A Serbian court has sentenced a former mayor to four years in prison for ordering an arson attack on the home of an investigative journalist.
In a trial that lasted nearly two years, a court Tuesday found Dragoljub Simonovic guilty of ordering the December 2018 attack on Milan Jovanovic, a reporter for the news website Zig Info. Simonovic, a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was mayor of Grocka, a municipality near the capital, Belgrade, at the time of the attack.
"I hope that this verdict will be the harbinger of more media freedom in Serbia," Jovanovic told reporters outside the court, adding that he was satisfied with the ruling.
Jovanovic and his wife were at home at the time of the attack and had to escape through a window after Molotov cocktails were thrown through a window, according to reports at the time. The journalist suffered smoke inhalation, Article 19 reported.
Jovanovic said he believed he was targeted for investigating cases of corruption and graft allegedly linked to the mayor.
A man accused of carrying out the attack, Aleksandar Marinkovic, was sentenced in absentia by the court.
The verdict was a rare case of justice being secured for journalists in a region where press freedoms are withering. Hostile rhetoric, sometimes from politicians, a lack of independence in media regulatory bodies, online attacks on journalists and weak mechanisms to support news associations are among the obstacles for media in the Balkans.
Serbia's ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has also worsened in the past four years, dropping three places in 2020, according to data compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. (RSF)
International media rights groups welcomed Tuesday's court ruling.
The conviction of a mastermind was significant in the fight against impunity in attacks on the press, Pavol Szalai, head of the European Union and Balkans desk at RSF, told VOA Serbian.
"The arson attack against the home of Milan Jovanovic is an emblematic case for press freedom not only in Serbia, but also in the whole Balkans," Szalai said, adding that the region was "plagued by impunity" regarding crimes against the media.
"When RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire met the Serbian president in 2019, Aleksandar Vucic committed to healing this disease. Today's verdict is the beginning of the healing process; it is the beginning of the end of impunity for crimes committed against journalists in Serbia," Szalai said.
Noting that Jovanovic and his wife could have been killed in the attack, the media watchdog representative said that RSF would monitor the appeal hearings closely, adding that it was "crucial" that the verdict be confirmed.
"Europe is still traumatized by last year's acquittal of the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia. If the perpetrators of the attack against Milan Jovanovic are definitively condemned, it will be an important measure to protect the physical security journalists." Szalai said.
Marian Kocner, a powerful businessman in Slovakia, was acquitted last year of involvement in the 2018 slaying of investigative journalist Kuciak. He denied any role in the killing.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the sentencing.
"The verdict is a strong signal from Serbian authorities that acts of violence against journalists will not remain unpunished," Gulnoza Said, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement forwarded to VOA. "Fighting impunity for such acts is an important step toward preventing further attacks, and it is especially welcome in Serbia where threats, intimidation and acts of violence against journalists are not unprecedented."
Serbia is under pressure to improve press freedom and safety for journalists as part of its steps toward joining the European Union. In its 2020 country report, the European Commission said "cases of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists are still a source of serious concern" in Serbia.
Szalai, from RSF, said the country needs to address several issues, including securing justice in crimes against the media and ending verbal assaults and threats, including those from state officials.
"Perpetrators of crimes committed against journalists must be swiftly condemned, regardless if they are state officials or not," Szalai said, adding, "The editorial independence of the public media must be granted, and economic and institutional pressures on the private media's editorial independence must stop."
Szalai said that law enforcement should also investigate evidence of crime and corruption exposed by reporters.
"All these changes would not only contribute to improving media freedom, but also accelerate Serbia's integration to the EU," he said.
This story originated in VOA's Serbian Service. Some information is from AFP.