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News Archive 1999

Silencing the Insider

Dnevni Telegraph editor Slavko Curuvija played the game, and lost. The consumate insider, he turned sharply against the regime, and paid the ultimate price.

By Anthony Borden
(Published on April 13, 1999)

A Belgrade journalist telephoned Slavko Curuvija a week ago to ask whether he had had any problems since the start of the NATO bombing. "I'm just waiting," he said.

Curuvija, editor of Dnevni Telegraf, had been sentenced to five months in prison under Yugoslavia's draconian Information Law for an article about a scandal involving the Yugoslav United Front (JUL) of Mijiana Markovic, wife of the Yugoslav president. But he had yet to be arrested.

Instead of handcuffs, however, Curuvija got several bullets in the back -- gunned down in front of his house Sunday evening by masked youths who also beat his wife, the historian Branka Prpa. They left 17 empty bullet casings, and a widespread climate of fear throughout Belgrade. "The killing of Curuvija is a message for people in the inner circle who might plot against Milosevic," said one Belgrade human rights activist. "Now they are all trembling."

Curuvija's death may be considered the first political assassination in Serbia proper of the war. It may presage a crackdown on any opposition to the regime-either among opposition politicians, human-rights activists and the independent media or among any potential plotters amid the ruling circle itself. It is the culmination (so far) of a campaign against the press which has been under way since the autumn, when the Belgrade regime imposed its Information Law and began silencing non-conformist media.

Curuvija was one of its first victims. In the days preceding the October agreement on Kosovo between Slobodan Milosevic and US envoy Richard Holbrooke, Curuvija had used his monthly magazine European to publish a scathing attack on the regime's ten years in power. 'Serbia,' he wrote, 'is dead already'. He was fined $240,000.

But Curuvija, 50, was not part of the clique of independent media and democracy activists. In fact, he was the consummate insider, a sometime member of the establishment who played the game and lost. A former policeman himself, Curuvija was the editor-in-chief of Borba daily in the early 1990s, at a time when the paper was considered semi-independent but at times close to the regime. A large and attractive man, he was known as a skilful journalist with excellent connections and a sometimes stubborn personality.

Only a few months ago, he boasted that he spoke on the telephone with Markovic once a week. With Dnevni Telegraph, launched in 1994, enjoying a circulation of 100,000, he fit in easily with the Belgrade moneyed set. But his real alliance was with Jovica Stanisic, former head of state security and heavily involved in the military campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia. This past autumn, Curuvija published an article praising Stanisic as a moderate, against violence in Kosovo and in favour of good relations with the renegade republic of Montenegro.

But the inside power games shifted -- likely more based on personality than actual policy difference -- and Stanisic was sacked shortly after. Curuvija's telephone calls with the president's wife came to an end.

Dnevni Telegraph was essentially a tabloid scandal sheet. With big headlines which the often small texts could not exactly justify, it was among the first papers in Belgrade to run sensational "exclusives" on the "terrorist UCK"-the Kosovo Liberation Army. But Curuvija's inside sources meant it was also highly informed about the ins and outs of the establishment, and could sometimes touch a nerve.

With his links to regime broken, Curuvija adopted an increasingly maverick stance, taking on the profile of a fighter for press freedoms in Serbia. In response to the latest crackdown on the media in Serbia, he moved the publication of Dnevni Telegraph to Montenegro and continued publication-although distribution within Serbia was patchy.

A week ago, the regime newspaper Politica Express published an article reporting a statement attributed to Markovic that one newspaper owner in Serbia supported the American bombing of Serbia. A few days later, the statement was broadcast on TV, and Curuvija was identified as this newspaper owner. A few days later, he was dead.

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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