An Unsparing Gaze

An unsparing gaze: Perica Vucinic (Photo courtesy Reporter)

Being an independent journalist in the Balkans during the past decade was more than just an interesting line of work; the occupational hazards included imprisonment or even death. Anyone tackling the job during that period ran a gauntlet of brutal ethnic wars and authoritarian post-communist and extreme nationalist regimes.

Perica Vucinic, founding editor and now manager of the independent weekly magazine Reporter, has been a leader among those who have endured these hazards—first as an independent journalist reporting on wars and ethnic conflicts, and later as an editor establishing an independent, unbiased magazine that brought to light the most sensitive issues in the former Yugoslavia’s postwar societies, such as war crimes, human-rights violations, and corruption.

Reporter was founded in May 1997 in Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska, the Serb-run entity of Bosnia. “Every individual has to have a mission. I thought something positive should be done in a war-devastated country. It appeared that this task was a huge struggle, and I started to fight,” Vucinic recalls of Reporter’s editorial beginnings. Independence and professional journalism standards were principles Vucinic fully respected as a young journalist, says Vladimir Radomirovic, Reporter’s editor, who worked with Vucinic at the independent Belgrade weekly newsmagazine Vreme in the mid-’90s. “He wrote if not the best, then among the best reports in the former Yugoslavia at the time, covering such conflict areas as wartime Bosnia and Kosovo,” Radomirovic recalls. Many of Vucinic’s colleagues agree, adding that his investigative reports about Serb concentration camps in Bosnia—among the first stories of their kind in Serbia—prompted a storm of reaction.

“It was very brave to report it then, as much as it was to leave Belgrade and go into post-war Bosnia, risking his life, to found the magazine [Reporter]. He created an outstanding magazine, promoting peace and tolerance in an extremely intolerant postwar society, deeply divided along ethnic lines and burdened by horrible war crimes,” says Aleksandra Niksic, a journalist with Agence France-Presse in Belgrade who was a free-lancer in Bosnia during the war.

“It was crazy from the very beginning,” Vucinic recalls. “We were constantly under surveillance. Whenever I was about to complete an issue [of the magazine], suddenly phone lines would be cut off, e-mail passwords broken. I would find footprints in my apartment, or I would hear from the police that they were planning to beat up my reporter,” he said. Even now, the magazine faces such pressures in Bosnia.

In the late 1990s, the mounting repression of Serbia’s authoritarian ruler Slobodan Milosevic compelled Vucinic to train his journalistic sights on his homeland. During his rule, Milosevic waged war against Serbia’s free media. Journalists and editors were routinely arrested, tried, imprisoned, intimidated, and harassed. Some of them were forced to leave the country, while Slavko Curuvija, editor and publisher of Dnevni Telegraf, paid for his commitment to the truth with his life in April 1999. A number of independent media were closed either by brutal police actions or by crushing fines for trumped-up violations.

With the onset of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in spring 1999, Vucinic began to distribute the Bosnian edition of Reporter in Serbia. “Reporter became the most sought-after magazine in Serbia because it had independent information, free of [the Milosevic regime’s] censorship, thanks to our Banja Luka location,” he says. “We transported the magazine in boats, ferries, and rafts over the Drina River separating Serbia from Bosnia,” he recalls.

Reporter was the only light in Serbia’s darkness, defying the repression of Milosevic’s regime,” says Zoran Mamula, of Belgrade’s independent Radio B92.

Reporter became a prime target of the regime in September 1999 after it published a cover photo of Mira Markovic, Milosevic’s wife, with a cover line stating, “Ten families rule Serbia, and they are all ruled by the Godmother.” The next issue, reporting about Milosevic at the top of Serbia’s 10 wealthiest families, was confiscated at the border. The article’s authors, Vladimir Milovanovic and Zeljko Cvijanovic, were charged with “offending state symbols of Yugoslavia.”

When, a few weeks later, Reporter ran a commentary calling Milosevic a dictator, Vucinic, as the responsible editor, was charged with the same offense. He was unable to return to Belgrade, and distribution of Reporter was banned in Serbia. Police confiscated copies of the magazine smuggled from Bosnia, and later from Montenegro, at newsstands, from newsboys on the street, even from readers. The Feb. 16, 2000 Reporter editorial explained the dilemma: “If a magazine becomes dangerous both for those who sell it and those who buy it, what is left? The Internet. Due to regular confiscation, Reporter is temporarily forced to become ‘written electronic media’ in order to avoid being a magazine read only by idle policemen at border crossings.”

“The role of free media is to be a check on power, because only then does their existence make sense. Reporter follows and will keep following that principle. The problem in Serbia is that the regime wants to control the media, which it is not able and will not be able to do with Reporter,” Vucinic wrote at the time. By May 2000, the magazine had some 6,000 e-mail subscribers and 430,000 hits on its Web site.

As Milosevic’s repression intensified, so did the need for independent information. In April 2000, Vucinic re-launched Reporter’s Belgrade edition as an underground publication, distributed at opposition demonstrations, mainly by activists of the student movement Otpor. “People who were selling the magazine, and even readers in Belgrade, Pozarevac, and Kragujevac, were beaten by Milosevic’s police and paramilitary units,” Vucinic says.

Eventually, the independent media prevailed: With Milosevic’s ouster the ban on Reporter was lifted. By spring 2001, Milosevic was behind bars while reporters and editors were free to do their job without risk. “Those were difficult times, I would say heroic times. Luckily, we do not have to be heroes anymore, but we still need a persistent, objective, and neutral stand to perceive what is happening around us,” Vucinic says.

Under Serbia’s freely elected democratic government, Reporter’s role remains unchanged, says Vucinic. “Now we are focused on what the new authorities are doing.” That independence and unsparing vigilance makes Reporter a rarity among media in post-Milosevic Serbia.

Reporter has also remained the leading independent magazine researching and uncovering war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, particularly by Serbs. Explaining his decision to cover this most unpleasant issue in Serbia, Vucinic says: “Besides the need to inform people, to sell magazines, and to earn a living, the press has a mission: to see who we are, what we have done, and who did it, so it will be much easier some day to look at each other face to face. It is very difficult for people here to admit that among us there have been war criminals, but it is something that must be done.”

Vucinic believes that Balkans journalists cannot afford complacency. “Regimes throughout the region will certainly not be grateful to media, so we will have to fight again” to bring the Balkans into the democratic world. “I am determined to go on,” he vows. “I have to keep going; I do not know any other way to work.”