AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1992

"Kill The Reporters!"   

The Serbs believe journalists favor Croatia – one reason 18 are dead.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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   » If You Go

Carol Byrne and three other journalists traveling through Croatia last summer could hear machine-gun fire crackling in the hills as they approached a roadblock manned by Serbian soldiers.

"We tried to explain who we were," recalls Byrne, a reporter for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune, "but they searched the car and threw our luggage on the side of the road."

Moments later, as the sun slipped behind western Yugoslavia's mountainous terrain, Byrne, freelance photographer Duane Hall, photographer Rita Reed of the Star Tribune and Croatian radio reporter Boris Glozinic found themselves surrounded by uniformed men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles.

"They kept their guns cocked and pointed at us. They repeatedly told Boris that he was going to be shot," Byrne says. "We were terrified they would kill him.

"They accused us of having forged passports...The leader was very abusive and militaristic."

The group was lucky. Held overnight, all four were released after intervention by the U.S. Consulate. Reed saved her film from confiscation by hiding it in her underwear.

Far more importantly, the names Byrne, Hall, Reed and Glozinic do not appear on the ever expanding journalists' death roll tacked up outside the Foreign Press Bureau in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. As of mid-December, 18 @Text1:journalists had been killed in Yugoslavia's six-month-old civil war. Two Soviet journalists had been missing since September and were presumed dead. Dozens more had been wounded or abused at the hands of captors. And at least a dozen had lost limbs or been critically wounded by mortar fire, grenades, land mines and snipers since the former republics of Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence in June.

"As far as I know, it's the highest number of journalists killed in the shortest period of time in recent years," says Joel Solomon, associate director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "It appears the press is being targeted."

In a scathing report on press conditions in Yugoslavia since hostilities broke out, committee researcher Allison Jernow detailed numerous incidents of journalists detained or killed. "In early August," she writes, "correspondents from two Spanish and five Italian newspapers were stopped on the way to a scheduled interview with a Serbian commander. They were accused of spying for Croatia...While Yugoslav Army officers watched, the Serbs lined up the journalists before a firing squad, raised their rifles, and then, at the last moment, decided to let them go."

At about the same time, Jernow reports, "Serbian rebels abducted Croatian newspaper correspondent Stejpan Penic from his home [and] smashed his typewriter before beating and killing him. To [his] colleagues...the message was obvious."

When journalists gather over beers in Zagreb to trade war stories, they search for explanations of the violence directed at the press. Many believe that Serbians view the Western press as sympathetic to Croatia's struggle for independence from Belgrade, making reporters and photographers fair game for attacks.

It is understandable why some might think the press has sided with Croatia. Both the U.S. State Department and the European Community have accused the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army of being the aggressor in the conflict. During the first four months of fighting, access to Serbian-held territory was difficult, forcing the press to spend a disproportionate amount of time covering the conflict from the Croatian side. Finally, in late November, the government in Belgrade began to grant reporters credentials to travel with the Yugoslav Army.

Still, the nature of the war puts journalists in a bind. If they travel with a translator and are questioned by troops who consider the translator to be an enemy, they risk being labeled collaborators or spies. Interpreters are in danger the moment they cross enemy lines, but without help, foreign journalists can miss warnings about snipers or land mines that troops often issue at military checkpoints.

Even when forewarned, journalists in Croatia have been hit by sniper fire or shrapnel while traveling in cars clearly marked "press." They have been fired upon while taking photos and conducting interviews. They have had press credentials ripped out of their hands. They have had rifles and cocked pistols pressed to their heads or necks. One Reuter wire report quoted journalists who fled after Serbians fired at them with cries of "Kill the reporters!"

Unfortunately, there are no clearly marked fronts in the bloody conflict. In the countryside, what appears to be a deserted farmhouse might actually be an armed encampment. In one village, an older woman delighted in showing off to a reporter her chicken coop that doubled as a repository for rockets and grenades.

In parts of Croatia, journalists can pass through a web of villages, some held by Serbians, some by Croatians. A road designated safe one day can be heavily mined when reporters pass through a few days later.

The modern roots of the conflict date to World War II. The Ustasha, a Croatian faction during the war, killed Serbians. The Chetniks, a Serbian faction, killed Croatians. Today, it's a hard-line Communist regime in Belgrade pitted against a fledgling democracy in Zagreb. It's the powerful Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic leading the charge against secessionist Croatia, which wants to fly its own flag, print its own currency and issue its own passports. Sandwiched between are hundreds of journalists trying to carry details of the Yugoslav divorce to the world.

Time magazine photographer Christopher Morris, who was held hostage by Iraqi troops during the Persian Gulf War and survived assignments in Afghanistan, Panama and Nicaragua, calls the Yugoslavian crisis "by far the most dangerous and unpredictable" conflict he's ever covered.

"The shelling is very random," he says. "A village can seem peaceful one minute, then suddenly, there's gunfire everywhere. But it still doesn't seem that Serbians are targeting journalists. When there's nothing stopping you from reaching the front, no press pools or controls, there's going to be dangerous situations."

Morris has seen some of that danger, including two episodes where he was detained at gunpoint by Serbian soldiers. "On one occasion they pulled me out of the car by my hair, screaming they were going to kill me," he recounts. "I told them I was an American but they threw my passport on the ground and accused me of being a spy. It's the closest I've come to where I thought I could be killed."

Morris describes how he crossed Croatian-held territory at the front and passed through a "no-man's land" to a Serbian checkpoint.

"We drove very slowly, with the car doors slightly open," he says. "If we heard a noise or felt any impact on the car, we could be ready to roll out into the ditch. We knew it could be so quickly riddled with bullets that if we didn't react immediately, we'd be dead."

The parking lot at Zagreb's Intercontinental Hotel provides hard evidence of the dangers that face journalists in the war-torn country. Some clearly marked press vehicles are tattooed with shrapnel or bullet holes; many windshields have been shattered by shrapnel or sniper fire.

Inside the hotel, the Foreign Press Bureau has become a haven for reporters and photographers. The volunteer staff, led by Dragan Lozancic, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Columbia University, supplies drivers and interpreters to accompany journalists to battle zones.

Lozancic, who has no journalistic experience, returned to his homeland at the request of the Croatian Democratic Union to found the bureau only days before Croatia declared independence. He began the bureau with only a pen and a bulletin board but quickly garnered more than $20,000 in donations from Croatian-Americans and computer equipment from supporters in New York. The Croatian government pays the phone bills, and the hotel has donated office space. Lozancic provides road reports and does "everything we can to keep the journalists safe."

But in the countryside, the safety of the press often hinges on pure luck. On October 1, for example, three journalists driving to the front-line town of Pakrac came under heavy artillery fire. Village soldiers appeared out of the forest and led them to a makeshift command post in a bombed-out farmhouse.

At 5 p.m., a soldier wearing a black headband decorated with the Croatian coat of arms arrived with news that Serbian forces had pushed into the town and might overrun the outpost. "Don't worry," the folk-dancer-turned-soldier told the journalists, "we will protect you."

He directed two of his men to lead the reporters to the safety of a nearby village. "You must carry the news of what is happening here to the world," the soldier said, as he hoisted a sack of rockets onto his back and headed into the night. l