Filip RUDIC  |  BIRN, Belgrade

On the morning of his death, Milan Pantic rose early, popping to the shop and heading home in the central Serbian town of Jagodina before 8 am.

It was June 11, 2001, some eight months after popular protests brought down Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and the change of power unleashed a wave of privatisations plagued by allegations of corruption and cronyism.

As a correspondent for the Belgrade-based daily newspaper Vecernje novosti, Pantic had looked closely at a number of those sell-offs.

“You could see he had excellent sources, insiders who enabled him to anticipate what would happen and who would be the ‘selected partners’ in the privatisations,” said Veran Matic, the head of a Serbian commission tasked with investigating the killings of journalists during and since Milosevic’s rule.

“I think that’s what bothered those who gave the order,” Matic told BIRN. “They decided to protect the ongoing process of plunder.”

Just metres short of the entrance to his building, Pantic was struck to the head with a blunt object, probably a baseball bat. Two more blows followed, and he died on the spot. He was 46 years old and left behind a wife and son.

Empty promises

Nino Brajovic, general secretary of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia, UNS, recalled meeting Pantic in 1996, at a time when the Association was under pressure from authorities trying to take control of its work.

“He was a very humble, dedicated man,” Brajovic said.

Pantic became the UNS commissioner for Jagodina, and in the months after Milosevic’s ouster he helped Brajovic organise an assembly of the association.

Brajovic remembers being at the UNS offices in Belgrade when “news came that a journalist had been killed in Jagodina”.

“We knew that the news would travel around the globe that day, but we hoped that the next day or the day after that there would be more news – that the killers had been found.”

Brajovic believed it would be impossible not to find the killers, given it was clear which stories Pantic had worked on.

“Unfortunately, it took 18 years for the investigation to focus on the topics Milan Pantic covered. I’m not saying the police didn’t do that in 2001, but we can see how they did it, since so much time passed without an indictment or publicly identified suspects.”

Reports say over 1,000 people were interrogated in the original police investigation, but no one was charged.

Over the years, successive interior ministers formed as many as seven task forces to investigate the crime.

One former minister, Dragan Jocic of the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, caused a stir in 2005 when he said investigators had concluded that Pantic was only ever meant to be intimidated, not killed.

Manojlo Vukotic, editor-in-chief of Vecernje novosti at the time of Pantic’s killing, recalled repeated promises that the killers would be found.

“I was told by [former Interior Minister] Dusan Mihajlovic, ’I think we will bring it to a close’, once, twice… then he left office and nothing has been solved,” Vukotic told BIRN. “Then came Jocic: ‘We’re close, I think we’ll solve it’.”

Investigation deeply flawed

Pantic was one of 39 Serbian journalists and media workers who were killed, kidnapped, went missing or lost their lives in other ways during the 1990s conflicts and immediately afterwards, according to a database compiled by the Journalists’ Association of Serbia. Three Chinese media workers were also killed in the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Hopes were raised that progress could be made when in 2012, the government formed a commission to investigate the unsolved killings of journalists in Serbia and turned to Matic, the widely respected co-founder of the cult Belgrade radio station B92, a beacon of opposition to Milosevic during the 1990s.

Matic said the investigation of the crime scene was deeply flawed. Fingerprints were not taken from the site and Pantic’s clothes were not preserved.

“When the initial approach proved to be wrong, a new investigation was initiated, after the crime scene had already been compromised,” Matic said.

He said that mobile phone data was not immediately collected from nearby base stations and in the end only partial communications data was preserved.

Matic’s commission began by gathering and analysing every article Pantic published in the six months prior to his murder, both in Vecernje novosti and the local newspaper Stampa, where he wrote under a pseudonym.

The team examined everything that the previous task forces had established and gathered the relevant documentation, knowing even then that it was unlikely to prove useful.

Matic said it was important to eliminate “dead ends” and “traps” that he said may have been deliberately planted.

The commission concluded its investigation in 2017 and the police filed a report to the competent prosecutor’s office in Jagodina.

Still there has been no indictment and only limited information is publicly available.

Names leaked, but still no indictment

Brajovic said the likely motive lay in Pantic’s reporting on three topics in the months before his murder: the privatisation of the Jagodina Brewery and Popovac cement factory and the local drugs trade. Matic also pointed to the sale of the brewery.

Leaks from the investigation, published in 2015 by Pantic’s former newspaper, Vecernje novosti, identified by their initials two people believed to have been involved in the killing.

They were then named by other media as Stanko Kojic, nicknamed Geza, a Serb veteran of the Bosnian war currently serving a jail sentence in Bosnia for war crimes in Srebrenica, and Dragan Tesic, who now lives in Germany and who was allegedly close to a member of the brewery’s former management. Neither man has ever publicly responded to the allegations.

According to the leaks, analysis of cell phone data put Tesic near the scene at the time of the murder.

Novosti reported that each man had accused the other of carrying out the killing. A third person, identified only be the initials Z.O., was also allegedly involved.

There has been no official confirmation of the information leaked and no new details have emerged since.

Matic refused to be drawn on the veracity of the reports but said the Serbian Organised Crime Prosecutor should take over the case.

Brajovic also called for the involvement of the organised crime prosecutor, saying that the prosecutor’s office in Jagodina had “shown over the past 17 to 18 years that it doesn’t have the capacity to solve the case.”

“I hope… that we will put an end to it,” he said.

Vukotic, Pantic’s former editor, was sceptical, however.

“I’m not saying [the case] will not be solved, but I doubt that it can be after 18 years of nobody doing anything.”