Bombs to market forces
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
' 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,'
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
'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
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.