Outside the B92 office, a dreary four-storey building set back from a four-lane highway in downtown Belgrade, two armed policemen stand guard. Four men – tall, stocky, military haircuts – lean against an unmarked car, staring at everyone who passes. Inside the lobby, two more police officers sit on a sofa, drinking Coke from plastic cups. And behind them, on a wall that shows large publicity photos of the independent TV and radio station’s grinning news anchors, is a picture of the woman they are paid to protect.
Brankica Stankovic is the only person on the wall not smiling and, fittingly, her face is half obscured. For the past seven years, Stankovic has fronted Insajder, an unrelenting investigative series that tackles organised crime, drug smuggling and political corruption, which has become B92’s best-rated programme. It’s a show watched avidly by the police too – arrests tend to follow the morning after.
There’s been no shortage of stories for Stankovic and her team to investigate. More than a decade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia remains a country struggling to find its way. The country’s prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated in 2003, while Milosevic’s general, Ratko Mladic, who was responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, remains at large and is believed to be protected by senior officials within the security forces. Organised crime is a problem that the police seem unable, or unwilling, to tackle. Which means the space for investigative journalism is somewhat limited. Most newspapers, radio stations and television channels are owned by businessmen who made their money under Milosevic and appear to take a rather dim view of anyone rocking the boat.
B92 has always been different. Originally a radio station, it made its reputation as a feisty, independent voice during the 1990s when it was closed down several times by Milosevic. Its symbol at the time encapsulated its spirit: a black fist with a raised middle finger. Stankovic, a glamorous 35-year-old with long, dark hair and a wardrobe full of labels, has ensured that while B92 may have become more mainstream (it has the rights to football’s Champions League and aired the Serbian version of Big Brother), it still raises its middle finger.
“Our guideline has been ‘no compromises’,” says Stankovic. “There is a very closed media situation and we wanted to step out of that.” Each programme is meticulously put together, often involving up to six months of investigations, and never goes out unless Stankovic and her producer, Misha Cvorovic, believe it is ready – there are often several weeks between each programme.
As a child, while her friends watched cartoons and dreamed of being air stewardesses, Stankovic watched the news and fantasised about becoming a detective. “By nature, I’m inquisitive. What I do now – collecting information, investigative work – is like detective work.” In a country where the prime minister can be assassinated, producing a programme like Insajder can create enemies. But for the first five years it aired Stankovic and her team had few problems.
“I had been convinced that nothing could happen to us,” Stankovic says. “Every time we went a step further people would ask us ‘are you insane? You’ll end up dead’. All those years I spent walking freely in the city.” That all changed 18 months ago. A French football fan had been killed by Serbian hooligans, prompting Stankovic to start an investigation into football’s criminal gangs. It revealed that the same gangs were involved in organised crime and appeared to have some level of political protection. More than 100 criminal charges had been brought against gang members for a wide range of offences such as assassination and drug smuggling, but not a single arrest had been made.
The reaction was immediate. “After that episode my life changed completely,” Stankovic recalls. “Threats flooded in. Emails. Postings on our website. Rape me, kill me, whatever.” She was immediately issued with 24-hour police protection. “They’ve been with me since. I can’t go anywhere without them. Not to the corner shop or the rubbish bin. The only time I spend without them is in my own apartment and here at B92.”
The threats have changed everything. Stankovic is no longer able to report – “How can I go and see a source if I have a team of policemen with me?” – and she has been forced to make serious adjustments to her social life. “I can’t get used to it. It’s the simple things – a night out with friends, a holiday on the beach. I’m single, I’m still young.”
Even at the studio there are security concerns. The blinds in the Insajder office are closed and her security detail has to give the OK before she is allowed to venture out onto the roof for our photos. “Snipers,” says Cvorovic, grimacing.
Stankovic isn’t above telling jokes about her situation. Forced to take a step back from reporting, she is now the editor of Insajder. “So I’ve been promoted,” she says, laughing. A few days ago her boss, the editor in chief of B92, was also issued with 24-hour protection. Stankovic creases up as she imagines the two of them popping over the road for a quick coffee, a 20-strong entourage of security men trailing in their wake.
Despite it all Stankovic is defiant. Insajder still carries out investigations the police seem originally unwilling to pursue – and the post-show arrests continue.
“You might think I’m crazy but, no, I’ve no regrets. This is horrible. It is a big price to pay but I believe we’ve been doing something really good for this society. It matters.”
Brankica Stankovic CV
1975 Born in Belgrade
1996 Graduates from Belgrade school of journalism and does an internship at Belgrade television station, Studio B
1997 Joins B92, working as a news journalist
2000 Becomes editor of B92 radio’s daily news show. Also becomes editor of a weekly radio show called ‘Utopia’
2004 Moves to B92 television and sets up ‘Insajder’