19. okt 2015.

Brankica Stanković on the price of seeking the truth: I’ll spend my whole life looking over my shoulder on the street to see if anyone’s behind me

Photo: Dejana Batalović

Photo: Dejana Batalović

The author of TV show “Insajder” on the new portal she is putting together, responsible journalism and her biggest success – Insajder, and maintaining the team that created it; on what six years of police protection feels like and why she doesn’t go out anywhere anymore; on the disgraceful release of the biggest football hooligans; on the fear of journalists and the lack of solidarity

“Now they’ll attack me again,” said Brankica Stanković, author of Insajder, speaking at the end of our conversation. Such a statement would be unusual for someone who has received the most important international and Serbian awards for journalism, if she wasn’t a journalist who’s been living with police protection for six years, surrounded by the silence of colleagues and the public.

Even the news that she left B92 after almost two decades wasn’t deemed worthy of more attention, except for short media briefs. The paradox is that since 2004, when she became the author of Insajder, and later its editor, she has – together with her newsroom colleagues – revealed some of the biggest scandals in Serbia.

She hasn’t given up on that, while she tells Cenzolovka about her new project, in which she will continue where she left off a year ago, when the last Insajder was broadcast.

Cenzolovka: What was your reason for leaving B92?

Stanković: There are no hidden reasons. I worked at B92 for 18 years. I started on the radio and went through everything – from vox pops on the street, through writing contributions, to copy editing the news – everything went gradually and from 2004 I worked on Insajder on TV. During this time Insajder became something more than a show. We decided to expand it to the international and regional level and to make our own internet portal, under private production, and at the same time continue our cooperation with B92.

Cenzolovka: Few will believe that, particularly given the cancellation of political TV talk show Utisak Nedelje [Impression of the week] and the fact that there has been no Insajder for a year?

I don’t go out anywhere because psychologically I can’t stand going into a bar with a bunch of people (from security) and for everyone to look at me. I cannot handle that. It’s not who I am.

Stanković: Well, let them not believe. I’m tired of constantly justifying myself. It was my decision and the decision of those of us who work on Insajder. If someone looked at the archive they would find that after all the events with Impression of the Week we issued a statement as the editorial board in which we wrote that we don’t see the future of Insajder in the entertainment programming. Then we decided to wait and see what would happen with the Info channel, whether it would be made into a news programme.

We were never told by anyone from B92 that we cannot work, nor did any problem exist regarding any subject that we dealt with. Maybe I don’t do enough work on my marketing; maybe I should go out now and say how they censored me and threw me out, that I was cancelled by Vučić, and thereby be a victim, but I can’t say something that isn’t true.

Cenzolovka: What did the owners say to you when you left?

Stanković: That was not overnight, nor did I just say that I wanted to leave and they said “okay”. I was surprised by their reaction, because they said that Insajder is very important and that they want us to stay, that we would get more space in the programming.

I honestly expected that they could barely wait to get rid of us, but that wasn’t the case. They tried to go out of their way for us in order to keep us, while on the other side we were thinking that nothing would be lost.

These kinds of shows are produced privately all over the world and the deal is that they will continue to have Insajder if they wish, and we will produce it ourselves.

Cenzolovka: That’s not easy to understand. You were permanently employed, and you’re also under police protection, yet you left the umbrella of an established media company and embarked on an adventure with a private production. Why?

Stanković: But that’s the challenge to us. I’m not going it alone. I’m entering this whole story with people who’ve worked with me for years; that’s the entire Insajder team. Maybe that sounds unbelievable to people…

Cenzolovka: It does sound unbelievable…

Stanković: Well okay, just as it probably sounded to them when they heard that I’m working while I have police protection. We are also planning an internet portal. Nothing has changed essentially, except that we want a challenge to try, after everything we’ve done and the various awards we’ve received, to do something ourselves that has been considered lost in Serbia for years, and that’s independent and responsible journalism.

Cenzolovka: Do we have a market for that? What will you offer that differs from others?

Stanković: We will primarily do stories from Serbia, but also from the region, and the plan is to create a network of international journalists. So, we will not stop at this market and we will not depend only on whether a television company wants to broadcast something we do or not. That’s why it’s important that we have the web platform, or internet portal.

What Insider has become, and the fact that all the people who worked on it are still with me no matter what, and regardless of whether they’ll get paid tomorrow or not, is the greatest success for me.

Cenzolovka: Do you have the funds for such a project? Who will finance you?

Stanković: For a start, not a lot of money is needed to make the portal and launch the whole story. There are six of us, but there will be more. We will have to compete for donations. We won’t be able to do it all on our own, but it’s ours to try.

Cenzolovka: When will you start? Will it be open to all or will you charge for access?

Stanković: It will not be necessary to pay, although that idea also exists in some perspective. It is not realistic for us to start before January. We decided to create something that is influential, that makes sense, that represents responsible journalism, and that means we daren’t publish anything about anyone or anything without evidence; there must be no mistakes.

Cenzolovka: If you were to work on a topic right now at this moment, what would that be?

Stanković: Everything‘s a topic. I don’t know where to start. We’ll also deal with daily events, so it will not be only as it has been until now: an annual series of six shows. This is challenging, but we will try. If we succeed – excellent; if not – we won’t do this job anymore.

Cenzolovka: You have witnessed different stages and changes to the media scene in Serbia. What phase are we in today, in your opinion?

Stanković: Seven years ago I said in an interview that the situation in the media today is worse than during the time of Milošević. And I was asked by everyone – from Veran Matić onwards – how I could say something like that. I think this thesis proved to be accurate.

And at that time I was annoyed that it was no longer known who was working for whom. After 5th October, a million daily newspapers of some sort appeared, tabloids, everything being done by one and the same circle of people. We even did a show about that in 2005. That continues and it seems there’s no way for journalists to wake up and say “hey, I’m no one’s political worker or spokesperson, but rather a reporter who informs in the public interest”.

Cenzolovka: What’s the reason?

Photo: Dejana Batalović

Photo: Dejana Batalović

Stanković: Everything revolves around money. There is also political influence, but I still maintain that the editor has to make the cuts. Nobody ever called me, but they probably contacted my editors.

I claim that whoever is in power can only call someone who allows that. If you are called by a politician or someone else and threatened that you will be left without advertising, and if you listen to them the first time then they’ll call you the next time that something bothers them.

Cenzolovka: But that happened at B92. It was because of Insider that Mišković pulled all advertising from programming when the series on Cypriot money was done in 2006?

Stanković: While the series’ production was running we did not even know that Mišković had pulled the advertisements – rather only after the first broadcast. Veran only told us when the series had passed. In that way he protected us as an editor.

Cenzolovka: How did you feel when Radio B92 closed down? You were part of the “old crew” from the 1990s?

Stanković: I grew up there. The name should have been changed earlier. It wasn’t our radio station for a long time.

Cenzolovka: You say that there are many topics today, but why is there no more investigative journalism?

Stanković: The only one on television was Insajder, and that was like incidental. Again it boils down to money. Investigative journalism is expensive, with several journalists spending a few months working on one major topic and not producing for a daily program, while all the time being on the payroll.

Cenzolovka: That’s why the trend in the world is for this kind of journalism to move to web portals or private production. Portals in our country have more than 20 journalists working in investigative journalism.

However, journalists who deal with serious topics are not as loud as those who make things up, who report everything they can think of, who serve to make newspapers in order to destroy someone and then shut them down.

If there was a strong media association that brought together journalists who deal with responsible, investigative journalism, the tabloids would not be able to create public opinion by addressing topics that have been ordered. But somehow this other side is always quiet.

Cenzolovka: Why?

Stanković: Because of fear. Because nobody will say anything in case Vučićević [editor Dragan Vučićević] puts them on the front page of Informer for seven days. People withdraw due to fear, they will not be reproached; journalistic solidarity is lacking.

Cenzolovka: Perhaps there is also the reason that research stories do not have public support. Insajder revealed a lot of things, but that did not have the kind of social and political effect that would have been expected.

Stanković: We cannot say that it is not so. For example, in the series “Službena zloupotreba” [Official abuse] we proved that the government, then DS and previously DSS, donated land exclusively to businessmen without any auctioning.

For the first five days they tried to deny that, but afterwards they carried out an amendment to the Law on Planning and Construction whereby they retroactively returned to the state everything that should have been paid for, and then all those businessmen who got land had to pay a fee to the budget for urban construction land, which compensated for that damage caused to the budget. In some way that is a direct success of Insajder.

Cenzolovka: You have also been criticised for allegedly working in the function of a particular political option, or even the police – especially when arrests have followed a broadcast.

Stanković: But that really is not true. Nobody needs to be that well informed, but when they read the newspapers they can clearly see what is served up by the police from start to finish. When you look at our site you’ll see that everything is there; there is no affair launched by the police that Insajder participated in.

We might receive some document, but we are obliged to check that out. We didn’t publish several stories because we were not sure and we could not check it out, and it turned out to be true, so it was announced by other media outlets.

Arrests occurred after shows when an issue received a lot of media attention. That was a way for the government to garner political points. For example, this was the case with the documentary series about the football mafia. I don’t even know how many of them were arrested, Džajić has been admonished in the meantime, while Zvezdan Terzić, who was on the run, has returned and the judicial process against him is continuing – and he is a football official.

I feel disgusted because I live in a country where there is not even human consciousness of the kind of situation someone found themselves in just because they did their job. I hear them say “that’s her choice”. Well, that’s not my choice! It was not my choice not to be able to go out on the street alone.

Cenzolovka: As much as they criticise you, you pay your price. This also includes the latest judgement of the High Court, which annulled the previous verdict against the hooligans.

Stanković: I can hardly wait for our portal to be launched, and one of the topics will certainly be the judiciary. When they invited me to give the same statement for the hundredth time, to be in court with all those hooligans who threw a doll representing me around the stadium, I told them that the system protects violent offenders.

And this is proof that this is true. The case was against a group whose leader was Miloš Radisavljević, aka Kimi, who was on the run. I have already lost my rag wondering who is on trial, who is free and who is not, but the paradox is that he, as leader, was sentenced to prison, while the others received suspended sentences for the same offense, because they were judged by different judges. And now they are completely free.

Cenzolovka: It is striking that until today, two weeks after that decision of the court, there has been no response in public or via the media. How do you explain that?

Stanković: I was very struck by that before, but now it doesn’t get to me at all. Just as there is no power to endure with strong stories that are in the public interest, but rather tabloid journalism always wins, so there is no journalistic solidarity.

If any journalist, regardless of whether that’s me or someone else, has to go through what I went through, then that’s a real danger for journalism. A society cannot be democratic if it has journalists living under police protection for six years.

Cenzolovka: The book you wrote about all the consequences of working on Insajder would be a classic thriller if it was a fiction story, but it is actually about you and your confessions. Two years have passed and the book was sold out, yet it did not have a real public resonance, considering the content. Why?

Stanković: I don’t know. For me that was the only way, as I could no longer keep quiet. But now I’m sorry that I even write it. I do not see the point of it, except that that’s how it remained, so someone will one day investigate everything that really happened, some future journalists I hope.

I wrote the book just because I thought that in that way I would end the agony I was in. When I presented everything that happened, what they told me I had to keep my mouth shut about, when I publish all the names and surnames of who said what, official records of who threatened me, I thought that the government would then have to react and say, “wait, if there is some information, official, operational, that someone is threatening my life and safety, then let’s arrest that person and get rid of the police protection.” Or that they would say it’s not true.

Cenzolovka: You requested the lifting of your police protection a few months ago, after the announcement on the show Reporter dealing with the management boards of football clubs. What kind of response did you receive?

Nobody will say anything in case Vučićević puts them on the front page of Informer for seven days. People withdraw due to fear, they will not be reproached; journalistic solidarity is lacking

Stanković: That show was done by Insajder journalists and not me, but the whole issue moved to the asking of a question as to why I have security at all. During those ten days there was a shameful campaign led in Informer and on PinkTV during which none of the competent institutions responsible for assessing security came out and said whether or not I am under threat. It was only then that Minister Stefanović came out and said that I am threatened and that I need to have security.

And if what he said is true, then that is itself a scandal. They left them for days to lynch me in that way, for me to receive a message reading: “be careful when your kids goes outside”… that’s horrible.

I requested the cancellation of my security because that was obviously the goal of the campaign. I called the police, and for days I didn’t get an answer. And then they made me an appointment for a meeting and informed me that there would be a new safety assessment, and that according to this present assessment, unfortunately, they could not cancel my police protection.

Cenzolovka: I’m sure you’re heard the comments that they are actually keeping you in isolation and under control under the pretext that you’re in danger. How logical does such a theory seem to you?

Stanković: I thought the same at the beginning, though I was told at the time that the reason was the series about hooligans. There were really terrible threats at the time and they told me that there was a danger that someone would take advantage of the hooligans’ threats in order to seek revenge and make it seem like that was done by hooligans.

And I considered that this was a way to force me not to work. But Insajder continued to broadcast and they did not succeed in anything, if that had been the intent. Thus, I cannot believe that someone would be so crazy to incur costs of the state for six years, protecting me while the show continues to be broadcast. That is not logical at all.

Cenzolovka: Let’s go back to the book, in which you describe how court processes were led against hooligans, how you were even followed abroad and that there was a sniper meant for you…

Stanković: That all exists as official records.

Cenzolovka: These are topics that should be dealt with by the public and the media if the state is not dealing with them. How do you explain the silence and indifference among colleagues, who do not ask further questions?

Photo: Aleksandar Carević

Photo: Aleksandar Carević

Stanković: It’s because they are not interested. If journalists did their job, that would be a topic for them – not just because the same could happen to them tomorrow, but because it shows all the weaknesses of the system. If someone in such a situation, and journalists think there is nothing further to ask, what can I do? There were a couple of articles on this, and that’s how the story ended.

Cenzolovka: How do you feel then?

Stanković: Disgusting. I feel disgusted because I live in a country where there is not even human consciousness of the kind of situation someone found themselves in just because they did their job.

I hear them say “that’s her choice”. Well, that’s not my choice! It was not my choice not to be able to go out on the street alone. Politicians who have security chose that themselves; that’s normal for them, but I’m not one of those people who likes that, who wants to parade around with a team, who likes appearing like that.

I don’t go out anywhere, and you know yourself that whenever you call me I do not come, because psychologically I can’t stand going into a bar with a bunch of people and for everyone to look at me. I cannot handle that. It’s not who I am.

Cenzolovka: Would you be afraid if they cancelled your security detail now; can you imagine walking down the street alone?

Stanković: The highest price I paid is that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder to see if there’s anyone behind me when I go out alone. I have escaped my security a couple of times. It wasn’t normal for me to be at home without cigarettes and to need to call the police to escort me to the shop. The last time I went out like that I was turning around non-stop, looking to see if someone was following me. When I came home and locked the door, I thought that I’m really not a normal person anymore. Delete this bit where I say I’m not normal (laughs). But I became aware that such a life has had enormous consequences.

Cenzolovka: So, has everything you’ve done and everything you’ve gone through been worth it?

Stanković: What Insider has become, and the fact that all the people who worked on it are still with me no matter what, and regardless of whether they’ll get paid tomorrow or not, is the greatest success for me.

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