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Reporting in post-war Balkans

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Banja Luka, Republic of Srpska

Despite the constant death threats, Zeljko Kopanja, the Bosnian Serb editor of the independent daily, Nezavisne Novine, was not afraid. From late August to mid-September last year, Nezavisne Novine, the largest independent daily in the Republic of Srpska, a Serb-controlled entity in northern and eastern Bosnia, issued a groundbreaking series on a local and highly sensitive subject -- Bosnian Serb war crimes.

Although the reports generated a rash of irate calls from readers and death threats became commonplace, Kopanja was confident that the political climate in the republic was ripe for confronting crimes of the past and bringing the guilty to account. That confidence was thoroughly shaken on the morning of Oct. 22, 1999, when a car bomb, intended to kill the editor, left him a double amputee. On Oct. 25, headlines in a Bosnian daily read, “Zeljko Kopanja now has fear.”

It has been a hazardous year for the independent media in Serbia, Kosovo and the Republic of Srpska. During a November roundtable discussion on the protection of journalists, Senad Pecanin, editor of a popular magazine in Sarajevo, observed that the “the risk to which journalists are being exposed has crossed the line of reason for people who think about themselves and their families.”

After the assassination attempt on Kopanja, Pecanin had considered leaving the profession.

Tactics for repressing the free press have ranged from the relatively benign -- fines, imprisonments and confiscation of equipment -- to the violent. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, during the past year in the Republic of Srpska, seven attacks on journalists have been reported to the police, but the unofficial statistic for assaults is 40. In Serbia, within three weeks of the attack on Kopanja, cars belonging to an independent publisher and radio editor were burned, and a bomb detonated in the home of a correspondent for an independent daily. Nebojsa Ristic, editor at a television and radio station, is currently serving a one-year prison sentence for posting a sign in his office window that read, “Free Press/Made in Serbia.” In Kosovo, an editorial in an independent daily condemning revenge killings prompted thinly veiled threats from a news agency linked to the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Vulnerability of dissent

In each region, the independent media are fighting local battles, but their common experiences of persecution indicate the vulnerability of dissent in places of war and political upheaval. The West has played a complicated and contradictory role in the conflict. NATO bombings jeopardized the independent press in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska but Western funding and technical support has helped to keep some democratic publications afloat. Kopanja’s own publication, Nezavisne Novine, is funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development because the Western-brokered Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia included establishing a non-nationalist media.

The Republic of Srpska established its ethnic homogeneity during the Bosnian war through a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The region has resisted any public re-examination of its wartime history and still harbors many war criminals. Their prevalence makes any calls for accountability for past war crimes particularly hazardous. Zeljko Kopanja was willing to take on the risk.

On Aug. 25, 1999, Nezavisne Novine reported on the wartime massacre of 200 Bosniaks (Muslims) during a bus convoy to central Bosnia. It attributed responsibility to a renegade police force and identified some of the drivers involved. Some of the named still reside in the Republic of Srpska city of Prijedor. Several more investigative reports followed the convoy exposé and resulted in the arrest and trial of members of a local paramilitary. It is widely believed that a paramilitary organization, eager to suppress any future investigations of their war actions, is responsible for the assassination attempt on Kopanja.

Kopanja is doubtful that his assailants will ever be found. “I don’t have confidence in the police,” he said. “I do not believe the police want to or are capable of finding the assassins.”

Throughout the Republic of Srpska and Yugoslavia, the line between criminal elements and local authorities is blurred, making investigative reporting extremely risky business.

In Serbia, opponents of an independent media operate from a legal mandate. On Oct. 20, 1998, the Serbian Parliament passed a new Law on Information that banned carrying material from international news agencies and severely restricted the contents of all news reports. The passage of the law, according to Eric Gordy, professor of sociology at Clark University, places Serbia “among the very few countries in the world which has made access to information from other places a criminal offense.”

The law facilitates frivolous charges of slander and has virtually denied journalists accused of “spreading fear, panic or defeatism” a valid legal recourse. Court trials must be heard within 24 hours after charges are filed and sentences given within the next day. In the case of the Belgrade daily, Danas, charges were filed Monday, Oct. 25, 1999, at 8:30 p.m.; the trial was held Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 11:00 a.m.; and the sentence was pronounced at 5:30 p.m.

Since the law’s implementation, three independent newspapers and approximately 10 TV and radio stations have been shut down, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Thirty-two cases against 26 media outlets have been tried, and the total of dispensed fines exceeds $1.6 million -- a staggering sum for the already economically beleaguered independent media. Five hundred journalists in Serbia are currently unemployed, and 1,500 employees of the electronic media have remained jobless since the early 1990s when the crackdown on the press first began.

Government orchestrates oppression

Joel Simon, associate director of the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, says the Law on Information is “being used like a club” to effectively crush the independent press. “There are other places in the world where journalists are exposed to greater violence,” Simon told NCR, but there are “few [like Serbia] where journalists face orchestrated government oppression.”

If fines fail to subdue, more violent means are employed. In mid-October 1998, Slavko Curuvija, editor and publisher of the now silent Dnevni Telegraf, co-authored an open letter to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that criticized the crackdown on the media and promoted the inclusion of “minorities in the highest political institutions.” Curuvija’s opposition to Milosevic was costly and resulted in fines, court appearances, confiscation of printing equipment and death threats. Last April, on Orthodox Easter, after being publicly denounced as a NATO traitor in the state-controlled press, Curuvija was gunned down outside his apartment.

The memory of his assassination and the attack on Kopanja has heightened the alarm among independent journalists over the recent car burnings and bombings. In an assessment of the new Law on Information, Vladan Radosavljevic of the Media Center in Belgrade said, “If the independent media are the mirror of the state, the regime has tried to smear it using this law. Since it is not succeeding in that, people fear that it will try to shatter it.”

In Kosovo, the independent press, which had been subject to the restrictive prohibitions of the Milosevic regime, is now confronting the militant nationalism of its own people. Last August, Veton Surroi, political figure and publisher for Kosovo’s independent daily Kuha Ditore, wrote an editorial condemning revenge killings. After listing several crimes committed against the most vulnerable members of Serb society, the editorial said that to tolerate the “systematic intimidation of all Serbs” is “fascist.”

“Is this really what we fought for?” Surroi asked.

In early October, Kosovapress, a Kosovo Liberation Army-linked news agency, issued a scathing editorial denouncing Surroi as a traitor “at risk of eventual and very understandable revenge.” In his counter editorial, Surroi described the commentary by the news agency of the Kosovo Interim Government as “the first commentary calling for murder.”

The severe repression of the independent media, particularly in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska, has not silenced demands for free access to information. The status of the press has been a central platform for opponents of the Milosevic government. The government takeover of RTS (Radio Television Serbia) launched the Belgrade protests of March 1991. During the widespread anti-Milosevic demonstrations of 1996 and 1997, Belgrade residents banged on pots and pans to drown out the evening broadcasts of state-controlled news. They eagerly sought the reports of the alternative media, who were relegated to broadcasting from sidewalks and central squares because of station shutdowns.

The assassination attempt on Zeljko Kopanja prompted widespread support from the Bosnian media in both entities -- the Muslim-dominated federation as well as the Republic of Srpska. Remarkably, three days after the attempted assassination, the non-independent Srpski Glas, along with Nezavisne Novine, ran a blank front page emblazoned with the words “We Want to Know” to show their outrage over the crime. The night before, Bosnian television interrupted their programming and posted the same message on a blank screen.

The struggles of the independent media are a reminder that the crucial conflicts in the Balkans are not inter-ethnic but are fought between the voices of reason and the voices of intolerance.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000