May 4, 1999
By Don North
In April 11, Slavko Curuvija, a tall, handsome man, the editor of the Belgrade newspaper Dnevni Telegraf (Daily Telegraph), was returning to his apartment with an attractive woman companion. He apparently didn't see the two men in black leather jackets behind him in the street.
Curuvija, who also edited the biweekly magazine Evropljanin [The European], had been crossing swords with the regime of Slobodan Milosevic since the fall. But the danger surrounding Curuvija had escalated with the start of NATO bombing raids two-and-a-half weeks earlier.
In the days before April 11, he had been identified indirectly by Milosevic's powerful wife as the one newspaper editor in Serbia who supported the NATO air raids.
But Curuvija had not always been that reviled by the Milosevic regime. In earlier years, Curuvija had built his journalistic reputation as an editor who had access to the government's highest levels.
A skillful journalist, Curuvija knew how to play the role of consummate insider. His combination of political connections and media clout allowed him to circulate easily through Belgrade's moneyed set. But he also was known to cruise in shady circles while rubbing elbows with Milosevic's aides.
Curuvija's main source, his friends said, was Jovica Stanisic, head of state security during the brutal military campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia.
But ironically, Curuvija boasted that another of his well-placed sources was Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, called by critics the Lady Macbeth of Yugoslavia. Curuvija claimed to speak to Markovic once a week by telephone.
As Curuvija stepped in and out of Milosevics government circles, cultivating senior Yugoslav officials to extract information in a country where the media is often muzzled, he was playing a dangerous game.
But Curuvija had mixed his allegiances for years, working within the government and then in journalism. His friends also described him as a complex character, a stubborn personality and a serial womanizer.
Curuvija had started out as a policeman. But in the early 1990s, he made a dramatic career shift by becoming editor of Borba, a Belgrade daily considered independent but close to Milosevic.
In 1994, Curuvija launched The Daily Telegraph and soon after started The European. The Daily Telegraph was mostly a tabloid scandal sheet, however independent its views. Frequently the big headlines did not match the text of the brief stories.
But Curuvija's insider contacts made the newspaper a window into the ups and downs of the Yugoslav establishment and a necessary read for other journalists.
Because of his excellent sources, the newspaper's stories often hit right on target, too. The Daily Telegraph was among the first papers in Belgrade to run sensational stories on the "terrorist" Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA].
Overall, Curuvija's publications were not as critical of the Milosevic regime as were some other independent news outlets. But the editor was a fixture in the surprisingly lively media scene in Belgrade, where a little more than a year ago the anti-Milosevic movement seemed to be gaining momentum.
In November 1997, I stood on a street in Belgrade and watched awestruck as tens of thousands of chanting Serbs marched past the Parliament. They were demanding that Serbia become a democratic society as other communist countries had.
As the marchers passed by for hours through the frigid temperatures and sleet, I was naively confident that Milosevic's days were numbered.
"Milosevic has been a disaster for Serbia," one student explained to me. "If it were not for him, Serbia would be part of the West now."
Supporting the daily marches were the growing ranks of independent newspapers, magazines, radio and Internet news sites. One of the most prominent was Curuvija's Daily Telegraph.
In 1998, however, the conflict in Kosovo worsened. Milosevic dispatched Serb army and police forces to put down expanding operations by the KLA and the violence spread.
The Serb attacks went beyond military engagements, however, to include mass executions and the destruction of whole villages, driving thousands of ethnic Albanians into the hills.
Curuvija found himself more and more at odds with the Milosevic power structure. In October 1998, he published an article praising the relatively moderate position of Jovica Stanisic, the former security chief who was then a senior military adviser to Milosevic.
The article cited Stanisic as a critic of the brutal conflict in Kosovo and a supporter of good relations with neighboring Montenegro, where president Milo Djukanovic has all but seceded from what is left of Yugoslavia.
After the article, Milosevic sacked Stanisic and cut Curuvija's access to senior government circles. The weekly phone conversations with Milosevic's wife ended. Curuvija was on the outs.
With his links to the regime broken, Curuvija adopted an even more abrasive tone toward Milosevic. He published a scathing attack on Milosevic's 10 years in power, blaming the leader for much of the national destruction.
Everything that Serbs created in this century has been thoughtlessly wasted, Curuvija declared in an open letter to Milosevic. The nation has developed a complex as a vanquished, genocidal aggressor as well as the last bastion of European communism.
Curuvija denounced the corruption. Nowhere in today's Europe are criminals and the state wedded in such a harmonious matrimony as here in Serbia, he wrote. You have created a situation in which every official depends on your good grace and is thus forced to conspire forever against others. ... Absolute obedience is demanded from the population. ...
Hungry and humiliated, your citizens have exhausted their spirits and have no strength to make even verbal protests. Our letter to you is our modest contribution to the struggle against fear." [Excerpted in Sunday Times of London, April 18, 1999.]
Curuvija followed with another article implicating Markovic, Milosevic's wife, in a scandal. The government responded by fining Curuvija $240,000.
Scrambling to stay afloat, Curuvija moved publication of his newspaper and magazine to Montenegro and had them smuggled into Serbia. Milosevic stepped up his pressure on other independent media outlets as well.
But the NATO air assault starting on March 24 represented a new level of threat to the anti-Milosevic media. Criticizing the national leader while at war was seen as treasonous. Amid the war fever, the danger to independent journalists was growing.
Curuvija's position took another turn for the worse in early April when the government newspaper, Politica Express, published an article containing a statement attributed to Milosevic's wife. Markovic charged that one newspaper owner in Serbia supported the NATO bombing. A few days later, Markovic's statement was broadcast on television with Curuvija identified as the pro-NATO owner.
Two days later, on April 11, as NATO bombs continued to fall on Belgrade, Curuvija and the woman, a well-known historian named Branka Prpa, were approaching his apartment. Two men in black leather jackets approached Curuvija from behind and shot him in the back. He fell face down onto the pavement.
The two assassins then pistol-whipped Miss Prpa, stepped over Curuvijas body and shot him repeatedly in the head. All told, 17 bullets tore through Curuvija.
The assassination sent a chilling message to Yugoslavia's other independent journalists and those who would criticize the government.
At Curuvija's funeral, some of the same people who had marched so defiantly in 1997 were part of the solemn funeral procession of 2,000 who walked behind the casket to the Novo Groblje cemetery. An air raid siren created a strange funeral dirge.
In a graveside eulogy, Lijana Smajlovic, foreign editor of The European, recalled Curuvija's last staff meeting before he suspended publication.
"He said he would not publish newspapers for the censors and that NATO's aggression was illegal, illegitimate and immoral. He was a brave man, braver than those who shot him in the back like cowards and braver than those who bombed him from the skies."
Mourners placed copies of his publications into the grave and weeping family members placed handfuls of earth on the coffin.
As Curuvija was laid to rest, a martyr for those who dream of a new Serbia, the death also reminded the dissidents of their grim predicament: they face both the possibility of death from NATO bombings at night and from Milosevic's henchmen during the day.
"It was a ritual murder, done on Orthodox Easter," said one of Curuvija's journalistic colleagues. "It was a message from the regime to people like us that we, too, can end up like that."
Veran Matic, editor of the once-independent radio station B92, said the assassination will remind Serbs that free speech can easily be lost.
But Matic added that it is almost impossible to criticize the government while it is confronting foreign attacks. "We're all collateral damage from NATO's bombs," Matic observed.