The Most Terrifying Pressures Occur in Silence
The Most Terrifying Pressures Occur in Silence
The only thing we definitely learned from Feral’s experience is that we should publicly defend ourselves from pressure.
From today’s perspective, considering the attacks on journalists, all fifteen years of existence of the weekly Feral Tribune (from 1993 to 2008) have the “aroma” of a sort of siege, with the siege being coordinated during that whole time – even when it concerned so-called uncontrolled outbursts of rage or aggression coming from “unidentified perpetrators” – by the state and political government.
This conclusion is supported most vividly by an event from 1995 when hundreds of copies of Feral were publicly burned on People’s Square in Split. The “action”, in broad daylight, lasted several hours: three “Croatian returnees from Australia” seized copies of the paper from nearby kiosks and placed them in a bonfire, shouting that they were “Chetnik propaganda”, while none of the numerous citizens dared to step in or take an issue with the patriotically playful arsonists. Moreover, the “performance” was not stopped even by the policemen who were calmly watching the fire from the edge of People’s Square, and later also in some other places in town. The identity of the arsonists was revealed by Feral journalists, their photographs were published in the paper, the newsroom filed misdemeanor and criminal reports against them, but – without any consequences. The real reason was identified a little later: the “returnees from Australia” had been hired – and even well paid! – by the secret police in order to organize the public burning of the paper.
The newsroom worked under the greatest risk on two occasions – in August 1995, after military operation “Storm”, and in 1997, after Feral published Miro Bajramović’s confession about crimes at Pakračka Poljana.
After “Storm” ended, Feral, then the only one in the country, reported on mass killings of Serb civilians, mostly old men, who did not flee the territory of the former “Krajina”. In the days of triumphant euphoria, that provoked an unseen outburst of rage. The newsroom received tens of telephone threats every day and all of that was accompanied by persecution and defamation in other media. On several occasions, groups of “enraged citizens” – obviously well organized – tried to storm the weekly’s premises and “square accounts with the journalists”. Protection was requested from the Ministry of Interior, as a result of which the paper was produced for more than a month under heavy police guard, while journalists avoided moving around town in fear of being attacked. It is interesting that the greatest eruption of violence and threats at that time was not provoked in the local context by the articles on killings of civilians – although virtually the whole Croatian public saw them as an unbearable provocation – but rather by a reportage about a large number of residents of Split travelling in an organized fashion by train to Knin to loot there the shops and apartments of the fleeing Serbs.
After Miro Bajramović’s confession about crimes at Pakračka Poljana was published, the threats were equally intense, but this time some of them came from people who did not hide their identity – they were members of Tomislav Merčep’s unit who had been involved in the crimes, who were already known because Feral had previously published relevant documents on the atrocities, but now Bajramović, their former fellow soldier, personally blamed them in his testimony. Snježana Živanović, member of a group that executed the Zec family from Zagreb, told Feral editor Heni Erceg over the telephone that she would “kill (her) child”. Not hesitating to identify themselves, Munib Suljić – also involved in the killing of the Zec family – and Merčep’s soldier under the nickname of Rus, also stood out in their threats to other journalists and editors. The threats were reported but – other than the actors being questioned – it is not known that anyone answered for them. For several weeks the paper’s premises in Split and Zagreb were under police protection.
Not long after the weekly was launched, and just three days after featuring a front page with Tudjman and Milošević sharing the same bed, on 31 December 1993, military policemen served me – the paper’s then editor-in-chief – with military call-up papers. (By the way, that was unlawful, because according to a decree that was in effect at the time, editors-in-chief of all press were exempted from call-up, with the idiotic explanation that their “wartime posting” was in their media.) Considering my conscription to be politically motivated, I refused to voluntarily report to the barracks and notified the military authorities accordingly.
They arrested me in my apartment, took me to the barracks of the 4th Guards Brigade at Dračevac near Split, held me in a military prison for three days, after which I served one month of intense military training with “special treatment”: it included a wide array of harassment and intimidation, even a staged “trip” to a battlefield in Bosnia. During my stay in prison, an “informational interview” was conducted with me every night by several officers of the 4th Brigade, not infrequently waving their personal weapons, who we had previously written about, reporting that they had forcibly broken into apartments of Split’s Serbs and seized them, expelling the previous tenants. After a month – due to pressure by international journalists’, writers’, political and non-governmental organizations – they released me from the barracks, only to have Drago Krpina, then Chief of the Crisis Staff for Dalmatia, inform the public the following day through Slobodna Dalmacija that I had “deserted”.
According to later findings, it turned out that my escape from Split on 31 December, right after receiving the call-up papers, had been justified because it is very likely the authorities had initially had a “more radical” plan. But I really had no intention of awaiting the New Year in the barracks – especially after a front page that angered the regime and provoked salvos of attacks – and so I escaped by car from the military policemen who were waiting in front of the building and I hid in Zagreb for three days, during which members of the newsroom informed the international and local public through press releases about what was going on. Only after the call-up became a publicly known fact did I feel safer, even if they considered me a deserter at that point. Then assistant minister of defense confided to a friend of the newsroom, who had contacted him about the case, that “now at least the head is safe”.
I returned to Split, reported to the military authorities, notified them where I was, but I also told them I did not want to come to the barracks voluntarily. They took me into custody the same day and placed me in an improvised jail within the barracks. The “informational interviews” that were conducted at 2 or 3 a.m. were actually pure provocations: specific officers, some of whom introduced themselves as people from Feral’s articles on seized apartments, would wake me up, sometimes waving their weapons, and shower me with questions about where I got the information on these “housing placements”, why Feral was writing about that, and so on. I refused to communicate with them and answer the questions. Upon leaving the prison, a false departure to the battlefield was staged. They gave me a uniform to put on, placed me in the back of a military van and locked it from the outside, with the explanation that “we are leaving for Bosnia right away”. And so I spent more than four hours locked in the windowless vehicle that was not moving. The obvious intention was to break me psychologically or simply to humiliate me, but after 10 minutes or so I realized it was a setup. They joined me to a group of 20 or so volunteers who were “doing” military training before being admitted to a professional guards brigade. The training was physically demanding, but more emphasis was placed on psychological pressure and humiliation – they ordered me, just for the fun of it, to repeat the most difficult exercises, all the while making it clear to me in casual comments and insults that I was in a hostile environment. Nevertheless, since the paper’s newsroom was continuously alerting the public – and now numerous international organizations were doing the same, such as PEN and International Federation of Journalists – I did not fear for my life. A specific form of mental torture were the commands. Here is what that looked like: a commander in front of the line shouts “For home” and the recruits respond in one voice: “Ready!” The ritual was repeated at least 10 times a day, during every lineup. I was the only one in the line who conspicuously did not respond to the Ustasha command, but – interestingly – I was never reproached for that. I was not able to find out whether fascist commands were a customary thing in the barracks of the guards brigade or a temporary background sound.
After ten or so days, I decided to write an article for Feral. From a telephone booth in the barracks compound I dictated a satirical article in which I was supposedly issuing combat directives to members of the newsroom. The language, tone, prop-phrases and idiotic meaning of these commands were identical to those of my commanders who ran the training; I tried to copy them “word for word”, with the context being completely absurd. The article was published while I was still in the barracks, after which my position drastically changed: they mostly left me alone, treating me equally as everyone else and, I got the impression, everyone was actually just waiting for the farce to end… This whole episode, it should be stressed, ended favorably – i.e. with my quiet discharge after one month – solely due to pressure by international institutions, because there was practically no support within the country, including the media.
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In early 1996, agents of the Service for the Protection of Constitutional Order (SZUP) carried out a broad operation of questioning Feral editors’ neighbors – they were interested in where they were moving, who they were friendly with, who was coming to their apartments, what their habits were … Some of those questioned contacted us in panic to tell us that. As special secrecy measures were not undertaken, it was evident that one of the goals was intimidation. This was done on various other occasions too – there were interceptions by cars, pushing and provocative incidents, and sometimes the “keepers of public order” in civilian clothes would openly introduce themselves, letting us know they were “following” us. A nighttime break-in into the newsroom was staged that year – a “group of junkies” acted as the “perpetrators”, taking away several computers – while bugging devices were set up on the premises on that occasion, which was established after the government change of 2000, when secret police files of labeled “enemies of the state” were discovered and when this conspiratorial documentation of the SZUP was provided to the victims for one-time inspection.
In the mid-90s, private medical records of some of Feral’s journalists and editors were taken from medical clinics and copied: on several occasions the contents of these records were published in pro-regime media in order to publicly discredit them. We were never able to establish the credibility of a tip by a “well-meaning member of the service” – who notified us under heavy measures of caution that “SIS is preparing the execution of the paper’s leading people” – whether the man was telling the truth or was “on assignment” even then, trying to discourage the journalists from doing their jobs… Anyway, after the documentation of the secret police was discovered (and provided for inspection in 2001), it was established that practically every Feral journalist and editor had a fat file and that all their telephone conversations in the 90s had been tapped. Orders for “operative processing” – which included tailing and telephone tapping – were signed by then ministers of interior, most of them by Ivan Penić and Ivan Jarnjak. The latter, as a parliament delegate from the HDZ party, remained active in political life long afterwards.
I did not want to leaf through or read my police file – stored in 30 or so cardboard boxes and taking up one-fourth of a room in the building of the Ministry of Interior – which was provided to me for inspection in 2001. I had the impression that by doing so, I would in a way enable the secret police to complete their job. In addition to feeling disgust, I had no need to come to face with the “record” of my privacy compiled by the apparatus for the protection of the regime. Some colleagues were left quite traumatized after such adventures.
The following, for example, sometimes happened: person A, whose telephone is being tapped, is talking with person B about person C; the transcript of the conversation ends up in person C’s file; when he or she later looks at his or her file, person C also finds out what persons A and B had been privately saying about him or her a couple of years before and thus, with the help of the secret police’s subsequent effect, ends some friendships… My wife, Heni Erceg, looked at her file and came upon the expected assortment of filth: all telephone conversations over a seven-year period – from 1993 to 2000 – had been transcribed or summarized, as were conversations in the offices of the newsroom which had been bugged, as well as full medical records, reports by agents who were following our movements, “observations” by informants about our characters, as well as “reconstructions” of our social connections and acquaintanceships… There were, however, also reports about completely fabricated meetings or trips, which were likely supposed by serve the purpose of public defamation. But the fate of the files themselves was much more interesting.
After the then opposition took over power in 2000 and discovered the police documentation on “enemies of the state”, the Ministry of Interior first offered to allow the journalists who had been spied upon to inspect their files – only on the Ministry’s premises, without the right to take out or photocopy the documents, with strict oversight by a police official – but only after signing consent that the documentation could then be destroyed. The Feral newsroom responded with a statement that it does not agree to that, because that would destroy the evidence of the political crime whose perpetrators must be prosecuted and tried. The Ministry finally agreed to make the files available to journalists for inspection, without requesting consent to destroy them, but it did not launch an investigation or prosecute those responsible for the political crime. The explanation was that, despite the undoubted political crime and the actions which are incompatible with the principles of democratically constituted societies, everything had been done “in the framework of the law”, since the journalists who had been spied upon had been registered as potential “terrorists” and “enemies of the constitutional order” and the state had thus had a legal foundation for its “preventative action”: orders for “operational processing” had been regularly signed and stamped every six months by the ministers of interior and the legislation at that time had not stipulated any public oversight over the work of secret services. Moreover, lustration procedures against these political thugs were not launched either and some of them continued to be politically active, in top state bodies, as if nothing had happened.
A group of journalists, wanting to set things straight, filed a criminal report against those who had ordered the political crimes, but it was rejected. Therefore, the most bizarre epilogue of the scandal should not be surprising: the files of the former “enemies of the state” are still in the possession of the Ministry of Interior, which means they can still be misused at the discretion of those currently in power.
In February 2001, a Feral news crew – reporter Damir Pilić and photojournalist Rino Belan – travelled to Pakoštane, wanting to record the start of construction of Croatian Army General Ante Gotovina’s magnificent villa. They were intercepted at the scene by Boro Gotovina, the general’s brother, with a group of his cronies, on which occasion he savagely beat up photojournalist Belan. The attack was reported to police, but – according to old custom – Boro Gotovina was never punished for his act. Two and a half years earlier, the same duo had been intercepted by a group of policemen in the vicinity of Čapljina. They searched their car and when they found 20 or so copies of Feral in the trunk they took them to the police station where, four days before that, Omer Červa, then Bosniak parliamentary delegate, and four Bosniak policemen had been brutally beaten up. Belan and Pilić were surrounded and maltreated by around 20 members of police, who calmed down to some extent only when the journalists told them they were in contact with the then spokesperson of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In October 2000, during a pro-fascist rally of the “Headquarters for the Protection of Dignity of the Homeland War” which was held in Split’s sports hall at Gripe, Feral journalist Vladimir Matijanić was attacked and spat on by Luka Podrug, today’s president of the Pure Croatian Party of Rights, accompanied by a big group of bullies. Podrug called Matijanić a “wastrel”, saying that only “faggots like you at Feral” can write about him that way. Ivica Vladava Đovani joined the attack, telling the journalist: “If my name appears in Feral – you are finished.” The incident was reported to police, without any consequences.
Drago Hedl, Feral journalist and editor from Osijek, was subjected to continuous threats and attacks, mostly because he wrote about the autocracy of Branimir Glavaš and crimes that had been committed against civilians of Serb ethnicity committed under his command in Osijek in 1991. Hedl suffered all forms of pressure – from his car being demolished, through physical assaults, to death threats.
In mid-2005 Feral editor and journalist Ivica Đikić, author of a series of articles about the Zagreb underground, received a threatening letter from Zlata Petrač, mother of Hrvoje Petrač, who was accused at that time and later convicted for the kidnapping of the son of Vladimir Zagorac. In September the same year, in a letter published in the weekly Nacional, Hrvoje Petrač himself threatened Đikić.
In December 1999, Feral journalist Toni Gabrić was taken into custody for “watching” the villa of Đurđa Šušak, wife of then deceased minister of defense Gojko Šušak: a military policeman in the street took away his documents, after which he brought him into the basement of the villa and with six other colleagues “questioned” him for a full two hours. Editor-in-Chief Heni Erceg sent a public letter of protest to the Ministry of Defense, seeking an explanation, but no response arrived... Ivica Đikić was also subjected to thorough police questioning after publishing in March 2003 documents labeled “military secret”, which had been covered up for years, about the evaporation and burning of more than two tons of the deadly hydrogen cyanide gas in the “Duboki jarak” military warehouse near Sesvete… That was just a continuation of an old practice: when the General Attorney’s Office in 1996 pressed charges against Feral columnist Marinko Čulić and the signatory of these lines for “libel and slander” of then President of the state Franjo Tuđman, they were interrogated in police premises, indicatively, by inspectors of the “Department for War Crimes and Crimes of Terrorism”.
These are just some examples of violence against Feral journalists, who were doing their job – in all 15 years of the paper’s existence – under constant pressure. Threatening letters and phone calls were practically part of the everyday work routine and it is impossible to list them all here, as were different forms of aggression, blackmail and threatening messages by the people we were writing about. Tires on newsroom cars were slashed several times and the entryway to the newsroom was damaged or scribbled with insulting graffiti: a plaque with the paper’s logotype at the address Šetalište Bačvice no. 10 could not “last” more than five days without being smashed and so we finally removed it. A particular phenomenon, unlike in the time of socialism, was “street violence”, as a consequence of defamation and agitating pamphlets published in pro-regime newspapers and on Croatian Television and qualifications uttered by the politicians in power.
This was especially intense during the war: Feral journalists, labeled “national traitors”, on a daily basis experienced cursing in the street, insults, threats, and not uncommonly physical assaults as well. The ruling regime, for its part, took all available “systemic” measures in order to silence the journalists and suffocate the paper: from imposing a so-called pulp tax in a draconian amount, through countless lawsuits whose goal was to financially destroy the weekly (by 1998 only, total damages sought from Feral had risen to 14 million kunas, after which we stopped keeping count), spying and wiretapping by police, constant political discrediting, production of public wanted lists and secret defamatory pamphlets (to illustrate: a body dubbed Croatian Informational and Cultural Institute, led by Ivan Bekavac, in 1998 compiled a so-called “Feral black book”, a document of 50 or so pages distributed through diplomatic channels to all important international organizations and foreign embassies in Croatia, which was supposed to serve as “evidence” that the weekly was “extremist”, “anti-Croatian” and “pornographic”), all the way to sabotaging distribution (until 2000) and boycott by advertisers (until 2008, when the paper shut down).
In the end it is worth mentioning the most active participants in the violence, not just against journalists of Feral and other independent papers, but against freedom of the media in general: they are, namely, journalists themselves. They are that huge mass of Croatian journalists who – especially in the 90s, but later as well – unquestioningly placed themselves in the service of the political authorities, trampled on all important principles of the profession and spearheaded the lynch of their own colleagues, or who observed the periodical persecution silently and from a safe distance, as if it did not concern them in any way.
The Croatian Journalist Society was in the 90s largely a pest of an organization – because, as a rule, it did not react to cases of “patriotic” or criminal (usually one and the same) harassment of journalists, nor did it express a minimum of solidarity, while on some occasions it even openly supported the abuse and persecution of the profession – and later, after the Croatian Journalist Society was “reformed”, like the political authorities, not a single word was squeezed out of this guild association to take a stand on the dark periods in its past.
Violent outbursts against journalists and free media are always a symptom of an undemocratic environment; this kind of environment – regardless of who the violence comes from – is generated by the ruling political will, the one that establishes the intentions, character and efficiency of the system. It is particularly sad that in this context most Croatian journalists – by their action or their inaction – have so far been on the side of bullies rather than their victims. Despite that, the only thing we definitely learned from Feral’s experience is that we should publicly defend ourselves from pressure. We should not agree to compromises because they make us weaker; instead, every attack should be publicized and we should defend ourselves on the open stage. Whatever the public may be like, as much as it may seem ideologically and politically prepared, facing it with the truth is a precondition for regimes disinclined toward the media to lose the feeling of complete control over the consequences of their actions. In the case of Feral, the help that came from the international public was incomparably more effective than help in the local framework.
Yet, the most terrifying (and most efficient) examples of pressure on newspapers and journalists are those that occur in complete silence. Defense of authorial freedom, therefore, should be governed by the same reasons with which one starts to write in the first place: against the silence.
Translation: Kanita Halilović