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Impartiality and responsibility

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief of RTV B92s

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25.12.2003. RTV B92 has been accused of unbalanced reporting during the campaign for Serbia’s parliamentary elections. Those accusations include favouring democratically-oriented parties and ignoring parties which were in government during the Milosevic regime, as well as those which advocate isolationist ideas and the symbols of intolerance and hate speech. Because of these allegations we feel obliged to publicly explain B92’s editorial policy, particularly as it relates to election campaigns.

Is this editorial policy a violation of the professional standards and impartiality of journalism?

A full and precise answer to this question can only be given in the context of Serbia’s social and political situation at this point of time. Serbia is in a deep and unpredictable social, political and economic crisis. The country is facing the challenge of growing nationalism and extremist populism wrapped in the crudest social demagogy. The new hate speech is self-generating, feeding on tabloid journalism in a tabloid-driven political arena. The election campaign now being waged is creating the clear impression that anyone close to the political victors, and anyone who can take great credit for defeating the opponents can count on future grace and favours.

The statement by Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic – a week before the elections – that he is not sorry that journalist Slavko Curuvija was murdered is probably the most cynical slap in the face possible for the whole democratic public of Serbia. It is certainly also a slap in the face for professional and unbiased journalism in Serbia.

Serbian media have long failed to discriminate between good and evil. Many publishers and broadcasters still feel the need to be of service to someone or, even worse, to guess at what will be acceptable to someone in power or soon to be in power.

During the Cold War, Serbia stood at the halfway point between the East and the West, and we took the same “unbiased” approach to authoritarian Real-Socialism as we did to democratic societies. During the era of the non-aligned countries, African dictators were presented as “decent” statesman on the same footing as the prime ministers of the world’s most democratic countries.

Even now, to put it cynically, there is a failure to discriminate between vice and virtue. Some media treat those who praise or ignore crimes as normal and decent participants in political life in the same way they treat those who cry foul and warn that the era of crime could return. We are even-handed towards the hangman and his victim: when it comes to the Hague Tribunal we are obsessed with the welfare of the prisoners while forgetting about their victims. Worse still, it is now regarded as indecent to remind those from the former regime about the crime and suffering; we’re not allowed to come out and say that we are virtually trampling on mass graves because that would be offensive to them – and spoil their chances in elections.

Serious media must take responsibility for their actions. This responsibility is not only connected to the direct impact of their work, but also the long-term ramifications. Anyone who fails to confront the ideologies of revenge, death and hatred which resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people and the impoverishment and suffering of millions just a few years ago, giving the thin excuse that ethical positions have nothing to do with the job, is not aware of the essence of the profession of journalism.

These are not only grave ethical lapses: they also support the suicidal braggadocio and demagogy which could lead Serbia once more into ruin. The comparison with Germany in the time of the Weimar Republic is obvious. Germany, too, failed to face defeat and the crimes committed by German soldiers after World War One. The German Kaiser Wilhelm should have stood trial, but instead fled to a foreign country. He could not be returned because – incredible as it may seem – the crimes of which he was accused were “only” political. Germany then promised to try a group of officers accused of war crimes. At the Leipzig trial the majority of those accused were cleared, while several were given light sentences and mysteriously escaped from prison. The military commanders who lost the war put the blame on democratic politicians and killed them off in a series of assassinations. The generals themselves became the leaders of nationalist parties, while Marshal Hindenburg rose to become president of the republic. Petty machinations among the non-nationalist parties put Hindenburg in a position to offer the prime ministership to Adolf Hitler, who led Germany to new suffering and ruin. Through all this, many German media turned a blind eye and presented Hitler, who had already been convicted of attempting a coup d’etat, as a normal, decent politician.

Not until the end of World War Two did the people of Germany learn their lesson and eliminate the Nazis from the acceptable circle of political speakers. Do the politicians and journalists of Serbia need another bloody war to come to the same democratic conclusion?

All publishers, all broadcasters have the right to apply their own values to the events they report. They all have the right to say whether they are for democracy or against it, whether they are for crime or against it, whether they stand for virtue or vice. Those who only sum up events with no attempt to explain their nature and import are behaving irresponsibly in a country where, once again, democracy is seriously imperilled.

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