Obituary: Slavko Curuvija

ON 11 April at 4.51 pm, two masked men killed the journalist and newspaper proprietor Slavko Curuvija in front of his own house in Belgrade. Few political killings in wartime Serbia measure up to the loss of such a prominent and respected public figure. And the symbolic value of the act is even more ominous: if the sacred cows of the Serbian elite are not safe, then who is? The threat to Belgrade's intelligentsia comes not simply from Tomahawk missiles, but from what will happen after the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia.

Curuvija, who owned two Yugoslav publications, Dnevni Telegraf ("Daily Telegraph") and Evropljanin ("European"), was not a man to be scared easily. A crackdown on the Serbian independent media in mid-October last year put many off, but not him. He continued to publish blunders perpetrated by both the opposition and the government. The story goes that in closed sessions of the Serbian parliament Curuvija and his newspaper were almost continuously on the agenda.

Media legislation was hastily passed with a specific clause condemning criticism as "attacks on the constitutional order" of Yugoslavia. A few private papers folded while others - to say the least - toned down their reporting. But not Dnevni Telegraf. Curuvija didn't back off even though he was fined four times in October and November 1998, amounting to a total of some pounds 200,000. His office was emptied and sealed - he found another office. Printed copies of the paper were seized - he started printing it in Montenegro.

Born in 1949 in Zagreb, Croatia, Slavko Curuvija was a striking figure in every sense of the word: authoritative, courageous, successful. He graduated from the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade in 1976 and spent the next two years studying political sociology. Between 1977 and 1984 he was a junior assistant at the Centre for Social Research in Belgrade. What then followed was a meteoric rise in the fourth estate, from career journalist to press baron. The first article he submitted to the influential weekly NIN in 1983 made a cover story.

Curuvija spent a large part of his career (1986-94) at the Belgrade daily Borba, working his way up from staff journalist to foreign correspondent and editor-in chief. From the early 1980s he regularly contributed to other major Yugoslav publications, such as Danas and NIN, as well as to those abroad, including The European, The Guardian and The Independent. He wrote Ibeovac (1990), a study of political persecution in Yugoslavia. He was everything a young apprentice would look up to.

Media coups were common in socialist Yugoslavia. Up to the mid-1990s the state financed each and every publication, and officials decided when they felt they were too critical or conspicuously anti-regime. This is precisely what happened to Borba in 1994 when Curuvija was the editor- in-chief. The all-too-liberal Borba was forced to change its outlook overnight, so Curuvija and his colleague Momcilo Djorgovic decided to establish their own weekly, called Nedeljni Telegraf ("Weekly Telegraph"). It was the first privately owned paper in Yugoslavia, and was an overnight success. Unlike most of the 1990s Serbian nouveaux riches, who dealt with straightforward merchandise, Curuvija and Djorgovic earned their fortune with an idea.

In a couple of years, Curuvija earned enough money to retire. But he decided instead on an even bigger venture: a political daily. He left his partnership with Djorgovic and in 1996 launched Dnevni Telegraf. Its motto was "sensational, exclusive, scandalous". Such a combination helped to create a circulation of 75,000, the third largest in the country. While Nedeljni Telegraf had been a commercial venture, its successor strove to be respectable. When I asked Curuvija if would he describe his tabloid paper as a Yugoslav Sun, he was almost offended. "No, it's more like The Independent," he said. In fact, it was both: Dnevni Telegraf published political scandals and at the same time had a think-tank of the best columnists in the country on its payroll. Together with the news magazine Evropljanin, it was part of a company that was worth more than pounds 3m.

Curuvija never discouraged gossip about his connections in high places. "That way they leave me alone," he used to say to his confidants. In fact, the furthest he got involved with political hierarchy was exchanging a few words with Mira Markovic, Milosevic's wife, over the telephone and going sailing with Radoman Bozovic, a member of the ruling Serbian Socialist Party. And that is as close to the Serbian regime as he ever wanted to be. In 1984 he had had a job as an analyst in the Federal Police - but he was kicked out after two years for speaking his mind.

In late 1998, however, sly political manoeuvring or mere bluff wouldn't work. In William Randolph Hearst style, Curuvija engaged in direct confrontation with the Serbian oligarchy. Together with the journalist Aleksandar Tijanic he published the most daring critique of President Milosevic ever to appear in the Serbian press, calling on him to resign and siding with the Montenegrian liberal Milo Djukanovic. He appeared in the US Congress and before the Political Affairs Committee Council of Europe.

Under the circumstances, this was enough to be accused of high treason. On top of it, Curuvija printed quantities of stories about politicians that nobody else dared to print. With these actions he created some powerful enemies: Vojislav Seselj, leader of the nationalist Radical Party, and the Vice-Premier Milovan Bojic, to name but two.

Today, it is the same Western countries Curuvija asked for help that are bombing Serbia. It is no time for heroes: Serbs who want to defend their homeland end up in trenches facing cluster bombs; while those who, against all odds, fight for a better, more democratic and prosperous tomorrow, end up with a bullet in the back.

Jan DeVries

Slavko Curuvija, journalist and publisher: born Zagreb, Yugoslavia 9 August 1949; (one son, daughter); died Belgrade 11 April 1999.