Serbia is maintaining its infamous rank in the region as the country in which journalists’ safety is the most endangered, the data from comparative analysis conducted by the Regional Platform for advocating media freedom and journalists’ safety reveal.
by Marija Djoric, Belgrade
As critics of the authorities in public interest, journalists in Serbia are facing daily pressures, insults, threats and attacks. The fact that all of these most often come from highest state officials is creating an atmosphere where violence against journalists is not only allowed, but welcomed.
The data of the analysis conducted between September 1, 2017 and August 31, 2018 in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo*, Macedonia and Montenegro, show that Serbia is a black champion in the region with 28 registered verbal and physical attacks on journalists and the highest cases of pressures.
Indicators on the Level of Media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety in the Western Balkans – COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS 2018
Independent Journalists Association of Serbia (NUNS) registered 69 cases of political and economic pressures on journalists in 2018, the number doubled compared to 2016. Government increased administrative pressures on critical media, sending tax inspections to extensively control independent media, while state officials have been filing number of defamation lawsuits with an aim to financially exhaust newsrooms. In 2018, journalists have been intimidated, libeled as “traitors and foreign mercenaries” and ignored for invitation for official, relevant press conferences or events.
Kosovo* is ranked second with registered 23 verbal and physical attacks; it is followed by Bosnia with 21, Montenegro with seven and Macedonia with six. In BiH and Montenegro there were also attempts to murder journalists, while two journalists in Macedonia and one in Kosovo* have been arrested.
In all five countries verbal attacks are the most common forms of attacks. In Serbia there were 21 such cases. Journalists most commonly receive threats via social media, where people are sending them the most direct death threats. These threats in largest number of cases remain unresolved. In Serbia, out of 21 cases, only one was resolved and a perpetrator was sent to obligatory psychiatric treatment.
Beta news agency’s editor-in-chief, Dragan Janjic, received hundreds of comments on social media. It all began with his Twitter comment regarding the assassination of politician Oliver Ivanovic. That provoked “angry” reaction of Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, who assessed in a press conference that Janjic accused Serbia for that murder. That was the trigger for an avalanche of verbal threats on social media, for example, “Take him to Kalemegdan and shoot (him) in the head”. The prosecutor’s office dismissed most of criminal complaints as unfounded, saying that their content doesn’t reflect “direct, clear and serious threat”.
In all five countries, impunity for crimes against journalists is prevailing. It is ever more noticeable in Serbia, which formally made the greatest progress in establishing mechanism for protection of journalists. An agreement establishing cooperation between police, prosecution and seven media associations was signed in December 2016. The agreement improved cooperation between institutions and journalists’ associations. Standing Working Group was composed with a role to improve the protection of journalists and to monitor and encourage the efficiency of the state institutions.
However, the agreement has failed to create safer environment for journalists in practice. The associations of journalists have ceased their participation in the group, stating they were not satisfied with its work, highlighting the fact that the Public Prosecution refused to file criminal charges for the six attacks on journalists during the presidential inauguration in 2017.
The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia has been analyzing the efficiency of judicial authorities in cases of assaults on journalists. According to that analysis, during the period from January 1, 2016 until September 1, 2018, journalists’ associations of the region registered a total of 58 physical assaults against journalists, and in less than half of those cases (23) judicial proceedings were filed. Only 11 verdicts were ruled in favor of journalists.
Journalists Association of Kosovo* has made some steps to improve safety of journalists in cooperation with the State Prosecution Office that has assigned prosecutors to work on cases regarding journalists in five centers across the country. While the number of attacks remained lower only when compared to Serbia, one of positive signs was the fact that police raised charged against South Mitrovica mayor, Agim Bahtiri, for threatening and insulting journalist Shkumbin Kajtazi. The court case is still open.
The countries of the region are failing to close cases open for decades and none of the murders of journalists that happened in the last two decades has been resolved. In Kosovo*, eight journalists were killed between 1998 and 2005, and six are still missing. In Serbia, the murders of three journalists are still ongoing. The murder of journalist Radislava Dada Vujasinovic in 1995 and journalist Milan Pantic in 2001 are both still in pre-trial proceedings. The trial only started in a murder case of journalist Slavko Curuvija, killed in 1999. The trial against former security service officers, charged for Curuvija murder, opened in 2015 and the first-instance verdict is expected to be delivered within first few months of 2019. Montenegro sentenced one person as an accomplice to the murder of Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Dan, who was killed in 2004, but perpetrators and masterminds of the murder remain unidentified.
Serbia formed a Commission for solving cases of killed journalists, and in August 2018, the Government extended the competences of the Commission allowing it to review the investigations into murders and disappearances of journalists that happened between 1998 and 2001 in Kosovo*, and into the murders of journalists during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, between 1991 and 1995. Although the Commission made some progress, the police and the prosecutors haven’t made any steps forward following new information in the case of the Milan Pantic murder.
Montenegro has also established the Commission for monitoring the investigations of attacks on journalists and media whose mandate was extended for two more years. In past years, the Commission has identified a number of shortcomings during investigations of 15 monitored cases.
The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), as well as other credible member based organizations in the media sphere, assessed that Macedonia is the only country in the Western Balkans that has certain level of improvement in 2018 on the issues of violence against journalists. The number of threats against journalists decreased threefold from 18 in 2017 to six in 2018. This was mainly a result of AJM efforts, but also of the fact that the political climate improved and the Ministry of Interior become more efficient in their investigations. In addition, the national court in Skopje had the first verdict in a case where two journalists were attacked on the main square in Skopje in 2016 and for this the perpetrators were sentenced to 6 months in prison. This is the only prison sentence for an attack against journalists ever recorded. However, more than 50 cases from the last five years still remain unresolved. The prosecution of violence against journalists has still not brought visible results and the ongoing cases have a limited progress in front of the Public Prosecutors Office in Skopje, while in some of the cases where journalists were threatened or attacked there is no progress at all.
Journalists’ fear that the climate of impunity and intimidation would lead to new and brutal attacks turned out to be justified in Serbia. In December 2018, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the house of journalist Milan Jovanovic, setting it ablaze. Jovanovic, who wrote critically about the authorities in his municipality, survived the attack. The case is not treated as an attempt of murder, but as “causing general danger”. Three people were arrested. Media and journalists claimed that Serbian judiciary showed unwillingness to protect journalists, after Bojana Cvetkovic Sijacki, who admitted that she helped perpetrators during the attack on Jovanovic, concluded an agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office and was sentenced to six months of house arrest and a fine of 50,000 dinars 〈approximately 420 EUR〉.
All associations of journalists in the region pointed out to mild penalty policies, but also to declarative and sporadic convictions of public officials. They generally remain silent in view of violence, showing that they do not support and do not understand the role of journalists.
Both tabloid and pro-government media in Serbia regularly omit to condemn the violence, while some are even openly attacking and targeting independent journalists. Newspaper “Ilustrovana politika” compared journalists with angry dogs on its front page, picturing next to such headline the president of the Commission for the Investigation of the Murder of Journalists, Veran Matic, and journalist Ljiljana Smajlovic, who were described in the article as thieves and traitors.
In order to fight for their rights and security, journalists protested in the streets of Belgrade, Sarajevo and Podgorica. These rallies however have neither managed to improve public officials’ behavior, nor the atmosphere in societies where journalists remain to be perceived as legitimate targets.
*This title is without prejudice as to the status and is in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the opinion of the International Court of justice on the declaration of independence of Kosovo.
The article was republished from Safejournalists.net with permission. It was originally published on 28/12/2018.