BELGRADEAs 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 offthat 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
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 jailalthough 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
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 warwith tighter border restrictions in placethere
was no question of smuggling newspapers into the country.
LEANING TOWARD THE WEST
The tension among Serbian NGOsas well as the displeasure of the
international funding communitywas 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
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
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
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
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
Ljiljana Smajlovic is foreign editor of Evropljanin and former
foreign editor of Vreme.