Mihailo Antovic ripercorre la storia dei media in Serbia nell'ultimo decennio, evidenziando difficoltà che i mezzi di informazione hanno riscontrato nel dire la verità all'opinione pubblica. Testo in inglese.

21/11/2001 -  Mihailo Antović

That we live in the 'age of information' has nowhere been more obvious than in the Serbia of the previous decade. Lamentation over the 'lost media war with the rest of the world' can still be heard nationwide, although the hysteria of the previous years is pretty much over now. But it is still believed that the media was not just a means for achieving the goals of politicians, but also a good metaphor for the rise and the fall of Slobodan Milosevic - from at first subtle and tentative commentaries in favor of the young communist party bureaucrat back in 1988 to the dilapidated building of the national TV in Takovska street in Belgrade last October, which marked the end of his reign.

The dawn of the regime

It is very difficult to describe the situation of the Serbian media in the previous decade with words. Xenophobia, mass hysteria and regular lies should help an average westerner get the picture. Although the latest anthrax- or terrorism-related events shows that the world media are not immune to these vices either, it was the vastness, openness and constancy of spreading malice that made the Serbian media scene so outrageous. In the early 1990s, after the first multi-party elections won by the former communists only in Serbia, the media scene became only slightly better than in the communist era. In the beginning, some braver editors did try to inform the public independently - such was the case with the Belgrade TV station Studio B and two radio stations, Radio B92 and student Radio Index. The three would soon become symbols of opposition thought in Serbia, and they would be constantly tracked, hindered or closed whenever the Milosevic regime was in trouble. On 9 March 1991, there were massive anti-government demonstrations in Belgrade, demanding that the state television (RTS) leadership resign. The event ended in blood, with two people killed, tanks on the streets of Belgrade, and the first official Serbian student protest after 1968. It also ended in Milosevic backing up (as usual), with a delegation of Belgrade students overpowering his weak arguments in front of the cameras of the state television and humiliating him. He never repeated the mistake of talking to adversaries in front of the cameras live.

When the situation calmed down, Milosevic struck back. The beginning of the war in Croatia and later in Bosnia marked the greatest downfall of the media in all the former republics. Serbia was no exception. During the period 1992-1996, practically all independent TV and radio stations outside Belgrade were shut down (the capital's three symbols mentioned were occasionally left alone). Independent papers were rare (an exception was 'Borba', an opposition stronghold, which had ironically been the official communist party bulletin up to the late 1980s). However, impoverished citizens faced with the highest inflation the world has ever seen (comparable only to that of 1930s Germany) did not have money even for the papers. The state television created the truth. 'The Agenda', the central news programme scheduled for 7:30 PM every evening was becoming longer and longer. Half an hour, 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half of semi-educated would-be journalists showing the scenes of massacred bodies, labeling the Other Side as unquestionably guilty for everything (in the case of Serbia, "Alija's Izetbegovic, fmr. Bosnian Muslim leader death squadrons" or "Ustasha", Croat soldiers named after the World-War-Two Croatian army units which massacred thousands of Serb civilians). The opposition was no more than "a bunch of traitors" (all of them), "western spies" (mainly pro-German Democrat leader Djindjic) or "butchers and lunatics" (mainly moderately nationalist writer and opposition symbol Vuk Draskovic). Serbian crimes were unmentioned. Croatian and Bosnian Muslim ones were covered in detail and sometimes exaggerated. The fact that the other two sides involved in the war were doing the same with their own state media was of little comfort to the more conscientious people from the Radio Television of Serbia. By early 1995, all of its once most distinguished journalists and editors had either left or been fired. This happened with many papers as well (including the oldest and once most prestigious one, "Politika" daily, which did not manage to escape the clutches of Milosevic either). Those people would make up the core of independent Serbian journalism in the years to come.

The "Big Truth" destroyed

The first peaceful period after the treaty in Dayton in 1995 was marked with the people's wish to return to their own problems, and patriotic rhetoric was no longer efficient. This is why Milosevic lost the local elections in 1996. After the attempted electoral fraud, three-month long peaceful protests countrywide, and final takeover of many city and municipal assemblies by the opposition in the early 1997 (Nis, Novi Sad and Belgrade included) the situation in the media became slightly better. Encouraged by massive anti-Milosevic protests in their cities, and for the first time openly backed by the West and sometimes financed by foreign NGOs, many local televisions started growing like mushrooms. All opposition-controlled cities had at least one independent local TV station. Bigger towns had a number of TVs - Nis had twelve, three of which gave independent news and political talk shows open to all opposition and government politicians. The official state television truth was beginning to dissolve. The media scene was turned upside down - Belgrade was now the only city in Serbia where no independent TV or radio station was allowed to broadcast. All the capital had were newspapers. And new ones appeared, too. 'Blic' and later its splinter 'Glas Javnosti' came up. 'Borba' was put to control, but the entire editorial resigned and initiated its counterpart 'Nasa Borba'. The media scene was heating and the West was investing more and more money in it, realizing this was the only way to beat the official Milosevic's truth, which was then made up of more lies than ever before.
The former president was in trouble. He needed a new conflict to stir up national pride once more. He got it in Kosovo, with the kind help by the western governments. Mediawise, the conflict over Kosovo meant a number of consequences. The first one was the initial lining up of the general public, who again stood up by Milosevic, since they were now openly attacked by outsiders. But this was clearly a consequence of war propaganda and fears for one's own life, and it did not last longer than a couple of days. However, the amount of open lies or half-truths present in the western media at the time meant considerable disillusionment on the part of the western-oriented majority of the Serbian public, especially the youth. Wariness of the West's real intentions, America's in particular, has stood in the minds of Serbs ever since, even after the local political climate changed last year. On the other hand, the media terror on the local level became unbearable. The state television was no longer denouncing traitors, but raged against "murderers" among NGO activists, "spies" among independent journalists and "fascists" among students. NATO was called "vicious enemy aggressors" sometimes "drugged hordes of murderers" in central news programmes. A most prominent independent journalist was killed on Easter 1999 in the middle of the war, under as yet unexplained circumstances. Opposition politicians were bribed, blackmailed or harassed, students were arrested, the nation was intimidated. And then everything cracked in October 2000.

Changing Times

Today, the situation in the media is unquestionably much better, but not yet perfect. The state television today works in impossible conditions - given that even its former building in Belgrade was virtually destroyed, partly in NATO bombardment, partly in the riots last October. The way it informed the public in the first days after the revolution was everything but independent, since the new editorial board, i.e. hastily summoned ex-journalists, were more than it was necessary in favour of the new regime. However, in the next few months the situation changed for the better. Today, it is fair to say that generally speaking every piece of news will find its way to RTS. A good example would be that the a few days ago the announcement of the general strike had appeared at least four times before anybody from the Government was given opportunity to speak on the national TV. On the other hand, there are claims even some new politicians still like to be seen on TV more often than necessary, so there are phone calls from political parties to RTS editors with suggestions as to how to schedule the programme every now and then. Milosevic's Socialists can be seen on TV, but relatively rarely. Seselj's hard-line Serbian Radicals are not welcome on state television in person, although their official party statements are usually broadcast. The second major TV station is the private BK Television, owned by the controversial businessman, once very close to Milosevic, Bogoljub Karic. Even in spite of his recent unexplained three-day-long flight from the country and the 68-million DEM extra profit tax he is obliged to pay, his TV has remained very professional in informing the public in the previous months. Other TV stations are much more local, both in their range and in their topics of interest, but most have remained (or become) pretty independent in the previous months.
The number of newspapers now available is impressive, especially given the fact they are all free to write whatever they believe they should at the moment. Even the previous Milosevic strongholds, such as Politika, Borba or Vecernje Novosti are now independent, with new editors, but with many journalists who openly supported the former regime. This brings about funny situations - in which the old Milosevic supporters now exaggerate in their support of Kostunica or Djindjic. But such cases are relatively rare. Politika, one of the key national institutions throughout modern Serbian history, has again become a serious paper recently, perhaps the most serious one. There has been a rumour that a half of its stocks would soon be sold to foreigners. Nobody has confirmed this as yet. The old opposition Blic and Glas Javnosti (both with majority foreign capital) are still very popular, but with slightly changed starting points - with Blic favouring premier Djindjic and a more socialdemocratic line, and Glas Javnosti siding with Kostunica and moderate nationalists. However, today differences among the papers are slight, and any inclination toward one side or the other can be spotted only after careful inspection. Weekly papers are still too expensive for an average Serb. The most important ones have been democratically oriented for years. Such are Nin, Reporter or Svedok and the controversial Nedeljni Telegraf, always filled with exclusive but unconfirmed reports from the inner side of the political scene.

Naturally, many problems have remained. Those most exposed Milosevic-era spokesmen are still in their media houses, but in changed positions. The former chief executive of RTS is said to have been transferred to a semi-dilapidated transmitter somewhere in the country. Those who were ordinary speakers and newsreaders in the previous period are allowed to read the news, on condition their faces are not seen on the screen lest they should irritate the viewers. It is similar in the papers. However, no one seems to know what to do with such people eventually. There are two journalist trade unions at present, mutually at odds because of various political preferences and property rows. In spite of everything, one might say the situation is getting better. At least open persecution of journalists by the authorities is finally behind us.

See also:

Radio B92

The Dayton Agreement


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