Arresting time with a PR tyrant

Emma Daly has a little difficulty trying to get permission to work in Serb territory
There is one sacred cow in the Srpska Republic who must not be criticised in public nor chastised in print on pain of a life-time ban from the Serb statelet in Bosnia. Broad of girth, mean of spirit, Sonja Karadzic owes her position as press supremo entirely to her father's job (he's the psychiatrist turned "President") but wields her powers without mercy or, sadly for her people's cause, without regard to the fundamental rule of PR: try to be nice to the press.

On Monday, Sonja, emboldened by her father's absence on business and keen to flex her muscles, ordered Bosnian Serb police to arrest three journalists (I was one) for seeking permission to work in Serb-held territory. The grounds for detention were ridiculous, as the police well knew; but as underlings in a police state that retains unquestioning obedience,they did as told.

Held incommunicado for more than 15 hours at the police station in Pale, rebel Serb headquarters, we had plenty of time to ponder the Catch-22: you can't come in without permission, you can't get permission unless you come in. It is almost impossible to telephone Pale from Sarajevo, so I and two American colleagues had crossed the front line to call Sonja from Lukavica barracks, as I have often done.

The soldier at the Lukavica press centre was charming but said we could not ask permission by phone: we must drive the 30km to Pale. Ida, an English- speaking Serb, was sent with us. At Pale press centre I greeted the staff, whom I know well from earlier visits. Then one of my colleagues uttered the dread words: "I'm Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times." A ripple ran through the room; the news was passed to Sonja, next door.

The Pale officials don't much like any Western journalist, given as we are to reporting reports on "ethnic cleansing" and shelling of civilians, but in the five months since her arrival, Tracy has achieved a special place in Sonja's heart. The problem does not seem to be her copy, which is no more anti-Serb than most. It is more her audience.

There is a large, literate and well-organised Serb diaspora in Los Angeles. Many of our reports are routinely faxed to Pale; it seems LA just has a more dedicated cuttings service. Four policemen walked in. "They have no papers to be here," said Sonja shrilly as we tried to remonstrate. Tracy, Kit Roane of the New York Times, Ida and I were marched off to the station.

We were told only that we must spend the night there. Journalists are routinely banned by Sonja (I have been in the past and certainly will be in the future) and those with permission to work must travel along designated roads with an official translator (fee: about pounds 50 per day per reporter, payable to Sonja). But official hostility usually wears a mask of civilised regret - it is too dangerous for you to visit - or of rigid bureaucracy: no one but the President can speak on that subject and he is busy.

Our police guards were mostly friendly (one bought us beer, cigarettes and cevapcici - sausages) but powerless to help. We were not threatened or beaten - though the commander, who swept in, refused to shake my hand, and ordered us to shut up, was frightening. Ida was terrified she would be blamed for whatever sins we might have committed. We did not expect to be killed or tortured or held for long but there were moments in which I began to wonder.

Yesterday morning we were collected by the man from "national security" who seemed to realise the incident was a farce: there was nothing to question us about, as the soldier at Lukavica had confirmed our story.

He asked for our addresses in Sarajevo, then said: "Are you afraid we would shell your houses?" We smiled stiffly. And he asked our opinions on the war: "Do you think Alija Izetbegovic [the Bosnian President] could take power in England with a Muslim party? Do you?" I agreed that was unlikely. But his questions, as so often with Serbs who feel the victims of a global conspiracy yet know that terrible crimes have been committed for their cause, betray a fundamental insecurity.

Ida and the Lukavica soldiers invited us to visit if we returned. Ida lives in Grbavica, a deprived urban front line.

Her father was killed by a Bosnian sniper, but she has none of Sonja's rage.