Victims of what looks like an organised campaign of intimidation tell how the ‘fear machine’ in Serbia works – and the impact it has on their personal and professional lives.
by Natalia Zaba, BIRN, Belgrade
“Even walking the dog or shopping is no longer the same. People look at you differently, they manage to implant a kind of fear in you; someone with a softer character would back off,” Jelena Milic, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, CEAS, says.
Milic briefly even had police protection this spring, after receiving numerous threats following a campaign in pro-government media that labelled her a “foreign mercenary”.
She is one of dozens of members of NGOs and independent media outlets who – following critical reports or public criticism of state policies – have been targeted in the same campaign as “traitors”, “foreign mercenaries” or with other defamatory terms used to undermine their reputations.
Their lives have been affected in different ways, having been subjected to various threats – including death.
Some have been physically attacked while others have faced fresh difficulties in doing their jobs normally.
However, all of them continue their work, despite the obstacles, expecting that either international or public pressure will eventually change the situation for the better.
It felt like ‘being in a movie’
“They were never the same people, but they never hid. They wanted me to know that I was being followed and watched.
“They would carry small bags, and some pads, probably to write down when, where and who I met. There were always two or three of them, waiting for me in front of my building,” Miroslava Milenovic, member of Serbia’s Anti–Corruption Council recalls of the moment last year when she realised she was being stalked.
The stalking started while the independent state body was preparing its report on corruption in the state-owned Diplomatic Housing Company, DIPOS, which rents luxury properties to diplomatic missions.
At first, she did not want to admit that the intimidation she was experiencing was an organised action.
But after noticing different people appearing in front of her building for longer periods at particular hours, she quietly complained to her friends.
“It culminated one day when my friends and I met in the Hotel Moskva restaurant and they noticed that I’d been followed,” she says.
“It was like in a movie. We agreed to pay and left immediately to see if this man was going to follow us or not. We decided to disperse, and when we started to run it became clear that I was being followed,” she recalls.
Milenovic is one of several independent state officials who have been targeted by tabloids for their work. Sasa Jankovic, state Ombudsman, and Rodoljub Sabic, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, were both branded enemies of the state who had endangered state security.
The severe media campaign against them also followed the reports they published questioning the deeds of state institutions and pointing to the shortcomings of their work.
BIRN contacted both Jankovic and Sabic for interviews about the attacks. They refused to discuss the topic.
Ivan Ninic, journalist and lawyer who also worked at the Anti–Corruption Council underwent the same treatment.
He was beaten up last August while preparing a report on the media situation for the council, following a hostile media campaign.
“You start wondering whether walking down the street is safe, and whether someone is going to attack or kill you even because you’ve been labelled a state enemy,” Ninic said.
He resigned from the Anti-Corruption Council and now runs a NGO while also working as a lawyer in a private lawyers’ firm.
“Some of my clients told me that they’d been informed by officials that they know they’re my clients. The cases I deal with now have no links to state affairs,” Ninic added.
Dinko Gruhonjic, a journalist from Bosnia who has been living in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina for years, first received threats back in 1999, at the end of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
He and a colleague, Nedim Sejdinovic, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vojvodina, were subjected to new threats in September this year.
They first received an anonymous letter and then were targeted in an online campaign on social media.
Sejdinovic says the threats escalated after he took part in a meeting in the town of Sombor when he recalled that, back in the 1990s, “Serbia had a very similar image to ISIS.”
Soon after, the pro-government newspaper Informer published an article attacking him. Some 40 death threats followed.
Gruhonjic admits that after he first received threats against his life, he felt paranoid for months.
“At one point, you can no longer distinguish what is a real danger and what is not – you become unable to assess it,” he recalls, adding that, with time, he learned to treat this kind of thing in terms of professional risk.
“What makes me the most furious is when they start to threaten your children and family,” he continues.
Asked if his children experienced any problems at school or with their friends because of their father’s work, he is unsure.
“I don’t know, maybe they hide it from me, which I can imagine, because I know what I’ve been hiding from them,” Gruhonjic admits.
A well-oiled machineBefore Milic was given police protection in March, she was exposed to savage attacks on social media, including death threats, outright lies and other forms of manipulation.
The threats intensified in February this year just before a conference took place about Russian influence in Serbia, which the organisation she leads, CEAS, held in Belgrade.
CEAS is a well known as a think thank that advocates a broadly pro-Western policy.
After the conference, vociferous attacks on Milic and even on her children followed on social media. Hackers then attacked the CAES website, downing the site.
“First they make up false statements by you and promote them on social networks, then the army of bots spin it, make it grow, then it goes to the internet underground and it gets legitimized there – and after this it goes to the mainstream media close to the government,” Milic explains.
At the end of this process all you can do is make excuses, but she is not going to follow that pattern, she says.
“No one comments on your political and public engagement only through facts, the criteria are totally devalued, and I can’t help the feeling that what is happening here is linked with the recent increase of Russian influence in the Balkans,” Milic says.
“There is an organised state policy, very similar to the one that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin implements in Moscow, to discredit everyone who is not the part of the ruling machinery,” she claims.
“The state either has an interest in encouraging this system or isn’t powerful enough to prevent it – and let’s not call ‘Informer’ a tabloid, either, it’s a pure propaganda machine,” Milic adds.
Although Nebojsa Stefanovic, the Interior Minister, condemned the threats made to Milic, there are no official updates on her case, or on similar ones reported to the authorities.
Milenovic also told the police that she was being followed, but – since nothing was done about it – she did not report it when she was eventually attacked at her home on November 21, 2015.
“I didn’t do that because they [the police] wanted to open new case and forget about the charges I’d filed in September,” Milenovic explains.
So far, she has received no information about her charges or on her situation from the police or the judiciary.
“I spent many years working with prosecutors and the police; I was absolutely convinced that once I’m sure what was happening and reported it to the police, the problem would disappear, like waving a magic wand. It was my deepest conviction that it would be so,” Milenovic, who trained Serbian police and prosecutors to deal with financial crimes, says.
Today, she works as a trainer for different anti-corruption organisations, training the police, judges and prosecutors to better fight corruption, money-laundering and financing terrorism. In 2016, she worked in Malta, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kyrgystan and Ukraine. She has no projects in Serbia currently.
Her former co-worker from the Anti-Corruption Council, Ninic, believes the campaign he experienced forms part of a well thought-out strategy, which aims to discourage any individuals with critical attitudes.
“In February 2016, my photo was on the front page of ‘Informer’, just when the final structure of the report [on the media situation] was being discussed. I was then attacked on August 27,” Ninic recalls.
He thinks the pattern of intimidating people with critical or uncomfortable thinking, disliked by the current government, forms part of a well-oiled machine. “This system is like an octopus. But I don’t feel demoralised or discouraged – on the contrary. In my view, this must come to an end at some point,” Ninic says.
Hope that things will change
Milic and Milenovic both believe the international community will eventually react to the situation in Serbia.
“I hope this phase we’re going through now is just the time before the sunrise, when the night is the darkest, and that the EU will assess the situation in a more realistic way,” Milic says.
“Here, people who seek transparency are labelled as foreign mercenaries and spies, and Serbia is being praised in the West for its efforts in reforms,” Milic adds.
Milenovic says that the international community should react more openly and strongly.
“We are, and when I say ‘we’, I mean the citizens of Serbia, all victims of the individual interests of certain countries which have their political agendas,” she says.
“They not interested in us, or our life, they are interested in the agenda that they currently have, so I strongly believe that questions of human rights, corruption, the judiciary and freedom of the media, are being asked, but in a shy, quiet way,” she stated.
However, Gruhonjic believes change can come only from within, from the Serbian public.
“Maybe it would have been better if we’d reached the bottom, so we could have started from the beginning. If we continue this way, we’ll just rot,” Gruhonjic says.
“The only cure for this situation is to look into the mirror and admit without shame that we’re maybe a little bit ill and small,” he adds.
“It would be shameful and counter-productive to say something opposite,” he concludes. “Anyway, do you remember what came out of Pandora’s Box, after all the evils flew out? Hope.”
The article was originally published by Balkan Insight. It is republished here with permission.