After five years behind a desk, investigative journalist and editor of Serbian television station B92’s investigative program Insider Brankica Stankovic is going back out into the field. One of the country’s most highly respected journalists, Stankovic has had a police protection detail around the clock since 2009 on the orders of the Interior Ministry. Her desk job has been part of her security regimen--she receives constant death threats online. After she reported on the criminal ties of radical supporters of Belgrade’s Partizan football club, fans at a Partizan match made a display of kicking and punching an effigy of her in the stands, and then stabbing it while shouting that she was a whore who should be murdered. She recently made an official request with the Interior Ministry asking to have the security discontinued, saying it impedes her work.
In 2014 Stankovic was named one of Reporters Without Borders’ “Information Heroes,” and received the “Courage in Journalism Award” from the International Women’s Media Foundation. She took a break from preparing the new season of “Insider” to speak with Lady Liberty contributor Majda Banjanovic about the state of Serbian media and her decision to get back in front of the camera.
Lady Liberty: In your autobiography Insider, My Story, you wrote about the litany of threats made against you, including the incident at the football match. Do you think the threats and insults would be so ferocious if you were a man?
Brankica Stankovic: Those who make threats feel strong and passionate when they're in a group. It doesn't matter if you are a woman or a man. The only difference for them is that they wouldn’t call a man a “whore.” They would call him “gay.” This is their level. It says a lot about them and it says a lot about a country that hasn’t yet found a solution for this problem. The biggest defeat for a country is when a journalist has to live under police protection, not for six months, but for nearly six years.
Lady Liberty: There is a lot of discussion about censorship and self-censorship in Serbian journalists’ circles these days. How does censorship operate here?
Stankovic: My good friend Jesse once said, “Someone canceled journalism and didn’t tell us.” I think there is more self-censorship than censorship involved. When someone doesn’t want to answer a question, instead of all of the journalists leaving the press conference together and boycotting it because someone doesn’t want to give an answer that is in the public interest, the journalist gets a response like, “How dare you ask that?” But of course there are those with power who will take every opportunity to ban something and prevent it from being published. It has always been that way, only now the media has adjusted to it. This was also evident in the time of [former Serbian President] Tadich. It’s not only in Serbia that you see censorship. Even in developed countries the government is always trying to suppress something or other, but those countries have a different value system and journalists have a different attitude in response to such pressure.
Lady Liberty: Media freedom is in decline worldwide, according to the latest report from media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Why is that?
Stankovic: For example, I live with police protection 24 hours a day because I did my job. I believe there are plenty of journalists who would say, “Come on, I don’t want to end up like her. I value my freedom.” The essence of it is that it depends how determined and persistent you are and what your goal is. On the other hand, these days it’s possible to publish just about any information yourself. Let’s face it, we no longer live in the 19th century.
Lady Liberty: Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic made headlines in January when he accused journalists with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) of being “liars” and “spies” after the EU-funded outlet published a report critical of a government tender under negotiation. What kind of message does this send to journalists?
Stankovic: The crux of the problem is not in this particular case. In general, it is not becoming for a Prime Minister of any country, including Serbia, to react in this manner. There are legal mechanisms that can be used when you believe someone published something false. There is denial, there are lawsuits, but of course you cannot call journalists liars when you are the Prime Minister. On the other hand, journalists have responsibilities too, and sometimes they can be very superficial in their work--but I’m not referring to BIRN here. We have had countless cases in Serbia where a journalist created a scandal and started a campaign against someone in the media. The worst thing you can do as a journalist is to accuse someone of something on the basis of incomplete information.
Lady Liberty: How can young journalists learn the skills of investigative journalism? What characteristics do they need to possess?
Stankovic: We [at Insider] have taken many courses on investigative journalism and we’ve taken something away from each. If someone is interested in investigative journalism, curiosity and persistence are a must. Investigative journalism is different from daily reporting. It needs a special approach and more reflection.
Lady Liberty: What is your security situation now? How has it affected your work?
Stankovic: I haven't worked as the reporter for Insider for five years. I haven't done interviews and I haven't gone to meetings, I’ve just worked as an editor because I can’t go anywhere without police protection, which makes everything more complicated. I hope that things will change now, because I’m going back to reporting for Insider. Maybe some people think that I’m retired, but I’m not.