The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), is disappointed with a Serbian court’s decision to sentence to only ten months house arrest a person who beat up B92 TV cameraman Bosko Brankovic, breaking his leg, injuring his shoulder and destroying his camera. The light sentence has fuelled a widespread sense among journalists’ and other media associations that the law does not protect journalists.
The incident took place in 2008 as Brankovic was filming protests in Belgrade triggered by the detention of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Three protesters struck Brankovic while screaming: “Beat up the journalist”. Brankovic filmed the entire scene, until the aggressors broke his camera.
A court in Belgrade took three years to prosecute the perpetrators and pass the sentence: ten months house arrest for one of the men, and suspended sentences for his two accomplices.
The reaction of journalists´ associations was immediate: The Serbian Journalists Association suggested that the court sentence would not deter future attacks against journalists and noted purportedly attenuating conditions considered by the judges. A psychiatrist who testified during the trial declared that all of the attackers grew up in happy homes and turned violent only because they were part of a crowd.
In an open letter – in which he wrote that he was “ashamed as a citizen” - B92 editor- in -chief Veran Matic, who lives under 24-hour police protection, noted that according to Serbia’s 2009 Criminal Code the penalty for beating up a journalist is lower than for threatening one.
If a journalist is threatened but the threat does not materialise, the perpetrator can be sentenced from one to eight years in prison. If, however, a journalist is beaten and injured, but not killed, the Code foresees a prison sentence of six months to five years.
“In our penal legislation there is no balance whatsoever between the threat to society caused by a criminal act and the legally prescribed penalty. Judges are not to blame for this state of affairs, but the legislators,” Matic wrote.
He demanded that the legislation be changed and called for the training of judges who he said appeared to be unfamiliar with new provisions in the Serbian legal system, such as attenuating circumstances or pleading guilty in exchange for a lower court sentence.
“The ten-month house arrest sentence will not deter future aggression against journalists,” said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. “SEEMO supports the B92 demands for changes in legislation, an end to impunity, and the protection of journalists. So far, the police have been efficient in finding those who assault journalists, but slow court proceedings and disproportionately light sentences raise questions about the state’s commitment to protecting media representatives.”