping the normalisation of the society," Information Secretary Orlic told IWPR. The people carrying out such threats and attacks "are the remnants of the past that we have to get rid of as soon as possible," he said.


Subsequently, billboards and television advertisements appeared saying, "Stop the Mafia". Yet unless Serbia's new regime gets serious about police reform and other measures, it will be hard for any media campaign to bring about genuine change.


Ivan Nikolic is a journalist for the Belgrade daily Danas.


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