Swiss-German Publisher Coerces NIN Weekly into Changing Front Page

Kopertina e paralajmeruar e NIN-dhe ajo qe doli nga shtypi. Ilustrimi nga BIRN

Belgrade weekly NIN, the oldest and most esteemed political weekly in both Serbia and former Yugoslavia, appeared on Thursday with a blank front page instead of a photograph that had been announced as a cover a day earlier and that caused a strong condemnation from government representatives.

A statement of the NIN owner and publisher, the Swiss-German company Ringier Axel Springer (RAS), whose management made the decision to remove the original front page, reads that “the initial front page is inappropriate in a country where a prime minister has already been assassinated”.

The initial front page contained a file photo showing the country’s president Aleksandar Vucic in a visit to the arms fair, at a moment when he was observing a sniper rifle placed on a table in front of him.

Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was killed in March 2003 at the back entrance of the government building in downtown Belgrade. The murder weapon was a sniper rifle.

Two-year-old photo published before: The photo was taken more than two years ago. It has been published several times by a number of media at the time. NIN intended to use a cropped version of the photo to fit the front page, which put the focus on the rifle and Vucic; it was meant to illustrate the leading article on the current Krusik arms trade scandal, i.e. affair involving corruptive and potentially illegal export of Serbian weapons.

The main title on the cover page also reads: “Arms Scam: Who is Destroying Krusik”. But the fact that the photo contains an image of Vucic in front of a rifle caused outrage in the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), as well as to their open and concealed followers, who have accused NIN’s editorial board of “instigating Vucic’s murder”.

Probably worrying that the cover could jeopardize the company’s position in Serbia, RAS management made the decision to change the front page, even without editorial consent.

According to sources from the editorial desk, the decision on changing the front page did not come from the local, Serbian management of the company, but from its head office abroad.

All leading government members involved in attacks against NIN: As usually in similar situations, the entire state apparatus, its willing followers, and even some unwitting journalists who otherwise see themselves as harsh critics of Vucic’s rule have been engaged in a full-on verbal assault on NIN on Thursday, at the same once again portraying Vucic as a victim, like they did recently when Vucic ended in hospital several hours after his bizarre quarrel with a TV N1 reporter.  

NIN editors and journalists, on the other hand, have been described almost as would-be conspirators and assassins’ accomplices. Ministers, SNS officials, and controlled media didn’t find it hard to bypass both facts and professional practice. The fact that the contested photo had been produced by a photograph of the officially non-existent news agency Tanjug, and that it had been published several times already, did not bother them much.

Tanjug’s editor-in-chief and director Branka Djukic even declared that the photo was not theirs at all, although it obviously is. She claimed that since it was cropped it ceased to be a Tanjug product.

“The photo that NIN released on its front page was not made by Tanjug and was never published by any of Tanjug’s services, nor in any other media. What NIN published is a shot from the original, Tanjug photo, which NIN cropped in order to focus on part of the photo where the rifle ‘aims’ at president Vucic”, Tanjug statement said.

In fact, at issue is common proceeding in the release of news agencies’ photos. The purchased photo was horizontally set, for the needs of the NIN front page it had to be vertically set; so, as always in similar situations, it required cropping.

This is obviously a common practice, probably used in 99 percent of cases when photos are published on front pages. There is no record of anyone ever complaining about it, especially bearing in mind that in this case too, nothing has been significantly changed and absolutely nothing has been added.

The essence of the photo remained the same and clearly is in line with the author’s idea. The part of the photograph that had been cropped is completely meaningless: it is a background image that includes part of a desk on which the rifle lies, one person from Vucic’s escort and an additional rifle positioned on the neighboring desk, which also aims in the direction of Vucic and his escort.

Brnabic thanks the publisher, suggests a change of NIN’s editors: Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic thanked the RAS, the publisher of NIN, “for showing enough responsibility to change the front page of the weekly”.

“Also thanks to those Vucic’s opponents who have reacted”, Brnabic said, referring primarily to Liberal Democratic Party (LPD), a marginal party led by Cedomir Jovanovic, who is actually perfectly loyal to Vucic.

Brnabic indirectly recommended the publishers to depose the current NIN’s editorial board. She said that the whole editing collective of the weekly was behind the NIN’s front page and that “the publisher should see what to do with that”.

She said that the above-mentioned front page was a way of a permit that “you can do anything you want to President Vucic”.