Failure to act ushers in impunity

Serbia is a country which tolerates impunity with regard to murdered journalists. Not a single journalist murder case has been solved in the past twenty years and no perpetrator has been punished. We are regularly reminded of the fact by protests and symbolic actions staged every year by journalist associations calling for action. The authorities, however, remain completely silent. No breakthrough in this respect.

(B92)
(B92)

Since the 5th of October 2000 to date, every government, at the very beginning of its term in office, would declare that its priority would be to solve the murder cases of Dada Vujasinović, Slavko Ćuruvija and Milan Pantić, and, at times, the attempt on the lives of Dejan Anastasijević and his family would also be thrown in. Never have we received, however, a single piece of information on how far the murder investigations have progressed. Today, we still haven’t the faintest idea as to how these investigations will be completed. Moreover, until recently the official version of the story was that Dada Vujasinović had not been murdered but that she had committed suicide.

Lack of any palpable results in investigations or concealment of results obtained and destruction of evidence are best indicators of the attitude towards journalist murders as well as journalistic profession in general. The three cases mentioned above illustrate the point. Dada Vujasinović allegedly committed suicide, which is a story totalitarian regimes typically resort to; Slavko Ćuruvija was allegedly linked to the criminal milieu, hence his downfall, whereas Milan Pantić was accidentally murdered since this was not the original intention of the attacker who only wanted to intimidate him (as stated by former minister of interior Dragan Jočić).

Predominance of such distorted interpretations has one clear message – every journalist murder would be construed in public as if it was something normal and justified, and as if this did not come about because of what they had been doing as journalists but due to their personal flaws and unfortunate concurrence of events. Such twisted interpretations of these tragic murders have prevailed despite pledges made by governments, information ministers, interior ministers or prime ministers to get to the bottom of this mess. These stories, widely circulated, sowed the seed of doubt which served as an excuse for the failure to act which effectively meant impunity for perpetrators.

According to the International Press Institute, this year 119 journalists have been killed worldwide, which is unprecedented. In 95 percent of these cases, perpetrators will remain unknown and unpunished. This is indeed telling and one may imagine what those who do not want their crimes and violent acts to be exposed would make of it.

Thus far, in Serbia, 100 percent of journalist murder cases have not been solved. This fact has been weighing hard on all of us with respect to the degree of freedom of information achieved in the country. It is a heavy burden on our shoulders since it reflects the inability of the journalist community to stand up for its rights. It also speaks volumes about how easy it is to intimidate journalists and induce self-censorship. Finally, this is a testament to the insincere attitude of the government and institutions towards their obligation to track down the perpetrators.

In addition, this is a test for the authorities’ obligation to respect freedom of speech and media. So far, the authorities have only shown cynicism by making pledges but failing to follow through thereby rendering our profession even more vulnerable. This is a creeping repression which cannot be discerned at first glance. This is a legacy of our lack of activism. First the journalists start to vanish into thin air, then the editors, and finally the media outlets themselves.

Once we had successful strategies which would help us spawn several more media out of one media outlet that found itself under pressure. We used to launch successful campaigns in the country and abroad in order to fend off threats to journalists and attempts at violence, thereby demonstrating the strength of the media scene and journalist solidarity. Most of the times we would win. Today it looks like we have fallen prey to the scourge of impunity for crimes against journalists.

We have to do everything in our power to track down the murderers of Dada, Slavko and Milan, as well as those responsible for the failed bomb attack on Dejan and his family. If we try, we may hold every future government to account for its failure to act.

The proposal to set up an international commission, aided by experts, which would probe into the failures of all the investigations thus far is the only idea which has been put forth as a way towards the ultimate solving of these murder cases. We hope that the Serbian government would honour its pledge given several weeks ago by Serbian deputy prime minister and intelligence services coordinator, Aleksandar Vučić, and proceed to form such a commission as well as do everything in its power to ensure palpable results as soon as possible, with the support of the international community given that the initiative has been perceived as innovative and applicable.

Let this year in Serbia be the last year blighted by impunity, particularly with regard to violence against journalists, murders and attempts on the lives of journalists and their families.

However, this will not come about until after journalists and media have imposed a practice according to which each government would be held accountable for its failure to act with respect to these heinous crimes.

Veran Matić is Editor-in-Chief of B92. The International Commission for Investigating the Killings of Journalists in Serbia was established on his initiative