War in the Balkans: Murdered in cold blood: the editor whose sin was to criticise Milosevic

THE COPS were poking around outside Slavko Curuvija's home yesterday morning. They had already collected the cartridge cases from the pavement outside 35 Lole Ribara street, and a police labrador was sniffing the rubbish bins outside the grey, five-storey block with the chemist's shop located on the ground floor.

It had been a professional job; 11 shots, first into the back of the journalist's head, then the rest to finish him off on the ground. The two men in ski-masks had hit Slavko's wife Vesna on the head with a gun- butt before they murdered her husband on Orthodox Easter Day afternoon. Then they shot him and walked calmly away down Lole Ribara street.

So who killed 49-year-old Slavko Curuvija? He had attacked the government. He had suggested in his newspaper Dnevni Telegraf that President Slobodan Milosevic should rid himself of Vojislav Seselj and other nationalist ministers in the Serbian government. He had - said his enemies - advocated the bombing of Yugoslavia to "bring Milosevic to his senses". He had travelled to Washington after last October's harsh press laws effectively closed down four of Belgrade's 11 papers, and held talks with State Department officials. And, perhaps most controversial of all, he had been a policeman - an inspector no less, in the analysis and intelligence branch of the security police.

A tall, bearded, handsome man, bespectacled and invariably dressed in the latest men's fashions, he had struggled for months to keep Dnevni Telegraf - it means Daily Telegraph - alive. When he could no longer publish in Belgrade, he transferred its operations to Montenegro - the police would search the trains and trucks travelling from Podgorica to Belgrade to confiscate copies - then to the Bosnian Serb capital of Banja Luka and, finally, to Zagreb. In the end, friends said, he was nearly bankrupt - but still well-dressed.

"He was very proud of his connections with the establishment," one of his colleagues told me yesterday. "He was a private person, but also ambitious. He wanted one day to be a big press boss, perhaps, after that, a big politician. He didn't want to mix with the independent press. I was told he had a problem with the family when he made a joke to the Milosevics that one day the president could no longer stay as leader and that perhaps he - Curuvija - might be the president. That was the end of the friendship."

A law passed in October fined journalists up to pounds 64,000 for printing unprovable material - "lies" as far as the government was concerned - and if the newspapers could not pay the fines (which they invariably could not) the police had the right to confiscate an editor's personal property. In Curuvija's case, the police turned up at the home of the director of the newspaper - after first taking away office computers - and confiscated his own belongings, with the exception of the family bed and a few chairs. Dnevni Telegraf was a 100,000-circulation tabloid paper with big headlines. But it didn't have big money.

Curuvija's journalistic sin was to publish an open letter to President Milosevic in which he proposed a 16-point political programme for the future. One of the measures was that the President should get rid of "coalition partners" - presumably members of Seselj's Serbian Radical Party - who were "pushing the country to disaster". He called them "gangsters and near-profiteers". The issue was banned and the authorities promised to confiscate all further editions of the paper that found their way to Serbia from Montenegro, Bosnia or Croatia, and use them as scrap paper.

"Curuvija was in financial troubles, but went to Washington last year and was interviewed a lot in the Western media," another of the dead man's colleagues said yesterday. "He met State Department officials and defended the free press here, and it's said he went on about how only bombing could stop Milosevic."

But after the Nato bombardment started last month, the government daily, Politika Ekspres, carried a commentary claiming that "people like Curuvija who asked Nato to bomb must be happy now". To other journalists in Belgrade, it sounded like a call to murder.

Less than a week ago, Belgrade journalists debated the threat in the presence of the Serbian minister of information, and an editor of Politika was asked how he could print such comments about Curuvija. "I was present at this meeting," the dead journalist's acquaintance said. "The man from Politika said, `We are not here to discuss editorial policy. Curuvija is a fascist - he wanted this.' The minister tried to calm things down."

The few Serb journalists still trying to keep a semblance of a free press in Belgrade are still uncertain who killed Curuvija, or why. "It's true he attacked a lot of Seselj's people," one of them said last night. "It could be the beginning of a bad time for us; for the very last roots of democracy."

The government newspaper Novosti published a mere two paragraphs on the murder in its edition yesterday. He was killed by "unknown persons", the paper reported. "Interior ministry secretariat are intensively looking for the criminals who carried out the attack." No one, as they say, is holding their breath.

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