State Security (DB) closes the circle
Interview: Veran Matic, Chairman of the Commission for investigating the killings of journalistsRadoslav CebicSource: Vreme
“The campaign against Ljiljana Smajlovic and me is the campaign against the very notion that the court trial is underway. If it wasn’t for the Commission, it is questionable whether we would do justice to Slavko Curuvija ever. The Commission reacts on regular basis on everything that seems illegal or unacceptable in this procedure, on everything that violates the process of presenting evidence. The culmination of discrediting presents the claim that Ljiljana Smajlovic is responsible for prolonging bombing of Serbia. This is the best example that speaks in favor of continuity with the text entitled “Curuvije welcome bombs”, with false claim that Curuvija requested air raids on Serbia, all the way to the sick concoction that the bombing was prolonged due to the efforts of Ljiljana Smajlovic“
“Kozic, you should be ashamed of yourself!“, one “decent lady” used to shout in front of Politika building during one of the protesting walks back in 1996/97, as described by a witness of this unusual event, Teofil Pancic, in his column in Vreme magazine in February, 2017. Few people knew back then who is Goran Kozic, but all that this man ever did, prior and after this, stand in those six words of a decent lady. He was editor in chief of TV Politika up till October Fifth, then he disguised himself in so called “television talebearer”, only to emerge two years ago as the columnist of “Politika”.
There he used to spread his progressive ideas from the nineties, and then, for the reasons known solely to him, he got mad at the editorial board of Politika and withdrew his column from this newspaper. Recently, he reappeared in Ilustrovana politika on an unusual position – advisor of the editor in chief. With journalist Djordje Martic, “a revamped phantom of the past under the democratic pretense“ (yet another expression that belongs to the nineties with which Milosevic’s media addressed their adversaries), and editor of Ekspres politika during whose reign the text “Curuvija welcomes bombs” was published, several days prior to the launch of air raids and few days preceding Curuvija’s murder, along with several articles and three cover pages, one worse than the other. The aim of all this were the attacking and spitting, and dragging through the mud all the media and journalists that used to be disfavored first by Slobodan Milosevic, and today by Aleksandar Vucic.
They hit the roof with the issue of December 11, 2018, brutally attacking and endangering the safety of journalists Ljiljana Smajlovic and Veran Matic, member and Chairman of the Commission for investigating the killings of journalists. Matic had publicly expressed doubt whether those assaults were directed towards releasing former representatives of State Security (DB) who face trial for the murder of Slavko Curuvija, that took place on April 11, 1999. Among the defendants are former Chief of State Security Radomir Markovic, who is sentenced to 40 year imprisonment for organizing the killing of Ivan Stambolic, an attempt of assassination on Vuk Draskovic and the killing of his four close associates on the Ibarska Highway, Milan Radonjic, former Chief of Belgrade Center of State Security and Ratko Romic, Chief Intelligence Inspector in the Second Department of State Security, who after spending three years in court custody were transferred into house arrest. The fourth defendant is the member of the reserve forces of state security Miroslav Miki Kurak, allegedly on the run, and on the Interpol wanted list. The rumor has it that he lives in Tanzania, organizing safaris and hunting adventures. We discuss the issue of court trial, insults, threats, state security and fear with Veran Matic, member of the Permanent Work Group for the Safety of journalists and president of B92 Fund Board of directors.
Goran Kozic addresses you and Ljiljana Smajlovic in Ilustrovana politika as if he has some personal, private problem with the two of you. What happened between you?
VERAN MATIĆ: I never met Kozic or Martic, while Ljiljana Smajlovic met him for the first time in the studio of TV Prva two weeks ago. Of course, we have no private problems with them, or anything in common. Reading those articles, I saw that Kozic quotes his own columns he used to write under the pseudonym TV talebearer, adding new texts full of insults, such as: “moron", “moral freak", ”sick piece of trash", falsely accusing Ljilja and me for kicking him out of “Politika”, I had concluded that he, simply, identifies us with the Fifth of October, with the collapse of Milosevic’s regime, that produced negative consequences for him and Martic. He assaults us in the same manner as he did with other victims of the regime prior to October fifth. This is the same poetics of the nineties. With listing the recognitions that I’ve received “what you should do in order to be honored in such a way, in the wake of Belgrade bombing”, suggests that I am foreign mercenary, and therefore he introduces the personality of US Ambassador Kyle Scott on the cover page, but also mentioning him in the texts. The same happened back in the nineties, whenever I was presented with some international award. The matrix is the same, the accusations remain the same, although I got many awards later on, including some local and state recognitions. Main trigger is still the trial for the murder of Slavko Curuvija, and our insisting on presenting all the necessary evidence in this case.
You say that former advisor of editor in chief of Ilustrovana politika Goran Kozic and journalist Djordje Martic lead campaign for over a month now, where those accused for Slavko’s murder are being in advance announced innocent, claiming that there is no evidence against them, which should in turn mean that “the court should release the defendants. Why do you think that two journalists and one weekly can have such power to influence court decision?
VERAN MATIĆ: I have never seen either of them on trial, but they both persistently claim that there is no enough evidence against the defendants from State Security. Even in one text, Kozic states: “Our deceased colleague was probably killed by the regime, but there is no evidence for such a claim.“ How does he know if he does not attend the trial? Who is the informant, informer? Martic went much further last year, insinuating in Politika in the article entitled “Racak and Gordic“, from May 19, 2017, that Djindjic had the most motive for the murder of Ćuruvija, who was more dangerous to him than the regime, who was also, then, a victim of political murder, precisely by the forces that ruled the nineties. My protest against this text "Politika" refused to publish, which the Press Council considered to be a violation of the Serbian Press Code. I think that the two of them are part of a broader front that is always wide awake when topics related to crimes committed in the 1990s, when the issue of responsibility arises, when there is a possibility for evidence to come to the public, and when the possibility of the crimes being punished appears to be sanctioned. The Curuvija case has been obstructed since it occurred.
Campaign against Ljiljana Smajlovic and me is the campaign against the very notion that the court trial is underway. If it wasn’t for the Commission, it is questionable whether we would do justice to Slavko Curuvija ever. The Commission reacts on regular basis on everything that seems illegal or unacceptable in this procedure, on everything that violates the process of presenting evidence. The culmination of discrediting presents the claim that Ljiljana Smajlovic is responsible for prolonging bombing of Serbia. This is the best example that speaks in favor of continuity with the text entitle “Curuvije welcome bombs”, with false claim that Curuvija requested air raids on Serbia, all the way to the sick concoction that the bombing was prolonged due to the efforts of Ljiljana Smajlovic. We reacted with presenting arguments for every text and every claim, which obviously only additionally exasperated this duo, in order to get a number of pointless claims in the latest edition of Ilustrovana Politika, with utterly insulting cover pages. Interestingly, in most of the responses, people mainly react on the covers, but not the texts themselves, which are full of dangerous lies and hatred.
On the other hand, you have several times warned that the Trial Chamber left out key evidence: the tapes that recorded the movement of the accused before the murder, or the monitoring of Slavko Curuvija. You claim that your warning was confirmed three times by the Court of Appeal, but the High Court, the Belgrade Bar Association, the Serbian Judges Association and the Supreme Court of Cassation have criticized you for putting pressure on the court by violating the presumption of innocence. Don’t you think that your responsibility as chairman of the State Commission for investigating the killings of journalists is greater than of the two disgruntled journalists with dishonest intentions?
VERAN MATIĆ: It was not the Supreme Court of Cassation, but the High Judicial Council. The President of the Supreme Court of Cassation on two occasions at a gathering of judges in Vrnjacka Banja, and recently while speaking for Insider, said that commenting on the trial was allowed, and he did not have concrete remarks on the positions I made. At the same time, we got opinions, judgments of the European Court of Human Rights related to cases in Croatia, which also argue that commenting on court decisions is allowed. The objection that with criticizing the release of Romic and Radonjic to defend themselves from house arrest, I violated the presumption of innocence is also unfounfed, because my argument was related to the court's argument that the detention was ordered and the fact that there was no change in the circumstances that would justify such a decision. The fourth accused Kurak is constantly on the run, and this decision made it possible for them to arrange the defense, exert pressure on witnesses, and so on. The Commission expressed its concern when the Trial Chamber ruled on the exemption from the Trial Evidence of the communication of members of the State Security who accompanied Slavko Curuvija on April 10 and 11, including the communication of the indictees and their position, thereby destroying their alibi. Two different court appellate panels made rulings that determined that the tapes were stripped in a lawful manner and should remain in the evidentiary proceedings. The same case was with the attempt to leave the evidence of the two members of the State Security who participated in the events these two days are omitted as evidence, without any reason. Again, the Appellation made a different decision. Therefore, the trial chamber did not pay attention to the Commission's remarks, but made decisions on its own conscience.
Secondly, my position as the Chairman of the Commission is not administrative, as I am not state officer/civil servant. In the Commission, I am still a representative of the journalist community. We are financing our activities ourselves. The investigation was conducted by the working group of the Ministry of Interior, in cooperation with representatives of Security Information Agency, at the order of the prosecutor. The Commission is set up to make some kind of synergy of all possible institutions, unite energy and be a kind of process catalyst. And the obligation of members of the journalistic community is to point out to everything we see to be the possibility of disturbing the realization of justice in this process.
Why was it necessary for Aleksandar Vucic, who was the information minister at the time of the murder of Slavko Curuvija, to regain power in order to form the Commission, fourteen years after the murder?
VERAN MATIĆ: You certainly remember that we have received constant promises from the Democratic Opposition of Serbia that it will first be dealing with the resolution of political killings, in the first place the murder of Slavko Curuvija. Along with the idea that we were going to write journalists' laws, which was later ignored. We all had a bitter taste every year at the anniversary of the murder because there is no progress, except for the new promises. At a gathering on the safety of journalists held in 2009, at a break, I mentioned to President Tadic that it would be good to include journalists in resolving these cases, especially those who are most interested and who used to work with murdered colleagues. He agreed back then and recommended that I convey the idea to his advisor Miki Rakić, which I did through a written proposal of the idea. I never got an answer. After the changes in 2012, I sent the same proposal to Vucic, and received support for the realization of the establishment of the Commission. I think that he also wanted to be dismissed, especially in the case of the murder of Ćuruvija, because at the time he was a minister of information and in a fierce conflict with Slavko and his newspapers. I often think that the disunity of the media community presents its main weakness, which is often reflected in unsuccessful actions.
Do you think that your decision to enter the Commission was correct? Are you now paying the price for such decision with these attacks on you and Ljiljana Smajlovic?
VERAN MATIĆ: I realized that chairing this kind of Commission would bring new risks because I was very active in the 1990s and I knew who we were dealing with. I regret that there was no serious evolution in our institutions, from the police to the judiciary. As we often see when we have threats, hate speech, violence against journalists, the weaknesses of these institutions pose a serious problem when it comes to the freedom of journalists and the media. So I wonder if I am perhaps more vulnerable now, as well as Ljiljana Smajlovic, than a few years ago when I was under police protection 24/7. Of course, this does not affect my activity in the Commission and other activities concerning the safety of journalists.
You have stated that in the case of this campaign there is no reaction. Attacks on you and Ljiljana Smajlovic have been condemned by journalistic associations, adviser to President Suzana Vasiljevic resigned as a member of the Supervisory Board of Politika, and Goran Kozic himself resigned when he read the tweet of Aleksandar Vucic in which he strongly condemns "savagery and threats against Ivana Vučićević and Barbara Životić, but also brutal attacks on Ljiljana Smajlović and Veran Matić." What are the reactions that would erase the targets that were drawn on your head and the head of Ljiljana Smajlovic?
VERAN MATIĆ: You have noticed that reactions are mostly related to the cover pages. The Minister of Culture and Information focuses on the lack of decency. I think that after the first issue it was necessary to clarify what is happening in these state-owned newspapers, in which way the editor-in-chief dictates editorial policy. It is very important to immediately assess what is not true in this magazine, which is why the front page and the first pages are occupied by an external collaborator and an advisor to the editor-in-chief. What are the positions with which the representative of the state in the supervisory board disagrees. Three additional issues were allowed to appear, one worse than another, scary lies, in order to end all with a tweet and interesting resignation of the editor-in-chief. Despite numerous condemnations, there is no clear answer from the state what is all that impermissible that has been done in the past month. How will the state get out of the media, because such phenomena can happen in some other media in which state ownership exists, and the bodies of those media do not function in a transparent manner.
You have expressed suspicion that it is in the interest of those "who want the media and journalists to be subjugated, while everyone who could be prosecuted for a role in similar executions to be protected" to relativise the investigation into the killing of Curuvija. Do you refered to the former and current members of security services?
VERAN MATIĆ: First of all, I think about the revision of the events in the past thirty years. There is no historical analysis, but there is an attempt at trying to, sometimes quietly, and sometimes very loudly, deny or justify the crimes and murders committed. So, I think that the phenomenon is much broader than the State Security.
Some members of the security service have already been convicted of taking part in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic or as members of the Zemun Clan. Is this fact threatening that no one is responsible for the crimes committed during the 1990s?
VERAN MATIĆ: Our judiciary has been in a great crisis for years. I would say, it is increasingly dependent on political trends. The Prosecutor's Office for Organized Crime seems to have lowered its blade when it comes to a dynamic, successful fight against organized crime. I'm afraid there was too much time and space to worsen systemic changes. The judiciary is now fragile, and I think that there will be an increasing problem with the establishment of the rule of law and democracy, stability. In addition to citizens' dissatisfaction, it will very soon be reflected in European integrative processes.
Are you afraid?
VERAN MATIĆ: I'm more concerned than I'm afraid.