Olivera Lakić has been a journalist with the independent daily newspaper Vijesti since 2002. She is Montenegrin, married and the mother of two children. This interview is from 2015, three years after we published it, in May 2018, Olivera was wounded by a gunman in Podgorica after investigating corruption
SEEMO: Could you tell us about your case? When did it occur, and what happened?
Olivera Lakić: The most dramatic events escalated in early 2011. After many threats aimed at stopping me from performing my work in a professional manner, I received the most serious and terrible threat that someone can receive. I was threatened that my daughter, who was studying in Rome at the time, would be raped. A few days prior to receiving a threat, while I was conducting my journalistic work, my security was jeopardized. A year later I was physically assaulted outside my home.
SEEMO: Have you experienced any additional threats during your career?
Olivera Lakić: Yes. Throughout my journalistic career I have dealt with subjects concerning organized crime, corruption, unresolved unsolved murders and related issues, I was always confronted with threats. However, prior to this threat, I have rarely attached any significance to these “warnings” and threats. I think threats are, unfortunately, an integral part of the journalistic profession.
SEEMO: In your opinion, what is the reason behind the assault?
Olivera Lakić: The reason is because I have dealt with the cases concerning organized crime, illegal production and smuggling of cigarettes involving some people from the government and security services. All the cases I have cited, as the most drastic ones, have occurred because of this research. Obviously, state institutions have failed both in protecting me and taking my side. They have taken the side of the criminals.
SEEMO: What is the epilogue of your case?
Olivera Lakić: A worker at the tobacco production plant was sentenced to four months in prison for endangering safety there. A man who threatened that my child would be raped, a police officer and head of security of the police director at the time and a member of his family, were recently acquitted based on the decision of the first instance court. A man who turned himself in, he confessed, was acquitted of responsibility. There were three judicial processes that were initiated on this occasion. A judge sentenced a volunteer to the maximum sentence for this criminal offence. In the third trial, another elected judge has released him. A man who physically assaulted me in front of the apartment building where I live with my family, has a criminal record and was previously sentenced for drug trafficking and violent behaviour, was sentenced to nine months in prison.
SEEMO: Have you experienced fear? Are you still afraid?
Olivera Lakić: Yes. I am afraid every day, mainly for my family. I’m particularly scared because the attitude of state institutions is worrying to say the least.
The fact that there was an attempt to obstruct the investigation into the threats against my child. The president of the Supreme Court and the head of the criminal police directly pressured the Basic State Prosecutor not to pursue the case, might make you understand. The police officer who was charged with the criminal offense is now released, and you may well understand why I’m so afraid.
No one deals with the persons who orchestrated the attack. I had to make a research on my own, to find and prosecute a man who threatened to attack my child. Although the prosecution accused the head of the criminal police for the crime of ‘illegal influence’, as he directly ‘warned’ the prosecutor that he will lose his position as a head of prosecution if he did not drop the charges and stop the investigation, the court dismissed the indictment. Moreover, the court dismissed the indictment issued last year by the prosecution against several people, including a man who attacked me physically, because I was indirectly threatened. I’m emphasizing as an important fact that at that moment I was under police protection, but it was not enough for the court.
SEEMO: How has this affected you your family and your private life?
Olivera Lakić: I’m afraid that my family will never be the same. When I say this I mean that we have lost our sense of peace and security forever. In 2011, when the safety of my children was threatened due to my profession, they had to stop their studies for a short time They are suffering the consequences of this attack even today. For more than half a year, we had uniformed policemen in front of our apartment for 24 hours a day to ensure our safety. In addition, I had personal police security for two years and seven months. It was abolished at my request. For the entire time I was totally unable to live and work normally. I had a hard time with being escorted by the police and I was rarely leaving the apartment. My family and I have not had any joint activities outside our home, not even once. Friends of my children avoided visiting us, and even some of my friends because they were bothered by the police checks that were carried out when they visited.
I had to go to a trial almost every other week for the last four years. All my activities were subordinated to that. I often jokingly say that I visit a courtroom more often than a hairdresser.
Regardless of the difficult situations and how they were almost unbearable, I will persevere in making every detail clear, and in making sure that the persons who endanger our peace and security are brought to justice. I will not let them go unpunished.
SEEMO: Have you considered changing your profession because of your experiences?
Olivera Lakić: Yes. Many times. Primarily because I fear for the safety of my children. After I was physically assaulted in front of my home, I quit. I thought that I had no right to endanger my family, and I was devastated by the fact that I did so. I felt guilty for years. On a daily basis, that is very intense. The director of the newspaper and editor-in-chief understood, because they themselves were victims of physical assaults and threats. They did not accept my resignation. They gave me the maximum amount of help and support, freed me from all obligations in the newsroom and told me that my job was waiting for me when I decided to come back. In addition, I was received a salary every month as if I served in full capacity. I came back to work ten months later, the same day the prosecutor’s office filed charges against the police officers who threatened to attack my child. Only with the support of my family, especially the children, could I afford to reassume the role of journalists, in addition to my role as a mother.
SEEMO: How important was the support provided by international organizations, such as SEEMO, in your case?
Olivera Lakić: It means a lot to me and I’m grateful for it. It shows that we care for each other, and that we fight for each other … Regardless of the troubles a journalist is confronted with, if his colleagues are with him, he feels stronger. SEEMO fought for me in public on several occasions. It certainly helped to resolve some cases or caused competent authorities to pay more attention to them. So please bear in mind that I’m still in need of your help.
SEEMO: Who else provided you with support and assistance? What was the support of state authorities of Montenegro – i.e. police, prosecutors and others?
Olivera Lakić: I have primarily received support and assistance from my editorial office and the owner of the newspapers where I work, which was sometimes touching. That showed me that my sacrifice was not in vain and that my work is valued appropriately. It is a privilege to be part of such editorial office. In addition, I was also touched by the support I received from the colleagues of other media in Montenegro, who protested for several days after I was assaulted, and who reported on the investigations and trials with special care. I was particularly touched by, and I highly appreciate, the support of my colleague Veran Matić from RTV B92 in Belgrade. I had never met him, and he called me and gave me advice about how to live with a police escort. He understood what I was going though and offered his assistance. The support of state authorities in my country began and ended with statements condemning threats and assaults. I will not forget what was, in my opinion, the ugly attitude of the regime’s newspaper Pobjeda, which made fun of my struggles in the newspapers during the days when my family and I were most vulnerable.
Although I am dissatisfied with the pace at which my cases have been resolved I must point out that the prosecution was the only authority that I could count on.
The fact that I had to turn to the Protector of Human Rights and Freedoms because the Ministry of Interior did not want to answer me about the status of my safety, or to inform me about how long I would have to be under the police protection, says enough about the attitude of the police. I have waited for the answer the Protector of Human Rights and Freedoms for several months. There are countless examples of their unprofessional behaviour and it would be a never-ending story. The fact that I had to end my police security myself after almost three years, without a reaction from them, says enough about the seriousness of police concerns and attitudes towards a journalist and citizen.
SEEMO: Finally, how do you assess the media situation in Montenegro?
Olivera Lakić: After the last in a series of attacks on our editorial office, when a bomb was placed under the window of the editor-in-chief Mihailo Jovović, my colleague from the editorial office Balša Brković wrote: ‘A journalist servant perceives any journalist who is not a servant as an existential threat, an attack on him and his “work” as a shameful reminder of who he and what he is, a mirror that he fears to look in, because he knows what kind of ugliness he will see in it instead of his character’. I could humbly add to this that it hurts the most when someone who calls himself a journalist, who knows or should know the sacred duty of journalists and what is his role in society is, turns his head and stays silent because he is separating the journalists into ‘us’ and ‘them’. As if the truth that we jointly pursue may be segregated into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. As long as we are divided by such a media situation, the safety of journalists in Montenegro will be as it is now. Now a journalist in Montenegro is a clay pigeon that any scoundrel may label as he pleases, threaten, intimidate and beat. The environment in which the journalists of Vijesti are working in and survive, gives me the right to say that we are the champions.