Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Serbian authorities to guarantee the safety of the journalists at OK Radio, a leading local radio station in the southeastern town of Vranje, whose work is being obstructed by increasingly violent threats from Dejan Nikolic, a powerful local businessman known as Kantar.
Update on 6 July 2023: A powerful local businessman, Dejan Nikolic known as Kantar, was convicted on 26 June 2023 to one and a half years in prison. Delivered in a record time, the first-instance verdict sanctions the threats targeting the journalists of OK Radio during the first trial when he had already been judged for attacks on the media. But having filed an appeal against the new verdict, Kantar – who is currently serving a 14-month prison term – will be set free in August this year. The journalists fear new attacks, while the authorities have failed to tearn down the wall, built illegally by the businessman, to block OK Radio‘s windows. In addition to intimidating the reporters, the wall prevents from working a café which is attached to the radio and is its main funding source.
Kantar has been exerting constant and growing pressure on OK Radio for several months because it is opposing his plan to build an illegal gambling room that would encroach on the building that houses the radio station.
“The threats against OK Radio’s staff are very worrying and are obstructing the work of its journalists,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “In accordance with our April 2022 recommendations, we call on the Serbian authorities to take steps to improve journalists’ security. There is an urgent need to restore a safe environment for this radio station’s journalists so that they can resume working normally. Press freedom must not be gagged by fear.”
OK Radio is a well-established radio station that broadcasts local news. Most of its funding comes from the income of a café called the No Comment Caffe that is attached to the radio station. In March, OK Radio owner Olivera Vladkovic told the police she was getting telephone threats from Kantar. Then, the café was ransacked at the start of June.
Kantar began construction on his illegal gambling room on 6 June, walling up the windows of the radio station. Representatives of journalists’ associations with the Standing Working Group for the Safety of Journalists – an entity created by the Serbian government in 2020 to respond more effectively to attacks on journalists – visited Vranje on 15 June and voiced their support for OK Radio and Vladkovic. Kantar went to No Comment Caffe and reiterated his threats on 16 June. He was arrested the same day.
The strongman’s harassment has taken various forms, from threatening phone calls to smashing the café’s windows. He even sent one of his men to the café carrying a phone on which Kantar could be heard screaming threats against the radio station’s journalists.
Kantar’s imprisonment has not stopped him from continuing his threats. In late June, he targeted Veran Matic, a member of the Standing Working Group for the Safety of Journalists, by means of fake arrest warrants posted in the streets of Vranje accusing Matic of destroying the city.
Kantar even continued to threaten journalists when he appeared in court, while friends and associates gathered outside wearing T-shirts with the words “Vucic help us” – a reference to Serbia’s president – and displaying signs saying “Justice for Kantar,” suggesting that he is a victim. After the hearing, OK Radio’s reporters said publicly that they did not feel safe.
Kantar is both extremely influential and feared in the region. A local court ordered the destruction of the wall erected in front of OK Radio, but no builder is prepared to carry out the job for fear of reprisals from Kantar. Two employees have left OK Radio because they felt they were in danger. Other Serbian media outlets are also reluctant to cover this case for the same reasons.
As the No Comment Caffe’s inability to keep operating has deprived OK Radio of its main source of funding, the Association of Independent Electronic Media has launched a fund-raising drive for the radio station.
Serbia is ranked 79th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.