Doing their masters’ bidding: Media smear campaigns in central and eastern Europe

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”104453″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Additional reporting by Ada Borowicz, Ilcho Cvetanoski, Lazara Marinković and Zoltán Sipos

Unpatriotic behaviour. Sedition. Being in the pay of shadowy external forces. Faking a neo-Nazi event. These are just a few of the charges that have recently been levelled against independent journalists by pro-government media outlets in several central and eastern European countries.

The opening volley in a sustained campaign of vilification directed at Serbia‘s independent media was fired by the state-owned weekly Ilustrovana Politika at the end of October, with an article that accused journalists who are critical of the government of being “traitors and collaborators with the enemies of Serbia”.

Two weeks later, Ilustrovana Politika followed up with another piece that accused the veteran journalist Ljiljana Smajlović – who has long been critical of the nationalistic legacy bequeathed on the country by its former leader Slobodan Milosević and co-founded the Commission Investigating the Murders of Journalists in Serbia – of complicity in the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade.

In mid-December, Ilustrovana Politika’s campaign of character assassination against Smajlović ratcheted up another level with a garish front page depicting her as a Madonna figure with two naked infants bearing the features of Veran Matić, the chairman of the commission, and US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott.

Smajlović has no doubt over what lies behind this tidal wave of denigration, of which she has become the prime target.

History repeating itself?

Editor Slavko Ćuruvija was murdered in 1999.

Editor Slavko Ćuruvija was murdered in 1999.

The long-running trial of four ex-members of the Serbian intelligence service accused of the murder of Dnevni Telegraf editor Slavko Ćuruvija – shot dead in April 1999 a few days after the pro-government Politika Ekspres accused him of welcoming the NATO bombardment – is now in its final stages, and Smajlović is convinced that the current campaign against her is designed to influence the judges in the case.

“The attacks come from the same Milosevic-era editors who also targeted my colleague Ćuruvija as a traitor prior to his assassination,” she told Mapping Media Freedom. “What is also sinister is that they are published and printed by the same state-owned media company that targeted Slavko nearly twenty years ago.”

“The clear implication is that I am the same kind of traitor as he was. How will that affect the judges? Will they fear this is not a good time to hold state security chiefs to account?” she added.

While Smajlović admits that Ilustrovana Politika’s denunciation has made her feel insecure, she insists she is less concerned for her own safety than worried about the consequences for the outcome of the Ćuruvija trial. Quoting Marx’s dictum that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce”, Smajlović said. “I hope this is the farce part.”

Laying the blame

In Serbia and other central and eastern European countries, the assignment of responsibility for historic causes of resentment and the potential of these to further divide a polarised public often form the background to attacks on independent journalists by their state-approved colleagues.

The thorny topic of Poland’s relations with Germany during the last century recently gave pro-government media in Poland a chance to accuse independent media of being insufficiently patriotic and even of falsifying facts.

Journalist Bartosz Wieliński was targeted by the head of TVP Info's news site.

Journalist Bartosz Wieliński was targeted by the head of TVP Info’s news site.

In November, after Bartosz Wieliński, a journalist with the independent daily Gazeta Wyborcza, gave a critical account of a speech made by the Polish ambassador to Berlin at a conference devoted to the centenary of Poland’s independence, the head of the state broadcaster’s news website, TVP Info, accused him of lying and of putting the interests of Germany before those of his own country.

Only a few days before this attack, two media outlets that support Poland’s ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party accused the independent US-owned channel TVN of fabricating the evidence on which a report about the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Poland was based.

Since it came to power in 2015, PiS – which has been accused by its critics of tolerating organisations that espouse far-right ideologies – has put pressure on independent media outlets, many of which are foreign-owned, as part of its campaign to “re-polonise” the media, and now appears to be using the public broadcaster and other tame outlets as accessories in this drive.

Willing accomplices

In Hungary, where the government led by Viktor Orbán has succeeded in imposing tight control on all but a few determinedly independent media outlets, a number of loyal publications are available for the purposes of vilification.

2015 Freedom of Expression Journalism Award winner Tamás Bodoky, founder of

2015 Freedom of Expression Journalism Award winner Tamás Bodoky, founder of

In September, a whole raft of pro-government media outlets vied with each other to depict Tamás Bodoky, the editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism platform Átlátszó and winner of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism, as a “Soros hireling”. Bodoky became the target of a co-ordinated smear campaign after he posted on Facebook a picture of himself taken in Brussels with Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, whose report on the Fidesz government’s infringement of core EU values had formed the basis for the European parliament’s censure motion against Hungary a few weeks earlier.

Another Hungarian journalist, András Dezső, who works for the independent news website, also recently came under attack from pro-government media outlets after a Budapest court let him off with a reprimand over a case in which he was alleged to have made unauthorised use of personal information. In an article published before April’s general election, Dezső had cast doubt on the account of a woman who declared on Hungarian TV that she felt safer in Budapest than in Stockholm because of the lower level of immigration in Hungary. The airing of the interview by the public broadcaster was seen as providing support for Fidesz’s anti-immigration stance and aiding its election victory.

A criminal charge was issued against Dezső for “misuse of personal data”, and after he received what was described in the Hungarian media as “the mildest possible punishment”, two pro-government news websites, and, accused him of deliberately propagating fake news and seeking to mislead his readers.

Why do they do it?

What motivates those journalists who smear their colleagues who seek to hold power to account?

There does not appear to be a simple answer to this question. While some may vilify fellow journalists to order purely for financial gain (or because of a desire for job security, government-sponsored media outlets generally being on a more secure financial footing than their independent counterparts), some appear to approach the task with at least a measure of conviction.

Ilcho Cvetanoski, who reports on Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro for Mapping Media Freedom and has observed many smear campaigns over the years, believes that financial and ideological motivating factors are often inextricably intertwined. He points out that two decades on from the armed conflicts in the region, Balkans societies are still deeply divided along ideological and ethnic lines, and many people still find it extremely difficult to accept the right of others to see things differently. Cvetanoski notes that there are many “true believers” who are genuinely convinced that they have a duty to defend their country from the “other” – a group in which they tend to lump critical journalists along with mercenaries, spies and traitors.

Lazara Marinković, who covers Serbia for Mapping Media Freedom, believes that the main motivation there is a need to be on the winning side and to please those in power. “Often they actually enjoy doing it, either for ideological reasons or because they feel more powerful when they are on the side of the ruling party,” she told Mapping Media Freedom. Marinković noted that the majority of Serbian tabloids and TV stations that conduct smear campaigns against independent journalists are owned by businessmen who have close links to President Aleksandar Vučić’s national conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Vučić began his political career during the Milosević era, when he served as Minister of Information.

In Poland, the divisions in society and the consequent lack of tolerance in political culture have been blamed for the increasing polarisation of the media. Michal Głowacki, a professor of media studies at Warsaw University, told Mapping Media Freedom that journalists take their cue from politicians in failing to show respect for fellow journalists associated with the “other side”. “They even use the same language as politicians,” Głowacki notes.

This is a view echoed by Hungarian journalist Anita Kőműves, a colleague of Bodoky’s at Átlátszó. Kőműves, however, insists that while journalists who work for independent media outlets strive to uphold the principles of journalistic ethics, the same cannot be said of those employed by pro-government outlets. “Some of those serving the government at propaganda outlets think that the two ‘sides’ of the Hungarian media are equally biased and that they are not acting any differently from their counterparts in the independent media sphere. However, this is not true: pro-government propaganda outlets do not adhere to even the basic rules of journalism,” she told Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][vc_raw_html]JTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwd2lkdGglM0QlMjI3MDAlMjIlMjBoZWlnaHQlM0QlMjI0MDAlMjIlMjBzcmMlM0QlMjJodHRwcyUzQSUyRiUyRm1hcHBpbmdtZWRpYWZyZWVkb20udXNoYWhpZGkuaW8lMkZ2aWV3cyUyRm1hcCUyMiUyMGZyYW1lYm9yZGVyJTNEJTIyMCUyMiUyMGFsbG93ZnVsbHNjcmVlbiUzRSUzQyUyRmlmcmFtZSUzRQ==[/vc_raw_html][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1545385969139-cb42990e-b3e2-3″ taxonomies=”9044″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The people investigating Serbia’s unsolved journalist murders


Journalist Slavko Curuvija, murdered in Belgrade in 1999 (Photo: Predrag Mitic)

As NATO bombs were falling on the Serbian capital Belgrade on 11 April 1999 , a man was being executed on a side street in the centre of the city. The victim was later identified as Slavko Curuvija, a prominent Serbian anti-regime journalist. A post mortem found that Curuvija had been shot in the back 17 times. Five days earlier the state-run daily Politika Ekspres had published an article calling Curuvija a traitor and a NATO supporter.

Fast forward to 1 June 2015: the trial of four former security officers begins before a special court in Belgrade. It took 16 years for anyone to stand trial over what had become a notorious case of intimidation of journalists in Serbia.

Much of the credit for pursuing a cause by many considered lost can go to veteran journalist Veran Matic, the editor-in-chief of media group B92.

Several Serbian governments had shown no signs that they were willing to solve Curuvija’s case; the same goes for many other war-time murders. For years, Matic and his fellow journalists would mark the anniversary of Curuvija’s death by laying flowers at Svetogorska Street, where he lived and died, and by raising awareness in the media and with the government. It was not enough.

In 2013, Matic was fed up with waiting for answers about the murders of his colleagues. He proposed to form a special body to investigate the killings of Curuvija and two other journalists. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic — then deputy prime minister — gave Matic permission to form the Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists in Serbia. It was an unexpected move. As Curuvija was being executed on a Belgrade side street, Vucic was minister of information in President Slobodan Milosevic’s government.

“Some criticised the establishment of the commission for giving an opportunity to Vucic to clear his past,” says Matic, referring to the unease many journalists felt towards Vucic, who was highly critical towards independent media during the nineties.

“Marking every year the anniversary of the killing, visiting the place of assault, criticising the state again and again for failing to resolve those crimes became very humiliating for me,” Matic said. “In this way, I have been given another instrument through which I could do something in practice.”

It was clear that Matic needed the government’s cooperation if he wanted the murders to be solved. “I wanted to get hold of every single document and, in order to do this, we needed a commission that would be supported by the government,” he said. But Matic managed to ensure the body was made up of three representatives of the independent media, three members of the ministry of internal affairs and three representatives of the security information agency. With Matic himself serving as the commission’s chairman, journalists will always be in the majority.

Progress and challenges 


(Photo: Predrag Mitic)

The commission is focusing on three big murder cases from the recent past. The work around Curuvija’s case has been the most successful until now, with four people charged. Trials for former Chief of State Security Rade Markovic and the two ex-secret service officers Ratko Romic and Milan Radonjic began 1 June. The fourth accused is Miroslav Kurak, also a former state security member and the man who is believed to have pulled the trigger on Curuvija. He is being tried in absentia, as he is still at large, an Interpol warrant issued for his arrest. There are clues that Kurak is living in Central or South Africa where he owns a hunting safari agency.

The Dada Vujasinovic case is perhaps the most difficult, as the murder took place over two decades ago. Vujasinovic was a reporter for the news magazine Duga and wrote about Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan. She was found dead in her apartment in 1994. The police ruled it a suicide, but most evidence disputes this. When the commission started working on the case, there were doubts about the forensic research done in Serbia at the time. “I decided that the first step would be to seek expertise outside of the country, as the trust in domestic institutions had been compromised,” said Matic. “We asked the Dutch National Forensic Institute based in The Hague, who offered to perform the forensic examinations for 35,000 euro. We are now raising funds for this, given that the prosecutor’s office has no budget for these services.”

The third case is that of Milan Pantic, who was murdered in June 2001 while entering his apartment building in the central Serbian town of Jagodina. Attackers broke his neck, and was also struck on the head with a sharp object. Pantic worked for the newspaper Vecernje Novosti, where he reported on criminal affairs and corruption in local companies. Prior to the killing, he had received numerous telephone threats in response to articles he had written. It’s not an easy task to investigate. “We know that one of the suspects is living in Germany under a different name,” explained Matic. “But we didn’t get permission to conduct an interview with him.”

The commission is also looking into the deaths of 16 media staffers from RTS — Serbia’s state broadcaster — who were killed during a NATO airstrike targeting its headquarters in 1999. “This is a very complex issue,” said Matic. “The executioner is certainly a pilot of one of the NATO member countries. The people who decided to put a media company on the list of war targets should face trial, as well as those who issued the order to launch missiles and kill the media workers. And also the people responsible in Serbia, who knew the building would be bombed and did not evacuate it.” NATO is refusing to cooperate in this case.

Unique commission

It is of great importance, Matic believes, that these cold cases will be solved. “Unpunished crimes, especially this committed by state institutions, only call for new violence, threats and endangerment of the safety of journalists. It leaves deep scars in the lives of journalists in this country and it contributes to censorship and fear.”

A commission like this is unique in the world; a government body controlled by independent media representatives. And its first success, the arrests in the Curuvija murder case, was surprising to many who’d lost faith in the justice system in Serbia. “This commission was not established by politicians. On the contrary, they accepted all my requests and ideas,” said Matic. “This is quite an atypical commission that works on making results, and none of its members have any political or other motives, but solely finding the killers and masterminds that hide behind the killings, and bringing them to justice.”

Jailing the head of Serbia’s secret service during the nineties, a dark period for both the country and its internal security apparatus, has come with a high price. Matic now lives under 24/7 police protection and he can’t travel anywhere without a police escort. “Some names have again been brought to light, along with their disgraceful role [in the killings]. Some are threatened with arrest, while some of them have been arrested already,” he said of the ongoing investigation.

Matic receives threats often, mostly via email, some of them to his life. But he has gotten used to having police officers in front of his door at all times because, he said, the truth is worth the compromise.

“This is the price we have to pay in order to resolve those crimes,” he said. “It will contribute to the catharsis of our society.”


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An earlier version of this article stated that Aleksandar Vucic was interior minister when the commission was set up. This has been corrected.

This article was posted on 16 July 2015 at