September 10, 2020

SEEMO Interview with Esad Hećimović

Esad Hećimović is a Bosnian and Herzegovinian investigative journalist. He is editor at OBN TV, based in Sarajevo. He was given an award for his contribution to investigative journalism by SEEMO and Central European Initiative in 2009, and was the Journalist of the Year in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 2011. He is an author, notably of the book Garibi mujahideens in Bosnia 1992-1999. Mr. Hećimović has worked with a number of international journalists and media outlets, including some Pulitzer Prize winners on cross-border investigations through the past 20 years.

SEEMO: How often have you had problems in your career as a journalist?

Esad Hećimović: Unfortunately, threats have been my constant companion. In the beginning I learned what repression by the state, influential politicians or criminals is like, but in time there were more and more threats that came directly from the street. From 1987 till 1989 I was under investigation by the intelligence service in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). In the protocol of the chief of State Security I was filed under number 6007. I was aware of the secret investigation and the pressure because one of the intelligence agents declined the orders to follow me. His task was to accompany me to cafés and talk to me, provoking me until I would say something that would be punishable as a verbal/speech crime or an insult to state bodies. Then I was sent to the obligatory military service, but I had to spend it in a group of soldiers that had an average of five years of incarceration for rape, murder and other crimes.

Safety officers eventually revealed to me that they were waiting for me to begin rallying people so they could arrest me. Of course, all of this was caused by my articles.

It was difficult to go through all of this; I faced political and nationalist pressures because of my work in the 1990s. I was asked to declare myself as Bosnian or Serbian, and write in the context of those historical and political boundaries. I was almost fired for not following that norm, but I was saved by the trade union. Then I went through everything that happened on my side of the war. Sometimes armed men would ask me if I knew the author of certain texts that were actually published by me under pseudonym. When the war was over, I was left without employment and was still targeted. I was accused by a brigade of falsifying a report about the hate speech they chanted, and I was only able to return to my job after I found a video recording that proved that the incident I described was true.

Afterwards I was attacked as traitor for publishing details about the involvement of Muslim politicians in the fall of Srebrenica. I had to leave BiH when this was published in a special edition of the magazine. It sold up to 75 000 copies back then. People prefer their own illusions over some else’s truth, and they will use force against whoever tries to prove them wrong. This is what happened to me. It was because I do not write black and white truths, I write about those things that are not one-sided.

On one occasion as journalist, I was hit on the head with a club. When I got to the hospital the doctor told me she had been waiting on me for six years, because of something I wrote once that she was displeased with. She knew that sooner or later I would end up in the emergency room in her hospital.

Then I experienced actual threats on the street, when people walked up to me and verbally attacked or threatened me, or when a criminal and tycoon called me and told me ‘his people’ wanted to see me in a black body bag.

One time I received a message on Facebook saying they wanted to ‘beat me up like a dog’. I reported this to the police, but they told me the profile was fake and this person doesn’t exist. However he did exist, and was arrested after the attacks on the American Embassy in Sarajevo. He stated in court that he didn’t intend to actually kill me. After that he organised a suicide bombing in Iraq and died.

I was pressured by the marketing and media mafia in a cross-border investigation I did. Unfortunately, when you live in a constrained society, most of your life and work energy goes into the fight for survival, instead of professional work.

SEEMO: Who is behind these threats?

Esad Hećimović: Behind the threats are always the interests of those that feel endangered by what a journalist can discover about them. These are political, ideological and other power sources of high-ranked individuals and those close to them. During my entire career, government structures posed a serious threat. On one occasion, I saw an intelligence service agent in our newsroom and my colleagues asked me what he was doing there. They told me he came to copy all of my articles. Years later, I found out that FBI agents had found about the existence of a file with my articles in the dossier of a prohibited Islamist humanitarian organization. I was informed by two NATO investigators about the existence of such a dossier in an office led by a contributor to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. For a journalist, the key to survival is to recognize who is his friend, and who is his foe at a certain moment. I often found out that I was surrounded by those that were trying to interfere with my work and wanted to stop it for personal motives, but I also encountered those that wanted to be my allies and protectors.

SEEMO: Have these problems caused a strain on your personal life? How has your family been affected by your work?

Esad Hećimović: My family has been through a lot the whole time. On one occasion, I was being harassed through threats over the phone early each morning. First my wife Selma thought it was a wake up service, and she answered every morning with thanks. Then I received a threatening letter that said they knew I was ‘crazy’, but that I have a wife and something might happen to her. This is a serious attack for a journalist, because by endangering his family, you rupture his stability. My wife reacted differently. She analysed my articles and identified a potential sender of that letter, so when the phone rang at four in the morning, she called his number. The calls stopped. Pressures and problems at work were often connected to the objectives of those I criticized and their allies.

My daughter was also subject to threats and was attacked by peers because of my articles. What is your father writing, they would tell her, and what is he saying on TV? Even if a journalist’s work is doing something good for the society, he often harms himself and those closest to him. I’m aware of the problems my wife and daughter face because of me.

SEEMO: Some web portals created entire campaigns against you. What was the cause of that?

Esad Hećimović: Such campaigns are meant to publically discredit and intimidate. In my experience, these attacks were not coincidental. In some cases, they include the work of PR and marketing agencies that led secret campaigns to protect the interests of their clients. They usually do it during pre-election periods, but also as crisis management when their client’s objectives are endangered. It is not impossible to identify those that lead these campaigns. On one occasion, after receiving threats, we located the culprit in Florida, thanks to an IP address we got. Of course, it was a person from BiH, connected to the reports I had, who was living out of the country.

SEEMO: You’ve done several important research and investigation projects. Please tell us what you are working on right now.

Esad Hećimović: I’m currently preparing a research project with my colleagues that will be done in a series of EU countries, but I cannot go into more detail yet. Last year, we published cross-border research in BiH, Slovenia and Austria about marketing mafia. This is a regional model for taking money out of public institutions to finance political parties and individuals, through the use of off-shore companies, firms and bank accounts in different countries. The research caused a big stir, and was presented by the Slovenian journalist Blaž Žgaga and myself on Dataharvest 2014, which is the leading annual journalistic gathering of investigative journalists in Europe. Our colleague Herwig Hoeller wasn’t present because he was reporting from the Ukraine. Court institutions in BiH took charge and arrested nine heads of marketing agencies and television stations. I’m very proud of these types of collaborations with different journalists from Europe and the USA. I also worked with Saša Leković from Croatia on a research about gun smuggling in Slovenia and over to the Balkan wars in the 1990s, published later in a book by Matej Šurc and Blaž Žgaga. Saša helped with the research in Croatia and I did the same in BiH.

Some of my research projects I decided not to publish under my own name, for the safety and security of my family and myself. This happened when Pulitzer Prize winner David Rhode wrote about the fall of Srebrenica, which I was the source for, but not by name. I worked with colleagues from ABC TV, NRK, Fuji TV, but I always strived to publish the stories ‘at home’ as well, sooner or later. The biggest research project I had was about the local and foreign Islam volunteers in BiH between 1992-1999. This led to the publishing of the book Garibi- mujahideens in BiH from 1992 until 1999. The first edition of the book was published by me in 2006 in Sarajevo, and the second was published by SEEMO and Dan Graf in 2009, in Belgrade.

SEEMO: Do you have any plans for a new book?

Esad Hećimović: Yes I do, especially considering everything that has happened in the last few years. The public is more sensitized to the topic, in BiH and in the region as well. I collaborate with many colleagues from Vienna to Istanbul so we could aid each other in our research. But, now I work as the editor on OBN TV and daily TV journalism has a different rhythm and demands.

SEEMO: Who or what are the main threats for journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina today?

Esad Hećimović: Esad Hećimović: Main threats for journalists come from state structures and ‘dark parts’ of the internet. The events in Paris showed how much hatred there is for Bosnian journalists, through anonymous comments on forums and portals.

SEEMO: How significant do you find the support of SEEMO and other international press freedom organizations?

Esad Hećimović: SEEMO has been a very significant institution for me and has helped me with additional professionalization. It has also been a platform that helped connect me with colleagues in the region, and for sharing experiences and data with others. It was also helpful for me when I needed help the most, during my sickness. It was a place for work when the pressure of my surroundings was too intense and dangerous. Oliver Vujovic and his team from SEEMO have always had enough personal interest and energy to develop new forms and content that helped me and my colleagues to persist in our job and continue it. I’m particularly proud of the journalistic award I received in 2009, in Warsaw, by SEEMO and CEI. This has been an important source of help.