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Title: Don't Shoot the Messenger

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Don't Shoot the Messenger
by Ljiljana Smajlovic

7 October 1999


BELGRADE—As soon as the bombs stopped falling, Serbia's small band of democracy activists, independent intellectuals, and journalists felt the ideological wrath of longtime donors and supporters from the West. In private Budapest sessions held in July and August, financed by international nongovernmental organizations, serious charges were made. Yugoslav journalists from respected independent media organizations were flatly told that they had failed in their commitment to a free press and civil society. Because they continued to publish under strict state censorship and failed to inform the Serbian public of atrocities committed against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, it was implied that the funders' investments hadn't paid off—that Serbian proteges had let down their Western patrons. According to one participant in the Budapest meetings, who declined to be identified, it sounded as if only publisher Slavko Curuvija, slain by two gunmen in front of his Belgrade apartment on 11 April, had entirely fulfilled Western expectations.

illustration: Ladislav Belica
     illustration: Ladislav Belica

The 50-year-old publisher of Belgrade's daily Dnevni telegraf and bi-monthly Evropljanin magazine had come to personify resistance to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime after the government cracked down on his publications last fall. Even before the first bombs fell, Curuvija had ceased to publish in protest of government-imposed censorship. On 5 March he was sentenced to five months in jail—although the sentence was suspended due to the war— for offending the "dignity and honor" of Milovan Bojic, deputy prime minister of Serbia. Ten days into the war, Curuvija was denounced on Serbian state television as a traitor who supported NATO bombing. Five days later, on Orthodox Easter Sunday, he was shot dead.

Curuvija's death was widely mourned by the international NGO community as a tragic and heroic example of the cost of free speech. But his fans were overlooking one small fact: he was no supporter of the bombing. At his last staff meeting with Dnevni telegraf and Evropljanin journalists, on the eve of NATO's first bombing runs, Curuvija said, "We shall not publish, because we shall not submit to censorship. At the same time, we shall not forget that we are patriots. NATO's intervention against our country is illegal, illegitimate and immoral." And in the run-up to the war, Curuvija had been forced to print his publications in neighboring Croatia (Evropljanin) and Montenegro (Dnevni telegraf) and then smuggle them into Serbia. During the war—with tighter border restrictions in place—there was no question of smuggling newspapers into the country.

LEANING TOWARD THE WEST

The tension among Serbian NGOs—as well as the displeasure of the international funding community—was evidenced by the experience of two women. Sonja Biserko, director of Belgrade's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, left town in a hurry, a week after NATO began bombing. She spent the remainder of the war abroad, campaigning for a NATO-led ground invasion of Yugoslavia and the subsequent "denazification" of the country. Her five-step proposal was quoted in a 9 May article in The New York Times: indict Milosevic; defeat and demilitarize Serbia; put the leadership on public trial; take over all mass media; and introduce a new Marshall plan for the Balkans.

While Biserko urged U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to seriously consider the occupation of Yugoslavia, other human-rights and democracy activists in Belgrade were issuing statements condemning both NATO's bombing and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians.

On 6 April, 17 Belgrade NGOs, including Biserko's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, called for an "immediate stop to the bombing campaign and all armed movements." In addition, the group called for "an end to the ethnic cleansing and immediate return of all refugees," claiming that NATO military intervention had undermined all the progress of civil society organizations and endangered the very survival of the civic sector in Serbia. They also asked for the support of international NGOs. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights wrote back on 18 May, in an open letter that Biserko co-signed, saying they were "deeply disturbed by the appeal of 6 April, and subsequent open letters from intellectuals in Belgrade," and that they "considered it intellectually and morally unsound" to equate NATO bombing with ethnic cleansing. The Serbs were told to address their appeal "properly" to the Serbian authorities.

While Biserko traveled west, Natasa Kandic, director of Belgrade's Humanitarian Law Center, headed in the other direction: to Kosovo, where her six local employees were in grave danger, and where human-rights activists were desperately needed. Kandic says that was no more than her "human and professional" obligation, although most opposition-minded people in Belgrade kept their heads down at the time. When she first entered an ethnic Albanian village where Serb forces had committed a mass crime, she apologized to the survivors. "I believe in collective responsibility, and I consider myself responsible," she says. "That's why I asked for forgiveness. I did it in my own name, not in the name of Serbs as a nation."

Parallel condemnations of both bombing and ethnic cleansing did not satisfy Kandic. "All of Serbia went along with the official position on the war, and Serbia's civil society was either silent or acquiescent," says Kandic, who was not a signatory of Belgrade NGOs' frantic appeals. "One could not hear voices assigning responsibility for the bombing squarely where it resides, with the sole culprit, Slobodan Milosevic."

MEDIA ON TRIAL

Kandic also turned her criticism on local media. Together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Kandic's Belgrade Center organized a roundtable in Milocer, Montenegro on 10-12 September about the "role of the media in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo in 1999." At the roundtable, Dragoljub Zarkovic, editor in chief of the Belgrade political weekly Vreme, walked out in protest after Montenegrin radio journalist Zoran Ljumovic suggested that Serbian independent media were as much in need of "denazification" as the rest of the Serbian nation. Other Belgrade journalists reported feeling extremely uncomfortable in Milocer as well. They said they had been put on the spot to recant and confess their wartime behavior, when they themselves felt they'd made the best of a bad situation.

Veselin Simonovic, editor in chief of Belgrade's leading tabloid, Blic, does not mince words: "I was shocked by the Milocer meeting. Blic is Yugoslavia's highest-circulation newspaper: in a normal economy, it would be a rich paper. In this economy, it is merely self-financing. It has never received any donations from international NGOs. In Milocer, for the first time, I was deeply thankful for that."

At Milocer, Kandic presented journalists with a short summary of press-related events over the past year, which contained the assertion that there were "no significant editorial differences between government, pro-government, and [anti-government] media during NATO's intervention." In a separate Belgrade interview, Kandic later offered what she considered additional evidence: "Serbian government officials themselves bragged that there was no difference between different media organizations, that they all toed the same line."

Her remarks were bitterly resented and contested in Milocer by some Belgrade editors. Blic's Simonovic later said: "We all had to operate under the same constraints, but unlike Kandic, I felt there were major differences between newspapers even during the war. Some of us pushed the envelope a bit more, took more risks, or were more imaginative. No one could force anyone to use demeaning, despicable language, if they chose not to."

Prominent media analyst Jovanka Matic, a researcher at Belgrade's prestigious Institute of Social Sciences, says that despite the government's insistence that all copy be submitted for its perusal before going to print, and even though all media spoke out against the bombing, there were tangible differences evident between state and private media. "While hate speech pervaded regime papers, independent media were scrupulous in refraining from spewing hatred against NATO countries and their leaders," she says. "State media patriotism was of the nationalistic, jingoistic kind, while independent media promoted patriotic sentiment focusing on resistance to aggression. ... State media sought to present this homogenization [against the bombs] as identical to support for the Milosevic regime, or indivisible from it, other media maintained a dividing line between the regime, the leader[s], and the national interest. Like it or not, national interest was widely perceived in wartime Yugoslavia as resistance to bombing and defiance of bombers."

Dragan Bujosevic, editor in chief of Curuvija's magazine Evropljanin, goes a step further. "The independents won a victory against the regime during the bombing, and a new reality has been created," says Bujosevic, who still owes the Serbian government most of the $40,000 fine he was slapped with in court last October when Evropljanin was put on trial. "The regime's accusations [of treason] against independent media now ring hollow even to regime supporters. This was an opportunity to show that independent media would stick to their professional guns and would not sell out, not to their own government, and certainly not to donors' governments. No one calls us anti-war profiteers any longer."

Along the same lines, Simonovic adds, "Blic restored its circulation of 200,000 copies a day within a month after censorship was lifted. That would not have been possible if we had ceased publishing under the bombing. Our readers would have felt we'd abandoned them at a critical juncture. ... Does anyone really believe that Milosevic would have fallen if independent media had stopped publishing? No, the only thing that would have happened is that our readers would have stopped trusting us. They would have thought the regime had been right all along, and that we were indeed quislings and traitors."

'WE TOLD YOU SO' Other than Biserko and Kandic, very few people in Western-funded organizations in Belgrade openly sympathized with NATO's point of view. Censorship and propaganda seem to have had precious little to do with it. In the words of Stojan Cerovic, Vreme magazine columnist and internationally respected anti-Milosevic writer and activist: "Even without censorship, independent media would not have had anything to say in favor of NATO intervention. It is just impossible to tell people who are being bombed that those bombs are good for them."

Vreme editor Zarkovic says, "Someone from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe suggested in Milocer that we should perhaps have gone underground, like the Russians with their samizdats in the 70s. That is such nonsense. First of all, whoever thinks that the Serbian people did not have enough information during the war is a fool. There were satellite dishes, FM stations broadcasting foreign news, the Internet. ...Whoever wanted information in Serbia was able to get it. The fact that Serbs did not accept the version and the interpretation broadcast over satellite television is another matter."

Zarkovic dismisses the notion that independent media and NGOs could overthrow a regime. "That is not the role of the media. That kind of thinking had already led some people in the West to believe that the independent media in Serbia would have needed no more than three days of war to convince the people to accept NATO bombardiers."

Some Serb journalists and human rights activists feel that the West's present bout of unhappiness with Serb journalists and activists stems from its unease over the outcome of the war. "The more it becomes clear that Kosovo will not turn into an oasis of multiethnicity and civil society, and that Slobodan Milosevic has not been bombed right out of office, the greater the need to find scapegoats inside Serbia," says Veran Matic, founder of Belgrade's B92 radio station.

But most Serbs can barely refrain from saying, "We told you so." An OSCE representative asked journalists in Milocer how they would behave if civil war broke out in Serbia, "considering that [they] acquiesced to censorship so readily." Blic's Simonovic responded, "We'll deal with the Milosevic regime. Just do not bomb us again under the pretext of helping us."


Ljiljana Smajlovic is foreign editor of Evropljanin and former foreign editor of Vreme.


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The 1998 U.S. State Department Human Rights Practices Report for Serbia-Montenegro is an interesting, if U.S.-biased, survey that includes sections on media and press freedom.
Press Now, based in the Netherlands, is an organization dedicated to monitoring the progress and development of independent media throughout East Central Europe. Of particular interest is their up-to-date links to articles concerning the media in Serbia.
The International Federation of Journalists has several programs in place for monitoring and advancing independent media in Central and Eastern Europe. It also provides bi-monthly bulletins of the European Federation of Journalists' activities (online in English, French, and German).
Free Serbia Net modestly proclaims itself as the only non-Milosevic controlled Serbian news source on the web. The site carries the usual articles and editorials from a variety of western (BBC, CNN) and local sources (such as Beta) in English.
Antiwar.com—founded by U.S. libertarians who, according to their literature, are devoted to the cause of noninterventionism—has compiled and annotated a list of Yugoslav opposition groups that have a web presence.

OMRI articles about Serbian media:
Belgrade's Radio B-92 has long been a symbol of Milosevic's repression of independent media. Stan Markotich commented on one of the first incidents of government intervention in the station in OMRI's Analytical Briefs from December 1996.

>From the same author (Transitions):
In the July 1998 edition of Transitions magazine, Ljiljana Smajlovic looks at the growth of Belgrade-centered independent media.
Her November 1998 piece, "Enemy From Within" follows the deteriorating situation for media in Yugoslavia.


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