The News Media in Serbia
Six months after the toppling of the Milosevic regime, at least as far as the news media are concerned, they are, as the Chinese say, like a million flowers that blossom only if they are all alike. They all are on the winning side and none are ashamed to admit it
AIM Belgrade, April 29, 2001
The only exception is the 24 Casa newspaper, which is a daily newspaper run by the Socialist Party of Serbia but not officially, of course. On its eight pittifully looking pages it publishes mostly unsigned articles blasting the new authorities in Serbia and Yugoslavia. Copies are hard to find on newsstands; supporters of Slobodan Milosevic say this is because the paper is regularly sold out. Vendors, however, claim that they get copies only here and there and that they are not even certain it is printed regularly. The paper's brief impressum says its founder is the S Group (printed in the Cyrrilic alphabet), that its editor in chief is Dusan Cukic, and that it was registered on Sept. 10, 2000.
Dusan Cukic made it among the giants of Serbian/Yugoslav journalism as the Moscow correspondent of the Borba daily, whom his employer had to inform that Leonid Brezhnev had died so that he could write it up. During his time with the Serbian state TV network, he did his best to become one of the privileged journalists serving the regime. While editor in chief of the Vecernje Novosti daily paper, he finished off the remnants of the once most widely read newspaper in Yugoslavia, and during last year's election campaign he soared to new hights, publishing on the paper's front page an obviously fake photo from Slobodan Milosevic's final campaign rally in Berane, Montenegro. The snapshot was doctored to make it look like twice as many people had been present at the rally, supporting claims that tens of thousands of Montenegrins backed the Milosevic regime. Today, Dusan Cukic is in danger of losing the paper, or at least its name, because a lawsuit in in progress against him and the founder for unlawful usage of the name "24 Casa."
On April 23, on the second anniversary of the death of 16 state TV employees in NATO's bombing of the station's downtown headquarters, the network's former director, Dragoljub Milanovic, was by coincidence released from prison, pending trial. Such incredible and unacceptable negligence, which may have been deliberate, provoked understandable outrage from the families of the people killed; the "new" Serbian state TV network also protested by interrupting its prime time news.
There are only two reasons why a suspect's pre-trial detention can be extended -- to prevent him from fleeing or to make it impossible for him to influence witnesses. Fleeing is considered impossible if the suspect's passport has been taken away by police; in Milanovic's case and as far as his possible affect on witnesses is concerned, during the 10 weeks of investigation the basic facts related to the two existing counts against him must have been fully determined. The first charge against him pertains to endangering the general safety by allegedly failing to obey an order to evacuate the building, which led to the death of the 16 state TW employees. The second charge accuses him of having done an estimated 10 million dinars (DM330,000) in damage to the network.
That the situation in Serbia is paradoxical is confirmed by the fact that Dragoljub Milanovic, a powerful official in Slobodan Milosevic's media machine, is the only person charged so far for crimes in the media sector. The "new" Serbian state TV network has not fired a single journalist or editor of the many who used to develop their careers by actively supporting the former regime, that is, by unscrupulously attacking all its opponenets. So far, some have been sanctioned by salary reductions. The situation is the same or very similar in other media houses, such as Borba or Politika: those who couldn't stay were allowed to leave scott free and voluntarily. Others usually resort to a favorite excuse: "I did my job honestly," I was against them, but I could do nothing," etc. It seems that everybody is in favor of democracy today, making the media choir in Serbia unbearably uniform.
If such an attitude on the party of "new" media outlets in Serbia can somehow be understood, the attitude of the new authorities is another matter. Slowness in putting some order in the sector (the drawing up and passing of new laws) can only be consider partial justifation. The inert mass of journalistic "professionals" shaped to fit the needs of the former regime, is now equaly ready to cater to, and ingratiate themselves with, the new officials is additionally delaying the process and making it more difficult. It is strange that the leaders of the former opposition are very patient with media outlets, even their individual reporters, that until yesterday used to label them "NATO hirelings," "the fifth column," "traitors," "criminals," "moral and political scum."
Their behavoir could partly be ascribed to years of media isolation and their proportional "hunger" for publicity, but there are no serious reasons for them to appear day after day in shows on radio and TV stations that were at the forefront of cheap entertainment. TV Pink (run by the Yugoslav Left), BK Telekom (owned by the Karic brothers, privileged private enterpreneurs) or RTV Kosava (formerly owned by Slobodan Milosevic's daughter, Marija), until Oct. 5 last year had no news programs whatsoever. Today, however, they are hosting numerous politicians, featuring panel discussions, interviews, and polemics, in exchange for the turbo-folk and political "neutrality" of yesterday.
This is why there is reason to fear that, in the media sector, nothing will essentially change, save for political sides, something that was obvious in the night between Oct. 5 and Oct. 6 last year. Ever more frequent speculation that international financial aid and assistance from professional and other organizations will be channeled to "national" media outlets -- the Politika house and Serbian state TV, for example -- is causing growing dissatisfaction among dependent journalists and media outlets.
The Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (IJAS), the Association of Private Media Owners, the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) and media outlets which before last October suffered the most by being opponents of the Milosevic regime or due to failure to consent to self-censorship, over the past six months have been freed from only one trouble. The penal provisions of the Serbian Information Law have been repealed, although the law in general is still in effect, as well as its implementation, which is still in the jurisdiction of misdemeanor judges who are civil servants.
The Serbian government has backed an initiative for a moratorium on the privatization of media outlets until legal conditions have been created for equality in the media sector and a tender for the allocation of broadcasting frequencies announced for this June. Meanwhile, however, the foreign shareholder of the Blic daily took over RTV Kosava and renamed it Kanal 1; shortly after the October coup TV Pink announced that it had sold a part of its stock (it did not state how much) to a foreign buyer...
The ministers in charge are dealing more with current political events than with with takeovers or semi-public privatization of media companies. A decision to compensate media companies brought to the brink of closure by fines for violating information laws by exempting them from having to pay certain dues to the state never even left the drawing board. Milosevic collected his fines in cash, within 24 hours. The reverse course, obviously, will be much slower. The independent media companies of yesterday are where they were in the past -- in an extremely reduced and economically destroyed market, their fate uncertain, less foreign assistance which is expected to become conditional in the near future, and the occasional grudging comment from some government officials against "excessive media freedom."
The reliance on obedient media outlets, loyal to both the former and the current authorities, or to media companies and journalists close to the government, to put it in politically correct terms, can be understood. But the selective openness of officials, the government and its institutions, to some of them is another matter. Reporters representing some twenty news agencies, newspapers, and radio and TV stations following the situation in southern Serbia have already protested because of that. The IJAS backed them by saying it was unacceptable to favor some media outlets over others regardless of why.
Since Oct. 5 last year, the new authorities have done the least to resolve the problems of the Serbian state TV network, the one-time pillar of the former regime. Their first move was to cancel an electricity meter fee that was used to finance the network. The government's making good on its campaign promise, however, left state TV in no man's land. Since they came to power the new authorities have shown a lack of interest in the network's fate, with no conception of its future. Plans to sell certain channels, and the network's music branch have been mentioned, as well as the cancellation of certain programs and privatization of some sort...
In this respect, the transformation of the "TV Bastille" into Serbia's "new" state TV network seems not to have paid off. Despite the fact that an administrative board, headed by theater director Dejan Mijac, was recently formed, conditions are still transitional in the worse sense of the word. This is to say that the station's news programs are essentially the same as before Oct. 5, that they are prepared by more or less the same people, and that its visual layout remains unaltered. Like in the past decade, state TV's journalists, editors and anchormen are people for whom it is impossible to determine how they became journalists in the first place given that they lack the necessary skills.
Meanwhile, a public tender for a manager of the state TV network has been called. Over the past months Miodrag Isakov, former TV Novi Sad journalist, and Ofelija Backovic, RTV Pancevo director, have been mentioned as candidates. As of recently, following "consultations" inside the ruling bloc, Isakov is being mentioned as the likely general manager, and Backovic as editor in chief of the news program. Meanwhile, TV Novi Sad has demanded that it be separated from the state network, the passing of an information bill is uncertain, and from statements by the federal and republican ministers of information and telecommunications it is impossible to conclude in what manner the frequency distribution tender announced for June will be carried out.
The current situation lends some credibility to rumors that the ruling coalition not only lacks unanimity on the speed and the depth of changes in the media sector, but that inside it a covert struggle is in progress over who will gain control over certain media outlets. If these assumptions turn out to be true, it will be the most serious signal that the former opposition, whose election victory owes much to the support provided by independent media outlets, has not learned its lesson on the freedom of the press.
# Aleksandar Ciric
P.O. Box, CH-8031