Cold cases: When journalists probe murders of colleagues

It’s all well and good to remember slain journalists with days of commemoration. But Veran Matic emphasizes that this isn’t enough.

Source: UNESCO
(UNESCO)
(UNESCO)

It’s thanks to him going a lot further that three security officials are now in prison for murdering journalists more than 15 years ago, and justice is underway in several other cases.

“I think it’s rather absurd to mark annual anniversaries of the killings of our colleagues, and call on the authorities on that occasion to resolve those cases. It will never happen, if that is all we do,” he said.

Matic is a Serbian legend, both for his courage and independence and for his work to bring together journalists with police and state security representatives in a commission to combat the culture of impunity in the murders of journalists. The commission, which gives support to judicial bodies to act in accordance with law, is a model that is now being duplicated elsewhere in the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

“I decided to propose a stronger initiative for my fellow journalists, to take an active part in investigations, influencing the dynamics through constant public pressure, as well as trying to realize what seems to be the problem and why all those cases fail to be resolved,” said Matic.

Veran Matic has been editor-in-chief and chairman of the Serbian broadcaster and web portal B92 since its founding in 1989. He has been honored with
numerous awards, including the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Annual Award in 1993, the Olof Palme Memorial Fund’s prize for professional journalism and promotion of international understanding, the Ilaria Alpi Award, and the MTV Free Your Mind Award.

The International Press Institute named him one of 50 World Press Freedom Heroes. France has made him a Knight of the Legion of Honor. But his greatest legacy might be as founder and president of the Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists in Serbia. The Commission, founded in 2013 as an official government body, consists of journalists and journalist associations, and representatives of the police and the Serbian State Security Agency. It tracks threats and violence against journalists and ensures that unsolved cases aren’t forgotten.

Its work has already led to criminal charges in one of Serbia’s most notorious journalist killings: the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija, the founder and editor- in-chief of Dnevni telegraf, Serbia’s first private daily newspaper. The Commission also works to eradicate the conditions that lead to impunity: it educates prosecutors, judges and police representatives about journalistic standards, the importance of the profession, its rights and respect for freedom of expression. At the same time, it educates journalists on the legal system and on professional standards.

Successful initiatives to protect journalists and combat impunityAnd it sees its role as educating the public as well, to build understanding of the value of independent journalism, and how attacks on journalists are attacks on society as well. Among other initiatives, its 2014 media campaign on these issues, supported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, won a Bronze Lion at the International Cannes Lions Festival.

But it was its work investigating the murder of Curuvija that has drawn the most attention. At the time of his murder in April 1999, Dnevni telegraf was the country’s largest circulating print publication and, immediately prior to the founder’s killing, it had been banned by the regime of then-president Slobodan Milosevic for its critical coverage.

In 2013, the newly formed Commission gave additional stimulus for the state bodies to resolve the case of the killing of Curuvija and two other Serbian journalists, Milan Pantić, and Dada Vujasinovic. After a one-year investigation, charges in Curuvija’s murder were filed against four members of the former Serbian State Security Service. Three are being held and one is a fugitive.

The indictment states that Curuvija was killed because of his “public statements in the country and abroad, and criticism of the holders of political power, the possibility of influencing public opinion and action of opposition of social forces, for the sake of preserving the existing government.”
In other words, he was killed for doing his job.

The trial, which began on 1 June, 2015, continues. The Serbian Commission is the first of what Matic hopes will become an international network of such bodies, a regional and global effort involving journalists and police, and also including prosecutors and judges with the aim of ending the culture of impunity that has allowed the killers of journalists to escape punishment and prosecution.

Serbia has provided the model, and the Balkans are providing the proving ground, a place where the legacy of war and division provides ample cases of impunity, and where the threats continue. A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch painted a stark picture of an environment where journalists, editors and media owners face threats, attacks and other types of intimidation in the region. Matic himself works under ground.

A second Commission was established in Montenegro in 2013. It is headed by Nikola Markovic, Editor in Chief of the daily newspaper Dan, whose owner and
former editor Dusko Jovanovic was murdered in 2004. A similar initiative is underway in Kosovo (under UN Security Council Resolution 1244), with the support of the OSCE and the President, to investigate 13 unresolved murders of journalists, dating back to 1998.

Regional cooperation is key to successful investigations, Matic explains. Cases of journalists killed in the former Yugoslavia are now under the jurisdiction of the newly formed states that took part. “This makes it rather hard to investigate those killings separately,” he notes.

For example, Matic points to the 2008 murder in Croatia of Ivo Pukanic, the owner of the Nacional newspaper, and Niko Franjic, its marketing manager.

He believes that Pukanic was “assassinated by professional executioners from Serbia and Bosnia, in cooperation with Croatian criminals, while the murder was ordered from a third country, and all linked to the tobacco mafia that has been working in a fourth country,” Matic states.

A Croatian court convicted six people in the murder, but the court was unable to determine who commissioned the assassination. Three of the six were also tried in Serbia, where one was convicted and two were acquitted. Matic hopes the three commissions in the region are only the start.

“We should proceed with forming institutions to protect journalists on the national levels in many countries, establishing connections between those institutions, and connect them with other similar institutions of the Council of Europe, and with international journalists associations to create international and regional networks for the protection of journalists,” he says.

This article was originally published in UNESCO's book, "An Attack on One is an Attack on All: Successful Initiatives to Protect and Combat Impunity"

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