The International Press Institute (IPI) today called for an immediate end to the pressure and intimidation against N1 TV journalist Jelena Zorić by the defense lawyer in a major drug trial in Serbia.
IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, also called on the lawyer, Svetislav Bojić, to immediately withdraw his unprecedented criminal complaint, which requests a 30-day broadcast ban on N1 TV.
On December 28, 2020, Zorić was allegedly threatened by Bojić as she was covering a trial at the Special Court in Belgrade which involves his client, Predrag Koluvija, who is charged with helping run one of the largest illegal marijuana plantations in Europe.
After a hearing, Bojić, who is a member of the Serbian Bar Association, approached the journalist and her camera operator outside the building and passed on a message from Koluvija criticising her coverage of the trial.
According to Zorić and the cameraman, who is acting as a witness, the lawyer relayed that whoever sinned against Koluvija ” did not do well”, adding that the journalist was on the “list of Koluvija’s prayers” along with the prosecutor and police chief who arrested him.
After consulting with the Committee for the Safety of Journalists in Serbia, N1 denounced the comment as a veiled threat from Koluvija and Zorić reported it to the Criminal Police Directorate, which forwarded it to the prosecutor’s office.
The Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS) said the message was “more than a clear threat” and likened the comment to those made by “mafia clans”. The Independent Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) called for action by the prosecutor’s office. On January 2, an ominous handwritten note was found near Zorić’s personal residence, leading to growing concerns about her safety.
After the comment was initially reported, Bojic apologized to Zorić and rejected her version of events as “incorrect”. Two weeks later, however, he filed a counter criminal complaint similar to Zorić’s which accused her of “false reporting” and lying about their conversation.
In his filing, Bojić made claims about his own safety and that of his family members, saying he was exposed to threats from Zorić’s followers on Twitter. Zorić does not have any social media accounts.
The complaint also requested that Serbia’s Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) impose a temporary broadcast ban on H1 TV for 30 days over what Bojic called an “unprecedented media chase” against him.
IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said the criminal complaint and its request to ban N1 from the airwaves for a month was a clear effort to intimidate a journalist and frustrate media coverage of one of the most closely followed trials in Serbia in years.
“We urge Mr. Bojic to withdraw this complaint immediately and halt all forms of pressure and intimidation of N1 journalist Jelena Zorić to allow her to do her job freely”, he said. “This unprecedented and groundless complaint seeks to ban one of the biggest independent media outlets in Serbia from reporting for an entire month. It represents a clear attack on the freedom of the media and must be swiftly dismissed by the investigating authorities.”
Griffen also urged the Ministry of the Interior (MUP) and the Security Information Agency (BIA) to respond to a request by N1 for a threat assessment of Zorić to ensure her safety.
Zorić, a TV reporter and documentary film maker, had reported on the Koluvija trial from the courthouse in Belgrade on multiple occasions and has closely covering developments in the case.
In November 2019, a police raid led to the discovery of over 650 kilograms of marijuana and almost four tons of raw cannabis in a network of tunnels and growing laboratories located underneath one of Serbia’s most well-known organic food farms.
The farm, located less than 50 kilometres from the Serbian capital, was owned by the Jovanjica company and Koluvija, who is one of the key defendants and prime suspects.
He was detained alongside eight associates and charged with organizing a criminal group and providing equipment for the lab and faces up to 10 years in prison. Koluvija has been convicted of fraud on multiple occasions in Germany and of the unauthorized possession of weapons in Italy.
A police officer who was the head of security of the former director of police, the head of the department for the fight against corruption in Belgrade, and a policeman in the Criminal Police Directorate were also arrested in connection with the raid, causing a major scandal for the Serbian government.
After the threat was reported to the Committee for the Safety of Journalists in Serbia, the Prime Minister Ana Brnabić phoned Zorić to express her support and thank her for reporting the threat.
This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.