Interview with Veran Matic, Founder of Serbia’s Commission for Investigating Murders of Journalists
After the break-up of former Yugoslavia, several journalists were killed in Serbia for simply doing their job. The often unsuccessful investigations of their murders made Veran Matić realize that journalists were to play a part in resolving these murders. Together with governmental institutions, he set up Serbia’s Commission for Investigating Murders of Journalists in 2013.
What made you establish the Commission for Investigating Murder of Journalists and how did you proceed?
As an editor for radio and television in Serbia, I saw how many journalists were seriously repressed and sometimes even murdered. With every passing year, my colleagues and I realized there were fewer chances to find the murderers and criminal masterminds of these killings. We realized that these issues would be better tackled with the participation of journalists and the wider community. The Commission is made up of journalists, representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs as well as representatives of Serbia’s national security body. This seemed to be the only way to defend press freedom and protect journalists. In 2013, we gained support from the government to set up the Commission. Three cases were re-opened. Even if they are not yet all resolved, the cases are not abandoned and we are exhausting all available resources to investigate them.
It is important to tackle these cases and keep investigating, not only to pursue a prosecution but also because of the message that it sends. When no judicial action is taken, it sends the message that the killing of a journalist is the easiest and cheapest way to curb press freedom. We must oppose such signals by having an active approach, by working with journalists and by the constant monitoring of government institutions. We cannot afford to let 20 years pass by after a murder of a journalist.
The Commission is focusing on three big murder cases from the recent past: Dada Vujasinovic, Slavko Curuvija and Milan Pantic. Who were they and why were they murdered?
Dada Vujasinovic was a war reporter, an excellent investigative reporter and a brilliant writer. She was often covering stories on the front line during the conflict in former Yugoslavia. She died in 1994 and although we assume she was murdered because of her work, the official investigation at that time concluded that she had committed suicide. When the investigation was re-opened, we managed to have the investigating authorities find the remaining parts of a bullet in her body during the autopsy. Yet, this did not produce a final conclusion on the cause of her death. We have gone through all available resources, but unfortunately most of the evidence disappeared during the three decades during which the case was closed.
Milan Pantic mainly wrote about crime and political topics in Serbia. We suspect this was one of the reasons why he was murdered in 2001. He was hit with a hard object in front of the doors of his apartment. The judicial investigation in this case has been particularly slow and inefficient. Seven different working groups of the police were involved in the investigation of his murder. The constant changing of groups prevented them from coming to a final, comprehensive conclusion. Now, the memory of possible witnesses is fading away, but we will not stop investigating until we can make an indictment.
The most progress has been made in the case of the murdered journalist Slavko Curuvija, a renowned journalist and critic of the Milošević regime. Two former State Security officers were arrested and are currently in home detention. A third suspect was already in prison for other crimes and a fourth is on the run. The trial began in June 2015 and there will be more testimonies during the coming weeks. I am hopeful that it will result in a conviction soon.
The Commission works with governmental institutions, police inspectors and security service representatives, how do you assure its independence and efficiency?
In the first couple of months, there was a lot of mistrust and suspicion amongst each other, especially towards journalists. Usually they are not the ones who investigate murder cases. After about six months, the different bodies within the Commission realized that they are all working for the same goal and that there was no intention to work against each other. Journalists do not represent a police or security authority; they are not involved in the police investigations. They are in the Commission to get an insight into all the available documentation and to support the investigative bodies.
You have been living under 24/7 police protection for seven years. How does it affect your life and your work?
I had been living under 24/7 police protection until April this year. These years were an absolute hell. I could not easily move around and I had to sacrifice my lifestyle. Even my family had to give up a lot. Together with a colleague, who was also under 24/7 police protection, we no longer required protection by simply doing our job. We intensified the scope of our work and strengthened investigative teams, which proved to be a strong defense against the threats that we were receiving. Now I can say that everything was worth it.
How do you see the future for the Commission?
We will have to expand our mandate and continue our work beyond investigating murders and focusing on the trial, by enabling prevention, quick response and centralized SOS phones for journalists under threat. We are also working on a coordination body that would specifically focus on threats and violence against journalists. This would serve a centralized database, by cooperating with representatives of media associations, prosecutors’ offices and the police. An institution that works both on prevention and pursues efficient judicial processes would be the most effective way to fight impunity.