The case of the murder of a journalist, during a period when today’s prime minister was then minister of information, should be by no means “ordinary”. However, media interest in this court case is not nearly proportionate to the importance of the event
Of the announced 90 prosecution witnesses, only a total of five were heard in the first five months of the trial for the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija. At hearings held after the presentation in defence of the accused, a total of two witnesses per month were interviewed.
This means that, at the current rate, even without the standard summer break and discounting standard methods for extending judicial proceedings, merely hearing all of the prosecution’s witnesses would only end in 2019. And then the defence witnesses would appear – sometime around the twentieth anniversary of Ćuruvija’s murder.
“I find one thing strange: The Dnevni telegraf [Daily Telegraph] was a seeding ground for journalists and editors, and they now operate in almost every newsroom, yet the case of the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija is still not given due attention” (Senka Vlatković, B92 journalist)
We are already seeing the initial consequences of this slow pace. Falling media interest can already be felt – and relates not only to the slow progress of the trial – and journalistic solidarity is also lacking.
“My strongest impression is that the trial, at this rate, will last for years, because court sessions are scheduled to take place once a month, over two days. View from a purely legal perspective, detention cases should be urgent, because of those who are being held in custody – who I am not fond of – but also in this case even more from the aspect of the rights of the public, who have been waiting 16 years for the truth,” says B92 journalist Senka Vlatković, who is covering the trial.
Ćuruvija was murdered on Easter Sunday, 11th April, 1999, during the time of the NATO bombing campaign, in broad daylight, at the entrance to the courtyard of the building where he lived.
In the dock of the Special Court, alongside the then head of the State Security Department, (RDB) Radomir Marković, sit the former head of the Belgrade RDB Centre, Milan Radonjić, and then chief intelligence inspector of the 2nd directorate of State Security, Ratko Romić. Accused as the perpetrator of the murder is former RDB reserves member Milan Kurak, who remains at large.
The case of the murder of the owner of publications Dnevni Telegraf and Evropljanin [European], during a period when today’s prime minister was then minister of information, should be by no means “ordinary”. A journalist was murdered, the chief defendant was once the top man of the country’s state security structure, while another three former State Security officials have also been charged, and the punishment being threatened is the maximum – 40 years imprisonment.
However, media interest in this court case is not nearly proportionate to the importance of the event.
Bestseller from the wanted list
“Interest among certain media outlets was decent in the beginning. However, as there is little chance that you’ll hear something exclusive there, or extract some exclusive headline, and because media is measured today on the basis of circulation and clickability, then you get what you get – two half reports in two media outlets. I expected that. But I find one thing strange: The Dnevni telegraf [Daily Telegraph] was a seeding ground for journalists and editors, and they now operate in almost every newsroom, yet the case of the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija is still not given due attention,” says Vlatković.
From the preliminary hearings in April this year, when it was announced that the prosecution would have as many as 90 witnesses, including key witness Milorad Ulemek, aka “Legija”, a former commander of the Special Operations Unit who was convicted in the murder of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, until 1st June, when the trial began with the accused making statements regarding guilt or innocence, the media did not address this subject. Everyone was waiting for the trial to begin.
While the trial and the defendants are given increasingly less coverage, the extensive autobiographical works of Mirjana Marković, who the public has for years suspected of inspiring this crime, are sold in Serbia as a bestseller
And on the day of the trial, only two media were significantly interested in publishing information pertaining to this case.
One of these articles was published on the front page of daily newspaper “Danas” on 1st June, in which it was announced that the defence would request Aleksandar Vučić testify as a witness.
The second article, published in daily newspaper “Blic” (republished by other print media), writes about the official note confirming, as stated, that it was Mira Marković, the then president of political party JUL and wife of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, who, according to operational information , organised the meeting at which agreement was reached on the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija.
Mira Marković later denied the accusation in a statement for weekly NIN, under the title: “Ne mogu ja svakog dana da demantujem da nekog nisam ubila.” [I cannot make daily denials that I murdered someone].
While the trial and the defendants are given increasingly less coverage, the extensive autobiographical works of Mirjana Marković, who the public has for years suspected of inspiring this crime, are sold in Serbia as a bestseller.
“The trial for the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija, unfortunately, is not being given enough media attention. The fall in interest shows the danger that it may not be followed through to the end. Sometimes, when certain media houses have insisted on following some trial, that has helped bring the case to a conclusion,” says Vuk Cvijić, author of the Blic article and the journalist tasked with following this trial for the daily.
He expects that the court, despite the fact that there are many witnesses, will find a reasonable pace and not permit the trial to be delayed unreasonably.
“Everyone’s waiting for Legija to show up”
Relationships between daily newspapers and the process at the Special Court differ. “Politika” has published comprehensive reports from all hearings to date and commented critically on the events at the very beginning of this long-awaited trial, calling them “sloppy and unconvincing”.
In an article entitled “Pravda za Ćuruviju čeka slobodnu sudnicu” [Justice for Ćuruvija awaits a free courtroom],Politika criticizes the unconvincing and scandalous start to the trial, with the continuation of the trial after the first day having only been scheduled to occur in a month’s time.
“The scandal was explained in bizarreness, or rather the justification of the relevant judicial authority that for one of the most important legal processes since the year 2000 – there is no available courtroom,” published Politika at the time.
“Sometimes, when certain media houses have insisted on following some trial, that has helped bring the case to a conclusion” (Vuk Cvijić, Blic journalist)
The relationship of other dailies towards this trial is more or less the same: trial announcements are reported by using news wires from agencies Tanjug, Beta or FoNet. When it comes to the trial itself, newsrooms, depending on assessments of witness importance, send their reporters, who receive more space for reports in electronic editions and much less in print editions.
The actual start of the trial, which was opened by Radomir Marković presenting his defence, followed by the defence presentations of Milan Radonjić and Ratko Romić, remained on the whole without media reviews and comments. Only one of Marković’s statements caused a reaction in a Blic headline: “VRHUNAC CINIZMA Rade Marković na suđenju: Istinu dugujemo porodici Slavka Ćuruvije.” [HEIGHT OF CYNICISM: Rade Marković in court: We owe the truth to the family of Slavko Ćuruvija.]
Public attention was momentarily focused on this trial when testimonies were given by the daughter of the slain journalist, Jelena Ćuruvija, and the only witness to the murder, Branka Prpa.
Following these witness testimonies, monitoring the testimonies of the members of the State Security Department fell in terms of media coverage to briefs and shorter reports.
Serbia’s bestselling daily newspaper, „Kurir„, for example, did not report on the witness testimonies at the October hearing, when appearing before judges was Predrag Gikić, a state security operative who listened to recordings of Slavko Ćuruvija’s telephone conversations.
Among the electronic media, the trial is regularly monitored by N1, RTS and B92, while others rely on agency reports with fillers.
“At the time when that crime occurred, I was just completing high school and I read and watched news about it in the media. So many years have passed and instead of this case being long since resolved, my colleagues and I are only now getting to know it and look at the people who are accused. For the media, the most striking testimonies to date have been those of Branka Prpa and Jelena Ćuruvija. Everyone’s waiting for Legija to appear and to hear what he has to say,” says Veljko Medić, a regular reporter from this trial for Radio Television Serbia.
His features, which run for about a minute and a half, have found their place in the prime time second daily news bulletin, Drugi Dnevnik.
Partial amnesia among State Security staff
To date, alongside the accused and the victims, testimonies have only been given by three other members of the state security department: Momir Radisavljević, Head of the Belgrade RDB Centre on behalf of Milan Radonjić; Predrag Gikić, the operative who listened in on Slavko Ćuruvija’s telephone conversations, and Gikić’s then-superior, Stevan Basta. They have in common that fact that they remember some things very well, while having completely forgotten many happenings.
“It is as though each of them is suffering from partial amnesia. We’ve seen such testimonies from members of the security services in other cases, such as the trial for the murder of Zoran Đinđić, the attempted assassination of Vuk Drašković, and especially in the case of the murder of Ivan Stambolić,” says Vlatković.
Vuk Cvijić agrees with her, adding:
“It’s not only that they don’t remember, but it’s slightly odd hearing them say something today that is so completely different to what they said immediately after 5th October,” he says.
The testimonies and cross-examinations – whether those of the prosecution or those of the defence lawyers – have largely been reduced to explaining the State Security Service’s working procedures.
“The fact that DB [State Security] agents don’t remember a lot of things tells me that either the choice of agents is poor or that they’re playing dumb, and of course I do not believe that they don’t remember” (Nikola Radišić, N1 journalist)
“I notice that we, the reporters, during the course of the trial to date, have learned all the legal procedures within the state security services, and I don’t see what connection at all that has with this case, given that one of the defendants said at the beginning that they did not apply in the case of Slavko Ćuruvija! We have heard about which paper goes where, who writes it, who delivers it and to which floor, and realized that one secretary who fills in the form is pretty much the most important person in the Service,” says Vlatković.
Television N1 journalist Nikola Radišić, however, believes that, although it is certain that the trial will last a long time, it is unfolding much better than other processes, so that journalists are paying more attention to this trial than they are to others.
“Unlike some other process, there is no classical obstruction here,” he said, citing as an example the trial of Branko Lazarević for revealing the secrets of Šarić’s gang, which has not yet started after almost a year, due to numerous delays – a lawyers’ protest, non-appearance of one of the accused, a defence request for exemption from the prosecutors.
“The fact that DB [State Security] agents don’t remember a lot of things tells me that either the choice of agents is poor or that they’re playing dumb, and of course I do not believe that they don’t remember,” says Radišić, adding that, from the aspect of the procedure itself, there was too long a wait for the court to confirm the indictment.
No matter how much members of the State Security are exerting efforts not to remember what was happening at the time when a renowned journalist was murdered, and the trial chamber working at an unacceptably slow pace, on the other hand there is also a lack of journalistic solidarity.
“That, unfortunately, didn’t even exist at the time when Slavko Ćuruvija was murdered, or rather immediately prior to that. It didn’t even exist when draconian penalties were imposed on the media. That kind of professional solidarity has been lacking in our country for too long, and this is just a continuation of that ugly tradition which is rooted in our profession,” concludes Vlatković.
BEYOND THE COURTROOM, WITNESSES LIE TO JOURNALISTS
Apart from the defendants, the public is not familiar with the faces of the State Security staff members who come to the hearings at the Special Court. It was interesting to observe their behaviour outside the courtroom.
Thus Stevan Basta entered the Media Centre inquiring as to the impression left on journalists by his testimony, while Predrag Gigić crashed into a corner next to the coffee kitchen, trying to remain inconspicuous, but still be able to hear what was being said next door in the Media Centre, without moving or speaking until the moment journalists asked him who he was. He barely, with procrastination, answered that question.
Branko Crni, a witness who did not get time to testify at the last hearing, even falsely presented himself, insisting that he was Predrag Gikić, the individual who had listened in on Ćuruvija’s phone calls.