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Serbia: Bombs to market forces
Eve-Ann Prentice
20 August 2002

All chaos on the media front

The Democrats are in power; Slobodan Milosevic and his propagandist journalists are gone. Or are they? Assumptions that all is well with a new, democratic Serbian media are far from the truth. Report by Eve- Ann Prentice in Belgrade.

A human hip bone was found on the roof of a jazz club behind Serbia's RTS state television headquarters on the morning after a Nato bomb tore into the building in central Belgrade. Sixteen people perished - mostly young doormen, technicians and make-up girls.

It was April 1999, and the West's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was at its height, Slobodan Milosevic was still firmly in power and most people regarded it as the blackest moment in a dark era for the journalists of Serbia, caught between the rigid control of the state and the alienation of the West.

There were deep suspicions in Belgrade that the Milosevic regime was content to see the building bombed, to score propaganda points. Some suggested that the regime's intelligence services sometimes discovered in advance which buildings were on Nato's hit list and pointed out that none of RTS's senior editors or managers was in the studios at the time.

Today, the former head of RTS, Dragoljub Milanovic, is serving ten years in jail for 'causing grave danger to public security' by failing to evacuate the building when the Nato conflict erupted; Slobodan Milosevic is standing trial in The Hague on war crimes charges; the erstwhile opposition is in power in Serbia; and most people in the West probably think that all is set fair for the media in Europe's newest democracy.

Sadly, this is not the case. What is left of Yugoslavia after a decade of civil wars is made up of Serbia and Montenegro, and the media in both republics faces deep problems.

In Serbia, German companies have bought shares in important outlets including the old pillars of communism, the state newspaper Politika and the popular tabloid, Blic.

Now thousands of journalists and other media workers on newspapers and radio and television stations know they will have to lose their jobs as part of an inevitable and much-needed slimming down of these and other media institutions.

There are also widespread grumblings that the new governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia is interfering too much in the media, with some comparing the Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Dzindzic, with Tony Blair because of his perceived penchant for complaining when coverage of him or his policies is less than glowing.

The air of unease is not helped when media barons of the Milosevic regime, such as Zeljko Mitrovic and Bogoljub Karic are still in place, albeit embracing the new regime with vigour.

Mitrovic founded TV Pink, a station beloved by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, while Karic - once a close adviser to Milosevic - is the man behind BKTV.

Milosevic had used two main tactics to control information: fines and threats against those who failed to toe the party line, while at the same time trying to create a young generation that was apolitical and did not ask questions.

'Hundreds of television stations dedicated to pop music and fun gave the message "forget politics - enjoy life",' says Stevan Niksic, editor-in-chief of the independent Nin magazine in Belgrade who was himself arrested by the Milosevic regime.

'This gave the impression of multiplicity, of choice, when in reality all the technical facilities to broadcast belonged to the state.'

Today, TV Pink is still there, broadcasting a diet of glamour, rock music and occasional Western series such as 'Only Fools and Horses'. Mitrovic is often seen enjoying the hospitality at Western embassy receptions.

In Montenegro, the situation is more volatile. Television and radio journalists are furious at changes to the broadcasting laws which they see as paving the way for government interference, especially as Montenegro has its own elections in October and November.

Amendments to the existing media law will shorten the pre-election media blackout, increase the ability of the management at state television to dismiss editors and limit the space the media may give to coverage of the activities of high state officials.

Laws on broadcasting and the transformation of state radio and television into a public broadcaster, which were prepared in collaboration with international experts, had still not been put into effect in August.

The Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe held a series of exasperated meetings with the politicians and the media during the summer, in an attempt to resolve the crisis.

The International Federation of Journalists said it was 'concerned about attempts by Montenegrin politicians to manipulate media through a series of changes to law that may threaten editorial independence'.

Aiden White, the IFJ's general secretary says: 'Politicians must not play political games with media. Elections are the crucial test of democracy and journalists must be able to work without interference. The public has the right to be informed without censorship or political tinkering with their news media.

' It's time for political leaders to suppress their desire to massage the media message. We need a clear signal that Montenegro is committed to media policies that guarantee the citizen's right to know, that support ethical and independent journalism and that are in line with European standards.'

White is more optimistic about Belgrade, where a new law aimed at bringing the broadcast media into line with international standards was passed by parliament in July: 'It's better to have something on the statute books than nothing at all,' he says.

However, he adds a word of caution about Prime Minister Dzindzic's growing reputation for interfering in the media: 'Within recent memory, Serbian journalists have had to live in an all-pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Dzindzic is unfortunately stepping onto the old-style path of control. This needs a response from the international community.'

There is also unease about the looming lay-offs. 'The fact that German companies have bought into the media suggests normalisation - unfortunately though, it's a pretty ruthless market out there,' says White.

When 50 per cent of Politika was sold to the German company, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, earlier this year, the first public reaction was a 'slight taste of bitterness', says Serbian journalist Alesandra Jelesijevic-Raskovic.

'Politika, as the oldest Serbian daily, is a kind of a national symbol and the German occupiers during World War II banned it. Some members of the Ribnikar family (the newspaper's founders) were arrested by the Germans.'

But surely life is better now than under Milosevic? Jelesijevic-Raskovic thinks that not enough has changed: 'If you are asking me are there any changes in the media since Milosevic's departure, my answer would be: I don't see any.

'During the last ten-12 years there was a lot of pressure, a lot of threats, sometimes lives were at stake. There is still pressure, there are still threats, editors and journalist are sued for provoking "mental suffering", there is still no free access to information.

'It is a little better than it used to be, but not much. There is a funny relationship between politicians and journalists: they fought to remove Milosevic from the throne and to bring themselves on it; we fought to remove Milosevic from the throne - full stop.'

Giovanni Porta, head of the media department at the OSCE in Belgrade, says: 'Under the old regime it was a crazy system, a crazy situation. Now there will have to be a lot of lay-offs and a lot of tough decisions. The main problem is changing people's mentality.'

The state broadcasting company, RTS, employs 7,600 people and many will have to go. Streamlining RTS 'in all probability implies major lay-offs,' says an OSCE statement.

'The average age of employees is 49 years, most of whom are not qualified for the jobs they now hold.' The organisation adds: 'The state of repair of transmission facilities, still analogue, is very poor and under the very best case scenario it needs to be completely overhauled into a digital system, in all likelihood involving foreign investment or a joint venture.'

Federal information minister, Slobodan Orlic, admits the problems are enormous. 'The transformation of our media will be very painful,' he says. 'We have 641 print media, 253 TV stations and 504 radio stations; the simplest way to describe it is as chaos.'

In the calm before the inevitable redundancy storm, life goes on in Belgrade; the jazz club behind the bombed RTS headquarters comes alive after midnight with late- night revellers.

Most of the club-goers pass within a few feet of a stone memorial to the memory of the 16 who died. It is etched with the single word 'Zasto?' 'Why?'

 Eve-Ann Prentice is a freelance journalist.

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