Attacks on Journalists: How to Become a “Traitor of Your People”
Attacks on Journalists: How to Become a “Traitor of Your People”
The pattern: first, the government targets you; then come attacks on social media.
In our region, there is practically no journalist doing their work seriously, professionally and wholeheartedly, who has not sometimes been the target of attacks, threats, insults, hate speech or discreditation. Attacks and pressures seem to have become a form of validation of journalistic quality.
Since the onset and speedy development of the Internet and social networks, attacks have multiplied. This is due to several reasons: first, journalists are accessible to a large number of citizens, including those with “objections” to their work. Second, threats on social networks are harder to sanction because it is easier to hide the identity of the attackers; and third, social networks are highly suitable for organising campaigns to violate the safety of journalists.
The latter is evidenced by examples from our colleagues, who have received hundreds of threats and insults in a matter of hours, which might indicate that these are organised campaigns backed by specific organisations, such as political parties in power or extremist groups.
The most common pattern of exhorting “undesirable” journalists is easy to identify: first, they are targeted (for example, as “enemy of the state or society”) by government representatives (sometimes the opposition) and/or pro-government (or politically biased) media. Then the pressures and attacks are transferred to social networks.
The Reuters survey on the safety of journalists in our region showed that as much as 63 per cent of journalists who were targeted by attacks and pressures and who took part in the survey stated that they had been attacked by politicians as the result of their work. According to other reports, more than half of all attacks happen on the internet and social networks.
Although (verbal) attacks on social networks dominate, it should not be disregarded that our region still has a high number of physical and verbal attacks on journalists in the “real world”, including journalists being arrested because of their critical reporting.
The number of attacks on journalists is inversely proportional to the level of democratic development of a country, while pressures and attacks are exacerbated by the fact that they are not properly sanctioned – at least not to a sufficient extent. The impunity of attacks on journalists makes their situation a lot more difficult in any case, and the impunity f those cases is especially evident in the cases of journalists who are critical of the government or critically deviate from the (nationalist) narrative that is broadly accepted in the societies of this region. Attacks on journalists are also facilitated by the lack or frailty of tradition in terms of media freedoms and serious public dialogue in society.
If they follow the code of ethics and professional standards, journalists have the obligation to uncover social deviations and fight against them; by definition, they are the “guardians of democracy” who uncover information that is not publicly available and are obliged to present them, even if those in power do not like it or if the information contradicts the narrative of the majority. Accordingly, a professional journalist always has their critical blade “at the ready” and works for public interest which is, by definition, related to the objective, accountable, complete and timely reporting of information, and often contradicts the interests of political and other elites.
A journalist’s role bears a lot of responsibility and if they do their job right, as a rule, they are bound to come into conflict with the interests of the majority, ruling or powerful groups. In this area, there is an enormous number of journalists who reduce their role to simple propaganda or promotion of the ruling elites and ideologies, but these journalists are hardly ever targeted by attacks or hate speech. The ones who get attacked are the journalists who do their job in line with ethical and professional guidelines.
How to become a “traitor”?
Journalists of this region are often labelled as “traitors”, meaning that they are doing something that jeopardises the interests of their nation or country. It also means that they represent a threat that needs to be removed. The label is, therefore, extremely dangerous. Naturally, it has different permutations in various countries. In Serbia, the “traitor” journalists are also “foreign mercenaries” and “spies”, whereas in Croatia, they are called “commies”; “Yugo Chetniks” or something along those lines. In Kosovo, those who are critical of the government and the social situation are often proclaimed to be working for the interests of Serbia or Russia, and the situation is also similar in Montenegro.
Journalists are predominantly proclaimed to be “traitors” in three cases. First, when they are critical of the government in their reporting, if they uncover corruption affairs, the links between the government and criminals or point to other issues in the functioning of the government or the state apparatus. To discredit their reporting, they are dubbed “traitors” working for the interests of external or internal “forces” wishing to undermine the state and, say, threaten its sovereignty.
One such example is the case of the Belgrade research centre “KRIK” editor, Stevan Dojčinović, who has frequently been called a “traitor” and “foreign mercenary” because of his work researching corruption and links of the Serbian government with the crime world. He and his colleagues were even targeted by properly organised surveillance campaigns.
The above terms were very popular in Serbia in the nineties and Milošević’s regime used them at the time to label everyone who was critical of the government, especially if they were against the aggressive nationalist politics of this country that waged expansionist, criminal wars in the region. Today, you don’t have to criticise nationalism and other related social issues to be called a “traitor”; all you need to do is “step on the toes” of powerful people who identify themselves with the state.
Considering the fact that the region experienced horrific wars not so long ago, the societies here are very sensitive to any talks of the crimes carried out in their name during the nineties. These topics are practically extinct from public discourse in some countries. Editors most often want nothing to do with them because they can harm the media business. Besides that, it has been over two decades since the wars ended, which makes it difficult to investigate those events.
The journalists who dare venture into these topics – which happened more frequently in the past – are exposed to severe pressures and declared “traitors”. Naturally, this does not apply only to journalists, but also citizen activists who actively promote “dealing with the past”.
In the past decade, the majority of this region’s societies saw an almost complete eradication of any discussion (it never truly began) about the nineties and the role of the elites, but also of individual citizens, in the wars. In parallel, expectedly, nationalist hatred keeps increasing, which additionally hinders the job of journalists dealing with the recent past. In this sense, it can be argued that the media of the region – with a few exceptions – are failing to fulfil a very important social function.
Some experts emphasise that the media played a key part in creating an atmosphere of hatred and violence in the late eighties and during the nineties, so it would be only right to let them play a key part in the process of reconciliation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. On the contrary, the media and journalists who try to do just that are exposed to attacks and called “traitors”. Whereas many other media who are close to the government and/or extreme right-wing groups continue to reinforce nationalist stereotypes and create an atmosphere of hatred.
Apart from talking about the nineties and war crimes committed in the name of the society they belong to, journalists are also declared “traitors” if they oppose the dominant nationalist narratives or certain un-critical social axioms that are mostly based on auto-victimisation or innocence of a specific nation and the portrayal of Others (members of other nations, religions or races) as the enemies, whether current or potential.
It can be said that in almost every country of ex- Yugoslavia – somewhere less, somewhere more so – there is a cemented nationalist and generally adopted narrative that is very dangerous to oppose. It is also dangerous for a journalist to be critical of or to re-examine some “holy cows” of their society, for instance, to “mess with” religious institutions or the ever-popular “national workers”.
Due to all of this, it is no wonder that the research carried out by the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM) identified journalists as one of the groups most targeted by hate speech in the region. While investigating hate speech in the Western Balkans, SEENPM found that, in addition to journalists, the most vulnerable groups that are most exposed to hate speech are migrants and political opponents. Regardless of the target, the narrative basis of hate speech boils down to reinforcing stereotypes and threats that “they” or the “others” pose to society, i.e., to “us”. Regardless of whether the targets are migrants, politicians from the opposition or journalists.
Migrants are the most vulnerable in this sense because they enjoy the least protection, because the attacks on them are less visible and, also, because the message/narrative of hate speech in their case often includes “calls to action”. Unsurprisingly, this research also showed that the internet and social networks are the space where the majority of identified hate speech cases take place.
Serbia – Vukašin Obradović
According to the report of the Serbian ombudsman Protector of Citizens, this country did not record any progress in 2020 in terms of freedom of speech and expression. On the contrary, the number of physical and verbal attacks on journalists increased. There are different records of attacks, with the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS) reporting 111 attacks in 2020, which is 20 per cent more than in the previous year.
The database of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS), however, recorded as many as 189 attacks on journalists in the same period, which is 60 per cent more than in 2019. The ones that stand out are attacks on journalists that took place during the anti-government protests in July 2020, when 28 journalists, camerapeople and photojournalists who reported from the protests were attacked or obstructed, 14 of which were injured, while six of the attacked journalists required immediate medical assistance.
Some journalists were also arrested last year, for instance, Ana Lalić, a journalist from Novi Sad, was detained for reporting unfavourably about the work of the Clinical Centre of Vojvodina in the context of the pandemic. The popular radio host from Novi Sad, Daško Milinović, was also recently physically assaulted and, as it was later uncovered, the assailants were members of extremist right-wing groups.
One of the journalists who has been repeatedly dubbed a “traitor” over the past decades is the former president of NUNS Vukašin Obradović, founder and editor of the local weekly magazine “Vranjske”, which was discontinued in the meantime.
During the lifespan of “Vranjske” magazine (from 1994 to 2017), Obradović and its other employees were continuously exposed to various types of attacks: from anonymous death threats, physical assaults, threats to family members to the magazine’s offices being raided by Serbian volunteers.
During that period, their newsroom was broken into three times, robbed twice and ransacked once. The windows on Obradović’s car were shattered in front of his building on two occasions. “Vranjske” magazine was also fined under Šešelj’s and Vučić’s Act on Public Information in 1999. He also experienced many incidents as the president of NUNS in the period from 2010 to 2017.
“One of the articles that resulted in most attacks is definitely the interview I did with Serbian volunteer Slobodan “Top” Mišić (published in 1997), who confessed to murdering around seventy people in the Croatian and Bosnian front. He was known in Vranje for carrying human ears around with him in a handkerchief, showing them off as trophies. Another case was the series of articles on paedophilia in the Serbian Orthodox Church. From the first story that ran in early 2003 until the end of the trial, we were constantly monitored by “patriot forces” who applied permanent pressure on members of the newsroom”, Obradović said.
He adds that they were also subjected to many attacks and pressures due to a series of articles about the criminal activities and affairs of the so-called “Keka’s group”.
“This gang was particularly active in Southern Serbia from 2008 onwards. The threats we received about it were very serious because their business interests were suffering”; he claims.
Obradović emphasised that, as president of NUNS, he was most frequently exposed to threats coming from pro-government tabloids who declared him a “traitor” and “alcoholic”, once even identifying him as a member of the group that was allegedly preparing an assassination of Aleksandar Vučić, naturally, aided by a “foreign factor”.
He says that journalists’ associations and organisations, both foreign and local, responded and provided support in all cases of attacks on him and his newsroom.
“This was mostly in the form of press releases, protests, appeals... It meant a lot to us, primarily morally. It helped us because it let us know, as well as the ones applying pressure on us, that we weren’t alone and that our colleagues supported us. On the other hand, the fact that none of these cases was ever solved, nobody was charged or processed, proves that we had no support from government bodies which, in my opinion, provided an additional boost to the pressures we experienced, while the impunity of the perpetrators gave wind to everyone who had a grudge against the ‘Vranjske’ magazine or, later, NUNS”, says Obradović, adding that the best defence for journalists is solidarity and publicity.
“We have to continually support our colleagues who are under all sorts of pressure and, by doing that, keep the topic open to the public. This is our only protection in the situation when those who should take care of journalists’ safety, which is the police, prosecutors and judiciary, fail to do so. Not only do politicians not care about the safety of journalists – they often dehumanise them in their statements, making them moving targets,” Obradović says.
When asked about how he and his work were affected by the attacks and pressures, Obradović says: “The key moment is when you finally accept that it’s part of the job, now and here, and decide not to back down, not to compromise, to show everyone that they can’t scare you. It is very important to inform the associations and the public of each attack, even the “smallest” one, because – I repeat – it is our only defence. Of course, at the same time, you need to work on solidarity, not just in the form of taps on your back, but concrete support, from moral to financial. I feel that this is the only way we can preserve the free spirit that still lives in a small number of media in Serbia.”
Croatia – Hrvoje Zovko and Ivica Đikić
Although it has been a member of the EU since 2013, The level of media freedoms and journalists’ safety in Croatia cannot be said to be particularly high. In this year’s report of “Reporters Without Borders” dealing with the situation of media freedoms in the world, Croatia is in 56th place, just above Bosnia and Herzegovina (58th place).
The report states that Croatian journalists investigating corruption, organised crime or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns. It emphasises that physical attacks, along with threats and cyber-violence, continue to be a major problem for journalists without any reaction from the authorities.
Recently, member of the European Parliament Predrag Fred Matić (Sociodemocratic Party of Croatia) stated that journalists and media workers in Croatia are subjected to a lot of pressure and that establishing adequate measures for their protection is a matter of urgency. It is common in Croatia to demonize and proclaim as “traitors” those journalists who fail to report in accordance with the ruling state-building narrative or report on crimes committed by Croatian forces in the Homeland War. The portal SafeJournalists recorded 49 attacks on journalists in Croatia over the past few years.
One of those “traitors” is the current president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association, Hrvoje Zovko. He says that he was frequently declared a “chetnik” or “collaborator of Serbian secret services” because of his reporting.
“Insults and threats are, unfortunately, part of everyday life for journalists. I often faced these issues. I was declared a chetnik, collaborator of Serbian secret services, mercenary, right-wing portals published dozens of articles about me, one of which contained my full name. They were terribly annoyed by the fact that my name is Hrvoje and that I’m a supporter of FC Dinamo, but still refused to fit the narrative of the great Croatians – that is, to hate everyone of a different creed or nation, and other Croatians who think differently,” says Zovko, adding that he sued some of the portals that attacked him and won, “just to prove he’s not afraid.”
Zovko also says that, as an HRT journalist, he also dealt with war crimes and that no topic was untouchable or sacred to him.
“I’m a journalist, not a socio-political worker. Apart from covering themes about numerous crimes committed by the JNA and Serbian paramilitary units in Croatia, I also covered the liquidation of Serbian civilians, for example, in Sisak and Pakračka poljana, I reported on the murder of Aleksandra Zec and questioned whether the Croatian government could have done more to help Vukovar and its defenders – civilians – under siege in 1991,” Zovko says.
He adds that there was a period when he and his family were targeted by some veterans’ organisations and extreme right-wing portals in an organised campaign.
“They threatened to come to my door, asked HRT to fire me… Some members of parliament attacked me from the podium and declared me a national traitor. I was personally never afraid of the human scum, but it is not a pleasant experience. That some of my work doesn’t fit into the prescribed narrative is not my problem. I do as I believe to be right. When I was in Serbia as a correspondent for HRT, Serbian radicals called me an Ustasha; here in Croatia, the same type of people on the Croatian side called me a Chetnik. That must mean I’m doing something right,” he says.
Zovko says that he is happy with the reaction of the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND) at the time he was exposed to “the worst, most vile campaigns.”
“HND stood by me, which cannot be said for HRT management, regardless of who was the head of the broadcaster. They never supported me publicly. Only my colleagues and co-workers, but the HRT management – nothing! It is always important for a media outlet to stand by its people. Journalistic solidary is important to show the human waste that they are not attacking a single person – we are not alone,” he says.
He believes the first thing a journalist should do if targeted is to report it to the police.
“My experiences with the police have been good. You see, those who issue threats are nothing but cowards when the police knock on their door, in the face of a police officer. We at HND today keep records of all attacks, threats going back 5-6 years, we have precise numbers and we’re part of the SafeJournalists network. Swift response and notifying international partners and organisations are also very important steps,” Zovko believes.
When asked what he’d say to other journalists subjected to attacks, Zovko says: “All I can say to my colleagues is that they shouldn’t be afraid and to show solidarity for one another. As I said, I was not afraid, but some situations were unpleasant, and it all affects your family, too. It is not nice when your child is told on the street or in school that their father is a traitor. But it did not break or scare me. All I have to say to them is: tough luck! I’ll keep on doing what I do”.
Famous Croatian author and journalist Ivica Đikić spent the best part of his professional career working (as a journalist or editor) for the “Feral Tribune” or “Novosti” (he works for “Novosti” to this day) – newspapers that are perceived or were perceived in Croatia as anti-nationalist, traitor press.
“As far as I’m concerned, the majority of attacks – public or private, oral or written threats, curses, intimidation, smear campaigns and publishing of fabrications… - were the result of my writing in these media outlets. By itself, it was enough for permanent anathema. To a lesser extent, some of the attacks were the result of specific articles, for example, the article on war crimes committed by members of the Croatian Army and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO). The accusation of national treason in my case is consistent and generally accepted by people who think in those terms. I don’t believe it will ever change, especially because I was expected to be completely opposite to what I am, having been born and raised in a region where “Croatianhood” became the measure of all things,” Đikić says.
He believes that the full support of your media outlet, editors and publishers is the first and key mechanism for the protection of journalists, regardless of whether they are facing political accusations of treason or another cause and form of pressure and attacks.
“I was mainly lucky to have my editors and publishers on my side, supporting my articles, and I don’t recall ever asking for protection or help outside of ma media outlet. I also made sure to never stay quiet, to at least reciprocate in kind to anyone who attacked me either in public or privately by sending me messages or calling me on the telephone. Based on twenty-five years of experience, I can say that this approach is very disheartening and paralysing for various deadbeats, thugs and other scum of nationalist provenance”, says Đikić.
He says the attacks didn’t leave him unfazed, because some of them came from close relatives, former friends, school friends and good acquaintances. But they failed to deter him or lead him to the “right path.”
“They did their thing and I did mine, so they eased up eventually. But, if I must give advice to my colleagues – I’m not at all prone to these “instructor” outbursts, no matter the subject matter – then my advice would be to get away from newsrooms where their bosses and co-workers don’t show any support when they are attacked with silly and false accusations. Apart from that, I suggest they should never bother to recant accusations of national treason: it is a pointless and humiliating effort because the accusations cannot be recanted with facts and common sense. Nationalism and hatred have no connection to either of those,” he says.
Montenegro – Tanja Šuković and Balša Brković
In this year’s World Press Freedoms Index by “Reporters Without Borders”, Montenegro is ranked very low, in 104th place. The sharp and highly emotional political division in Montenegro is a suitable environment for violence and pressures on journalists and media freedoms. It is not uncommon for journalists to exchange mutual accusations of “treason of national interests.”
“Reporters Without Borders” found that the authorities continue to harass the media and professional journalists while the main cases of violence against journalists remain unpunished. The report reiterates that several journalists were briefly arrested in 2020 for allegedly disseminating false news but were acquitted on trial. It also states that journalist Jovo Martinović was convicted to one year in prison on a drug trafficking charge, “despite a lack of evidence.”
It also states that the new government, which took office in August 2020, said strengthening press freedom and improving conditions for the media and journalists would be a priority, but the promises were not fulfilled.
Radio-television of Montenegro journalists Tanja Šuković and Snežana Rakonjac were targeted by a severe harassment campaign because of the documentary “Witness of God’s Love”, which provided a portrait of late Metropolitan Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) Amfilohije Radović, who died shortly thereafter. They were accused of violating the religious beliefs of SPC members in Montenegro with the film, defaming a religious leader and that the documentary is a “forgery and Udba subterfuge of Milo Đukanović's regime”.
“As a reminder, the film about the now late metropolitan bishop was aired in February of last year, and it is a classic television self-portrait of Amfilohije Radović, who ‘painted’ his character and actions with his own brush, in his own words and messages spoken over the past three decades”, Tanja Šuković claims.
“Parallel to the insults, curses and slander at our expense and which were plentiful in the virtual space, there was simultaneous political pressure as well. The heads of political parties close to the SPC organised special press conferences to send insulting messages, demand our jobs or call for boycotting RTCG’s documentary programmes. At the same time, the Cetinje Diocese demanded a public apology for the aired documentary; as true ‘Christians’ they announced that they will not speak against the authors and gave an ultimatum to air an apology along with their own documentary on Amfilohije with the title ‘Worthy’. Our personal and professional reputations were also under attack from local obscure online portals, propaganda vehicles under open Russian and Serbian influences,” says Šuković, adding that Serbian tabloids also wholeheartedly assisted in the violation of their professional honour and reputation.
“We also received open letters to the authors of the documentary, many ‘pre-ordered’ columns and TV shows where the guests would compete in insulting us. Through coordinated efforts of the IN4S portal, Ministry of Culture and Information of Serbia and one Mlađan Đorđević, we were prevented from taking part in the TV festival ‘Pres vitez’ in Zrenjanin. Although the festival organiser officially notified us that our film passed the official selection and was entered into the competition part of the programme, we learned through the media that our documentary will not be shown in Zrenjanin after all, with the elaboration that ‘in addition to insulting religious feelings, the film can also be upsetting to viewers,’” claims Šuković, adding that RTCG cancelled the previously announced re-run of their documentary as the results of pressures coming from all sides.
Apart from the support they received from Montenegrin colleagues, with whom they are on friendly terms, Šuković states that they only received support from “dear colleagues from BiH and Vojvodina.”
“We received no other support. Professional associations from Montenegro and international organisations even went out of their way to join the ranks of those who saw nothing objectionable in the words spoken by Metropolitan Amfilohije but objected to the film. Perhaps this comparison is not the most appropriate, but it reminded me a lot of the case when journalists were lynched for publishing footage of civilians being killed in BiH, while staying silent about the ‘Scorpions’ and the priest who blessed those ruthless murderers. We had no protection. Our symbolic capital and the integrity of our names on the end credits of numerous award-winning shows – we defended and keep defending by ourselves. We turned to all relevant addresses – foreign embassies, OSCE, the European Union, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights… Mainly, we received no reply. If there was any feedback, they mostly boiled down to bureaucratic, inarticulate gibberish with no logic or essence, hypocritical replies insulting to our dignity and intelligence,” she says, stating that, on top of all that, a lawsuit is currently pending before the Commercial Court in Podgorica against the authors of the documentary, RTCG and the state of Montenegro, initiated by a composer from Serbia, the author of the music used in "Witness of God's Love".
Šuković says that it is difficult to remain immune to being targeted by shameless campaigns.
“Still, although too much hatred has been spilt, too many ugly and dangerous messages and threats sent, I do not feel that I’m in danger. I do not feel endangered because I’ve always done things in accordance with my conscience, professional standards, responsibly and wholeheartedly. And, we carry a sense of freedom within ourselves. We either have it or we don’t. I have it and I’m very happy about that,” she says.
Journalist and author Balša Brković from the Podgorica outlet “Vijesti”, known as a sharp critic of Milo Đukanović’s government, emphasises that he’s been facing various types of attacks and pressures since the early nineties.
“At the time, I opposed the war-mongering, Greater Serbian narrative of Milošević and his henchmen in Montenegro. It could be said that I witnessed all the phases of Montenegrin society throughout my career as a ‘traitor’. I received threatening letters, was detained by the police, threatened by all sorts of people. The main pro-regime media outlet called my family ‘incestuous’, while I was dubbed a ‘traitor’ and ‘drug addict’ – I guess the former seems more credible when accompanied by the latter. The ‘drug addict’ label was first given to me by one of Đukanović’s literary commissioners, because, for God’s sake, characters in my books smoked a joint or two. In the nineties, Đukanović’s government considered me a traitor because I was a proponent of democratic and independent Montenegro. Later, I was called a traitor because I thought their government was rubbish. In the nineties, I was called an ‘Ustasha’ by the same people who would later call me a ‘Chetnik’. Their position is that if you discredit the critic, the criticism is eliminated as well… That is the reason behind the unrelenting attacks on ‘Vijesti’ and independent media in Montenegro,” says Brković.
He believes nobody can protect journalists in Montenegro – not even journalists’ associations or international organisations.
“Nobody can protect you from everything. You can’t even show that you are affected by the attacks and falsehoods because that will make them even more active and cruel… Of course, society has to find a way to protect journalists. My colleague Olivera Lakić was shot in the leg in the street in front of her building… We in Montenegro are in some sort of permanent state of war,” says Brković, adding that the most reliable protection is “the belief that you’re doing something right.”
“I believe there is a beautiful satisfaction in calling things by their name,” Brković says.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Nikola Vučić and Eldin Hadžović
“Reporters Without Borders” state in their report that the polarised political climate, marked by constant verbal attacks and nationalist rhetoric, has created a hostile environment for press freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They claim that editorial policies of most media outlets reflect ethnic divisions and that hate speech is becoming increasingly evident, as well as that journalists are attacked for their ethnic origins as well as what they write, especially about migration.
The South East European Network for Professionalization of Media report especially focuses on the attacks on N1 journalist Nikola Vučić, who was targeted by a horrific campaign of several Herzegovinian web portals and serial hate speech on social networks.
In May 2020, on his profile he commented on the news that the West-Herzegovina Canton had declared itself a “corona-free zone”, sarcastically asking whether it would at some point also become a “fascism-free zone”. The SEENPM report cites data of the BH Journalists Association, which registered 56 attacks on reporters in 2019 and 69 new cases in 2020.
Sarajevan journalist Eldin Hadžović was targeted by nationalist attacks this year because of his article “They are not Serbian criminals, but the RS Army” which was published on the Prometej.ba news portal. It criticised the newly-elected Mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karić’s refusal to replace the plaque currently on the Sarajevo City Hall building which states that it was burned down by “Serbian criminals” with a plaque that – according to Hadžović – would suit the facts, without labelling an entire nation as criminals. The plaque would replace the phrase “Serbian criminals” with “the RS Army.”
“Depending on what I wrote about, I was often declared a ‘Chetnik’, ‘Ustasha’ or ‘Balija’. After the text ‘They are not Serbian criminals, but the RS Army’, I read hundreds of enraged comments, insults and vilifications directed at me. One of the commenters, who is also a member of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also sent me an explicit private message, threatening to slap me around and ‘break my fingers with a hammer’, recommending I change my name to Radovan and move to Republika Srpska”, says Hadžović, adding that he has been a freelancer for more than ten years, with no newsroom to “protect me, even symbolically.”
“In similar cases, I always turned to the Media Help Line operating as part of the professional organisation BH Journalists – not so much because I expected concrete help, but because of the need to document the incident, in case push comes to shove. I must say that the Help Line attorney reacted very quickly and forwarded my report to the relevant authorities and members of the diplomatic corps in BiH, as well as international media monitoring bodies. In this case, the Sarajevo Canton Police Department also reacted the very same day, and after the investigation, the Armed Forces of BiH also issued an official response announcing the initiation of disciplinary proceedings against the perpetrator. Of course, as always, the problem lies in the reaction of the prosecutor’s office which is yet to be heard. Also, I must say that many of my colleagues, journalists offered support either publicly or privately or by writing about the case. I would also like to thank everyone who remained silent because the absence of support can also be very indicative and useful,” he says.
Hadžović also complimented the Prometej web portal staff, who backed him unconditionally. “In terms of protection mechanisms, I think it is crucial to first raise public awareness about the criminality of attacks on journalists, which cannot be done without a combination of professional solidarity and a proactive approach of the law-based state. Journalists also have to be aware that working in the public eye must be accompanied by some healthy caution, just like all other workers have to take measures for occupational safety. We have to be aware where we live and in what circumstances we are forced to work because we are still far from the free speech ideal,” Hadžović says, adding that it is not a pleasant feeling when you are targeted by attacks and pressures, but it hasn’t significantly impacted his work.
“On the contrary, it keeps me going in some way, because I do not work or write out of exhibitionism, but out of the need to write. In that sense, even negative comments are better than no reaction at all. Being attacked by nationalists and chauvinists is a sure sign that you’re doing something right, so be brave and keep going,” he concludes.
North Macedonia – Borjan Jovanovski
According to “Reporters Without Borders”, North Macedonia is ranked 90th in the world in terms of media freedoms. During Nikola Gruevski’s rule, the media and journalists were subjected to powerful pressure and declared traitors if they dared to be critical in their reporting or point to numerous corruption affairs and the links between the government and organised crime. Unfortunately, the situation has not dramatically improved after the change in power, and (verbal) attacks, as a rule, remain unsanctioned.
The analysis of hate speech in the region, carried out by the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media, states that the pressure on journalists and editors in North Macedonia decreased in 2019 and 2020 compared to the rule of the right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE, but that some journalists and editors, especially female journalists, are still targeted by threats, insults, slander and hate speech through social media and social networks.
Macedonian journalist Borjan Jovanovski, editor and founder of NovaTV.mk, is the media worker who was probably exposed to most attacks in this country due to his reporting. During Nikola Gruevski’s rule, he received hundreds of threats and insults on social media because of his reporting, and in 2015, a funeral wreath was delivered to his doorstep with the note “The Last Goodbye!”, while his wife and two underage children were with him.
Two years later, he was also targeted by a fascist attack at the Skopje restaurant “Vodenica”. An unidentified young man entered the restaurant in an obviously planned operation and, after a brief exchange, spat on Jovanovski. Jovanovski was called a traitor, and the whole incident was recorded by the assailant’s friend on his mobile phone.
Borjan Jovanovski says that, during the rule of the VMRO-DPMNE party, he and his colleagues were permanently targeted by a stigmatisation campaign and often proclaimed as “traitors.”
“In order to maintain the cohesion of its voting body, the so-called patriotic government declared all those journalists who were critical to be traitors to national interests. Because the regime of Nikola Gruevski controlled almost the entire media scene, that campaign was conducted everywhere and managed to discredit us. You know the saying: a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth”, Jovanovski says and adds that the Association of Journalists of Macedonia always reacted to all discreditation campaigns led against him, but to no avail, because their press releases and appeals were only published on a handful of web portals that were not under Gruevski’s control.
“What I experienced greatly affected me. I can say it put me of journalism. Gruevski threw an atomic bomb on the media space. Unfortunately, the new, democratic government cannot seem to find the strength to clear up the havoc Gruevski left behind on the media scene. We are far from adequate working conditions that would facilitate the development of highly professional media,” Jovanovski says.
Slovenia – Erik Valenčič
On the “Reporters Without Borders” list, Slovenia fell from 32nd to 36th place. Although it is ranked above all other e-Yugoslavia countries, it cannot be said that it is without its fair share of attacks and pressures on journalists. They only increased with the return of Janez Janša’s right-wing party to power.
The government, including Janes Janša personally, is pressuring media outlets and journalists who are critical of it by filing lawsuits against them, but also by slanderous verbal attacks. Last year, a fierce smear campaign was waged against Blaž Zgaga, a freelance journalist and Radio Liberty Europe correspondent, for reporting on Janša's government's attitude towards the pandemic, while other critical journalists and media outlets were targeted on social media and pro-government media.
We spoke to Erik Valenčič, who was fired from RTV Slovenia in 2015 for his film "Coalition of Hate", in which he deals with the connection of Janša's Slovenian Democratic Party with the neo-Nazis, and a lawsuit was filed against him on suspicion of "betraying" secret data. He was the target of a tweet by Janez Janša, who even called him a "potential terrorist".
“I can’t say that my work was generally proclaimed to be anti-national or treacherous. This is due to the fact that I am primarily a journalist and director of documentaries dealing with Middle Eastern and African themes. But aside from that, I also report on Slovenian racist, neo-Nazi, ultranationalist and extreme right-wing groups. That is why those groups marked me as an anti-patriot and threat to the entire nation. However, this is not uncommon for them. They see the majority of our civil society – from the media and cultural organisations to the academic community – as some sort of conspiracy against the great Slovenian nation. And this is precisely what I criticise most of the time: they claim to fight for the Slovenian nation when, in fact, they despise the majority of Slovenian society. Their supposed love is completely based on hatred and paranoia,” Valenčič says.
Because of his research work on these groups, Valenčič received numerous threats and lawsuits, which were later dismissed.
“I ran into more serious problems when I exposed links between neo-Nazi groups and the far-right SDS party, which currently runs Slovenia. Its autocratic and – in my opinion – fascist head Janez Janša, who is today the Prime Minister, and the SDS leadership campaigned against me, declaring me a security threat”, says Valenčič, adding that, when he was targeted by attacks, he received support from the Slovene Association of Journalists and others who were targeted at the time.
“There are many ways in which people in power can threaten and degrade journalists. We have to fight against all of them", he says and emphasizes that the dismissal, pressures and insults did not affect his work.
“After being fired from the public broadcaster RTV SLO soon after it was taken over by new, right-wing management, I continued to do my work elsewhere, without self-censorship. I believe that we as journalists, as public persons, have to be the example. When attacked, we must fight back and always stand up for truth, freedom of expression and the right of the public to know. We must never give up, no matter what. My message is very simple: journalism is not a profession for cowards”, Valenčič says.
Kosovo – Visar Duriqi
“Reporters Without Borders” state in their report that the media in Kosovo, like almost everything else in the country, remain divided along ethnic lines. The ethnic divide creates an unfavourable environment for professional journalism and media freedoms. Kosovar journalists and media are exposed to physical and verbal attacks, as well as attacks on the Internet and social networks.
Last year, the police used the curfew during the pandemic as an excuse to detain the editor of the critical portal KoSSev, Tatjana Lazarević. The fate of many journalists who went missing, especially those who went missing or were abducted during the 1999 war, is still unknown.
In February this year, Visar Duriqi, a journalist from the portal and investigative show "Insajderi", was attacked in Priština and suffered serious bodily injuries - several of his teeth were broken and he was hospitalized.
It was the third attack on journalists of this media outlet, which most often reports on crime, corruption and various illegal activities in Kosovo. Due to the threats received by the journalists of "Insajderi", the editorial office was under 24-hour protection by the police for a while. A possible reason for the attack on Duriqi is the documentary about the Islamic State and radical Islamists in Kosovo, for which he was previously exposed to threats and insults on social networks.
Duriqi interviewed for the analysis of hate speech in the Balkans by the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media. He claimed that hate speech was very present on the internet and social networks in Kosovo. He said members of various interest groups often called for violence and that various public figures, including critical journalists, were often accused of working in the interests of Russia or Serbia.
Duriqi says that the term “traitor” is common on social networks in Kosovo and that it is mostly used against the journalists who criticise specific interest groups in their reporting.
“Being called a traitor, it’s frustrating. However, since the prosecutors never initiate an investigation against you for treason, then I don’t pay too much attention to it. Anyway, there are a lot of stupid people on social media, and also a lot of fake profiles”, says Duriqi.
He states that, when he was last physically attacked, but also in the period when he received death threats – he was strongly supported by journalists and journalist associations from the country and abroad, and that he is grateful to them for that.
“As for the death threats I received over the years, there were some lawsuits against the perpetrators, but not many have been found guilty. And even when they were punished, the penalties were low and irrelevant. In one case, a man was found guilty of threatening to kill me, and was punished, believe it or not, by confiscating his phone (confiscating the ‘weapon’ he threatened me with), he says.