FROM IWPR'S BALKAN CRISIS REPORT, NO. 251, May 31, 2001
KARIC AWARD TRIGGERS PRESS OUTRAGE
A media award controversy highlights the problems associated with the
creation of truly independent media in Serbia
By Zeljko Cvijanovic in Belgrade
It's not uncommon for press awards to stir up feelings of
resentment, slighted ambition, and accusations of favouritism. But the
presentation of an award by Serbian business giant BK Company to B-92 TV
station's editor-in-chief caused a furore among the media in Belgrade.
What began as a public argument about journalistic
integrity turned into a debate over the difficulty of remaining independent of
political influence in the post-Milosevic era.
Since the overthrow of the former president, his one-time
media allies have largely transferred their allegiances to his successors. At
the same time, the Milosevic-era "independent" press - who were in
fact more oppositional than impartial - have found it difficult to distance
themselves from their old political friends, now key figures in the new
The controversy was sparked when BK Company - owned by the
notorious Karic brothers who were pillars of the Milosevic establishment -
presented its annual media award, on May 18, to B-92's Bojana Lekic. Many were
surprised that Lekic - an active opponent of the former regime - accepted the
33,000 German mark award from people she had formerly vilified.
Journalist Petar Lukovic was in no mood for mincing words
when he accused Lekic of treason in the daily Danas. "Thirty-three thousand
German Marks is enough in today's impoverished Serbia to buy anybody's
conscience," wrote Lukovic, IWPR's Serbia project director and a senior
figure in the Belgrade journalist community.
Over the past few months, the Karic brothers have been
attempting to overhaul their image, anxious to distance themselves from the past
and also eager to steer journalists away from probing too deeply into the source
of their wealth. According to media analyst Darko Brocic, the brothers have been
trying to cozy up to journalists known for their anti-Milosevic credentials.
This is how the majority of the public interpreted their public embrace of the
former dissident B-92 journalist.
Given B-92's almost mythical position - it was known as a
bastion of free expression over the last decade - Lekic's acceptance inevitably
sparked fierce debate in Belgrade media circles.
Following the criticism of Lekic for accepting the award in
the first place, the plot thickened when B-92 director Veran Matic reportedly
turned his back on her. Matic had at first congratulated Lekic, but on May 22 he
announced that she had resigned because, he said, she had wished to avoid
implicating B-92 in any possible scandal.
Then Matic sent out a press release in which he stated,
"We can see no valid reason to explain or justify Bojana Lekic's personal
decision to accept the award from the Karic brothers."
He managed to praise her journalistic credentials and her
role in building up B-92, commending her resignation as a "highly moral act".
Meanwhile, he was at pains to stress that Lekic's decision had been her own and
that the company never dictated to its employees.
Lekic said that, far from resigning, she had been told by
Matic to take a three month break. "I am not the sort of person who quits,"
she said, calling Matic's behaviour insulting. Matic declined IWPR's request for
a comment on the dispute.
B-92 TV's newsroom staff backed their departed
editor-in-chief. "If they [management] thought that the acceptance of the
award would jeopardise the values of the company," said B-92 journalist
Jelena Kosanic, "they should have warned Lekic that she would be dismissed,
instead of being among the first to congratulate her."
Some believe Matic's withdrawal of support from his
editor-in-chief was influenced by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. DOS sources
told IWPR that following the presentation of the award, Matic met Djindjic - a
sworn enemy of the Karic family - several times and that during these meetings
the B-92 head had been told to drop Lekic.
In an interview with IWPR, Matic strongly denied that he
was influenced in any way by Djindjic, and defended the integrity of the
institution he has spent a decade building.
"B-92 has never bowed to pressure from any politician
- nothing has changed since October 5," he said, referring to the day
Milosevic fell from power.
Djindjic may well speak out against government interference
in the media but the fact is he, like President Kostunica, is constantly
upbraiding editors and journalists for casting him in a bad light. Head of Radio
Television Serbia, RTS, Nebojsa Ristic was criticised last month for not giving
enough prominence to a trip the prime minister had made to Paris.
According to one newspaper editor, Kostunica is also not
averse to kicking up a storm. His office has repeatedly phoned his paper
complaining about its presentation of the president. The same news desk even
receives calls from deputies complaining about the way they appear in
But the ramifications go far deeper than this according to
some observers who feel that the media's failure to reform itself following the
collapse of the Milosevic regime leave them open to being strong-armed by the
They have "missed their opportunity to win their
freedom," said Kostunica advisor Aleksandar Tijanic. He predicts that, as
the struggle for prominence intensifies between Kostunica and Djindjic, the
media will increasingly demonstrate clear allegiances to one or the other.
Not that the press are ordered about in the same way as
they were by Milosevic and his cronies. "None of them," said Ristic,
"is strong enough to bang their fist on the table." However, there are
The media's struggle with the bleak economic situation is
influencing their political leanings. The support they once received from abroad
while Milosevic was in power has dried up and donations from political parties
or businesses seem like their sole means of survival.
The process seems already well under way in Djindjic's
stronghold of Nis, where 25,000 marks was channeled to two independent
television stations by the city assembly, dominated by his Democratic Party, DS.
Local members of Kostunica's party complained saying that Nis TV was actually
carrying out a campaign against them.
TV 5's controller Slavica Nikolic-Zorbic claimed the money
was an annual sum set aside for coverage of the city's administrative bodies: in
her words, a "symbolic sum" which in no way affected their
Analysts say that the media's willingness to be led by the
nose can also be blamed on their failure to oust or discipline journalists who
actively supported Milosevic. These individuals merely transferred their
allegiances to the new government last October and continued to operate in the
same self-serving fashion.
In fact, the more loyal people were to Milosevic the more
vocal they are now about the years of repression under his rule. Radislav Rodic
who bought the publishing house ABC under Milosevic, for a fraction of its worth,
is publishing a series in his daily, Glas Javnosti, about how he was victimised
by the former president.
A similar series is being run by the weekly Svedok whose
editor-in-chief Rade Brajovic was once at the helm of Vecernje novosti - a daily
notorious for its sycophantic treatment of Milosevic's circle.
The development of the media has additionally been hampered
by the fact that there has been almost no opposition in either the political or
media scene as everyone jumped ship to the DOS camp last October.
There are no suggestions that B-92 is financially indebted
to any political factions. On the contrary, it continues to expand with
international support, although it may be vulnerable to some pressures -
ownership of the station is still not clarified and broadcasting frequencies are
expected to be reallocated.
But the station has also achieved important programming
breakthroughs. Recently, for example, it broadcast for the first time in Serbia
a documentary on the massacre at Srebrenica.
The fact that the Karic award controversy should touch such
a long-time guardian of free-speech in Serbia serves to underline the problems
associated with the establishment of true media independence in this
transitional period. The days of straightforward opposition to an
anti-democratic regime are long gone.
Zeljko Cvijanovic, a regular IWPR contributor, writes for
the Sarajevo magazine Dani and other publications.
P.O. Box, CH-8031