IWPR'S BALKAN CRISIS REPORT, No. 485 – March 17, 2004
COMMENT: THE MAFIA AND THE PRESS
Resisting underworld pressure on media
in southeast Europe
By Dragana Nikolic Solomon in Belgrade
A Serbian journalist who was made
redundant for publishing an article exposing ties between the Belgrade mafia and
the previous government recently had a sudden lucky break.
After months of unemployment, there was
at long last the prospect of work: a rich Arab oil dealer proposed to start a
newspaper and give him a job.
When the journalist tried to check the
identity of this investor, he found the Arab oil dealer was listed on a website
as the member of company that belonged to a well-known former Serbian mafia
gangster, who had in the meantime legalised his business and reinvented himself
as a cigarette manufacturer.
This example shows how mafia
encroachment on the media in south-east Europe is often difficult to spot in the
first place, let alone to curb.
War profiteers, smugglers and political
leaders with dubious pasts are all in the process of legalising businesses in
the Balkans - if they have not done so already. There is no better way of buying
respectability and influence than through the media.
The lack of transparency about ownership
in the region means the real owners of media outlets are often unknown. Nowadays
in the Balkans, there are a host of TV and local radio stations and newspapers
that all started with illegal proceeds.
The fact that some have now established
themselves as "respectable" media bodies should not deter us from asking whether
we can really trust them.
Recently, the Belgrade media reported
that the owner of TV Jesenjin - a station which is famous in Serbia because its
female news readers take their clothes off while reading out the news - was
caught handling illegally-trafficked cigarettes that were intended for sale on
the streets. Can we imagine this media outlet ever seriously covering a police
investigation on tobacco smuggling?
Who owns the media in the Balkans is a
big question. The only current major investigation into this is being
coordinated by the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia. But this a general
probe into the state of affairs throughout the region. What we need is a
detailed probe into the media in each country.
We also need a commission in each
country that would investigate ownership and prevent people from establishing a
The independent media in south-east
Europe have played an important role in the past few years in exposing the
structure of organised crime and government corruption in the region.
But journalists investigating organised
crime face enormous personal risks. If they are not murdered, they may be beaten
up or their families threatened. They are often unable to obtain protection from
either police or judiciary.
IWPR recently reported on the pressures
faced by the press in Romania whose EU membership application has been brought
into the question after series of attacks on reporters investigating links
between politics and corruption.
But the problem is not limited to
Romania. "We know where you son is and who is taking him to school," were the
chilling words one IWPR journalist in the region heard over the telephone when
he was investigating the link between the government and organised crime.
Another obvious example of mafia
pressures on the media came to our attention in IWPR only recently. In February,
Nezavisne Novine of Banja Luka printed a series of stories on the drug trade,
including the production of synthetic heroin in the Republika Srpska.
The articles listed several people
believed to be involved in the racket and accused the interior ministry in RS of
doing nothing. The paper's editor soon received threatening phone calls. There
was no reaction to these threats from either the police or any other local
When IWPR approached a local newspaper
to work on this story, the editor said it would be impossible as the journalist
would probably be killed.
Finally let me give you an example from
Macedonia. Zoran Bozinovski, a Macedonian journalist, was beaten up a few years
ago after investigating organised crime links. His attackers belonged to a
special police unit. He recognised them and one was sentenced to 20 months in
But Bozinovski believes government
officials ordered the attack, and that it was directly to do with his work as a
After the UN mission in Macedonia, the
ICG, NATO and other international organisations sent letters of protest to the
Macedonian authorities, the association of journalists organised a demo of
several hundred journalists in front of the interior ministry. "We are here, now
you can beat us as well!" ran their slogan.
Recently, Bozinovski was again
threatened, and even told that his daughters would be raped, after writing
articles about a man whom he said was controlling Macedonia's
cigarette-smuggling business. Bozinovski says that since he started to
investigate the smuggling network, he has been offered 100,000 euro to back
down. And when he declined, more threats followed.
As these examples from a number of
countries show, none of the structures which in a legal state should protect
citizens from this kind of harassment appear to be functioning.
What are the possible solutions? Long
term economic growth will of course stimulate beneficial change. Newspapers will
never be better than the society around them, and while big money remains
overwhelmingly in the hands of shady oligarchs, it is unrealistic to expect the
media to resist their pressure.
European integration may also help, as
the integration process will force governments in the region to act rather than
talk about substantive reform of their judiciary and the police.
In many western countries, public
information acts oblige companies to disclose their dealings, their profits and
losses and their management structure. There is nothing comparable in our
region, which makes it almost impossible for journalists to investigate anyone's
finances, let alone find out if they operate legally. We need reform of this
Similarly, there is no transparency in
our countries when it comes to political party or campaign finances. So it
should not surprise us that many mafia men at present enjoy support from within
Publicising information about threats to
reporters and demanding help from the international community and western press
associations will also improve matters and deter people from pressuring the
media in such a naked way.
This is not yet happening widely. The
various associations of journalists in our region tend only to react when
individuals that have been threatened approach them first. But most do no such
thing. In the majority of cases, the issue of threats, bribes or warnings, is
just pushed under the carpet and forgotten. As a consequence, editors and
journalists in many cases apply a kind of self-censorship when it comes to
writing about shady money.
Moreover, none of these changes will
occur unless there is a profound change of heart throughout the region. Until
people stop looking up to local mafia dons, oligarchs and war lords, until they
recognise the connection between corruption and their own dire economic
circumstances, simple legal reforms would never be enough.
Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is IWPR's
country director for Serbia and Montenegro.
source: IWPR Balkan Crisis Report No.
published by: Daniela Mathis firstname.lastname@example.org
date of release on this site 18/03/04