The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned about threats made against Vukasin Obradovic, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Vranje-based weekly Novine Vranjske, and Goran Antic, a reporter with the publication, in retaliation for reporting allegations of sexual abuse made against Serbian Orthodox Bishop Pahomije. The bishop's secular name is Tomislav Gacic.
In early January, Novine Vranjske began publishing a series of articles about five boys from the southern Serbian city of Vranje who have accused Bishop Pahomije of sexual abuse over a period of several years and are pressing criminal charges against him. Bishop Pahomije is the leader of the local Serbian Orthodox Diocese in Vranje.
Bishop Pahomije has claimed the charges are false and said they are part of an ethnic Albanian "plot" against him. He has also accused the paper of cooperating with ethnic Albanians.
Lawyers representing Bishop Pahomije filed criminal libel charges against Obradovic and Antic on February 13, the Belgrade daily Politika reported. According to Obradovic, a court hearing is scheduled for March 23.
Obradovic told CPJ on March 4 that he began receiving anonymous threats by telephone after Antic's articles about the bishop's case appeared in Novine Vranjske. He said that he initially chose not to report the threats to the police because such harassment is relatively common in Serbia.
But the threats became more serious. On March 3, an anonymous letter arrived at the Novine Vranjske office threatening to kill Obradovic, his family, Antic, and the newspaper's staff in retaliation for their coverage of the case.
CPJ has obtained a copy of the anonymous letter. It is addressed to Novine Vranjske's staff and Obradovic and signed by two unknown organizations, the "Serbian Liberation Movement" and the "Serbian Liberation Front." The letter accuses Obradovic of being a "traitor" and a "homosexual" and says that the editor-in-chief and his "family are sentenced to death," that "the office of Novine Vranjske will be demolished and burnt down," and that he "will be liquidated and cannot escape." The letter also states that Obradovic is being paid by ethnic Albanian separatists to discredit the Serbian Orthodox Church and warns him to stop reporting on the allegations of sexual abuse made against Bishop Pahomije.
Obradovic told CPJ that the letter is "a warning to me, my family, my staff, as well as to the five boys and their families, to withdraw the charges of sexual abuse against Bishop Pahomije or face serious consequences." Obradovic is taking the death threat seriously and expressed "deep concern" about the safety of his family. The Serbian Orthodox Church has not made a formal statement or condemned the threatening letter, Obradovic said.
CPJ contacted the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy in Vranje on March 5 and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchy in Belgrade on March 6 to obtain comment from the Serbian Orthodox Church about the criminal libel charges against Obradovic and Antic, as well as the death threat against Antic, Obradovic, his family, and Novine Vranjske staff. Church officials at both locations refused to comment.
As an organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide, CPJ is worried about the safety and security of Obradovic, his family, and the newspaper's staff, particularly in light of the still unsolved June 2001 murder of Milan Pantic, a 47-year-old crime reporter for the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti. Pantic had received numerous telephone threats in response to his articles, which covered corruption and organized crime in the central Serbian town of Jagodina.
We urge you, Your Excellency, to ensure that the Interior Ministry aggressively investigates these death threats and that those responsible are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We also urge you to repeal Serbia's criminal defamation law, which continues to be used to intimidate independent journalists and stifle their critical reporting.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.