Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Balkans Facing Possibly Ruinous Isolation

The international community’s flagging interest in the Balkans could undermine media development and democracy in the region.
By Veran Matic

Five years ago, during the NATO bombardment, when the first articles appeared in IWPR’s Balkan Crisis Report, many people believed the region would calm down once Slobodan Milosevic was gone. How wrong they were. It remains overwhelmed with problems and, at the same time, the major international donors are withdrawing. The eyes of the world have turned to Asia, particularly the Near and Middle East.

The past five years in Serbia have also been marked by two significant events - October 5, 2000 and March 12, 2003 - the first marking the fall of the authoritarian Milosevic regime and the second, the assassination of Serbia’s democratically elected prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.

Serbian broadcasters and newspapers have undergone huge changes since Milosevic’s fall. Though they continue to be subject to political pressures, smear campaigns and manipulation, taboos have gone and the level of freedom of expression and independence in the media is higher than it was.

At the same time, the so-called market approach, under which cheap, uncorroborated sensationalism is seen as the prerequisite for survival, is gaining ground. “Tabloid-isation” is not only the result of the tough economic reality in which the media operates but stems from a culture of conformism and amateurism as well as the lack of the rule of law.

And the process of facing up to recent past remains difficult. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting is helping to advance it, by providing an international platform for local journalists and republishing their articles throughout the region. In so doing, IWPR has broken the barriers laid down over a decade of war and encouraged communication between Balkan countries.

Until the fall of Milosevic, there was a strong alliance between the independent media and the non-governmental sector. Unfortunately, NGOs have not kept up with the development of the media, and their influence has declined as a result. The fact that large international organisations and donors are now focusing on other parts of the world has also contributed to this.

The departure of so many donors from Serbia and the Balkans poses a serious threat to the ideas of civil society and the struggle for human rights. Those who believe big social changes will take place overnight and unfold by themselves risk allowing Serbia and the Balkans to plunge into an even worse nightmare when the next crisis comes along. The events of March 17 in Kosovo illustrate how swiftly and radically things can change in the region.

If the international community’s commitment to the region falls away, this will weaken the media and the NGO sector. As a result, they may not be able to encourage the establishment of democracy, peace and stability. That could lead to the old mistakes being repeated.

IWPR is playing a part in trying to ensure that this doesn’t happen, becoming an important voice in our society by pushing ahead the public debate on such difficult questions as war crimes, corruption and other obstacles facing European and Atlantic integration, and enabling us to see our problems through our neighbours’ eyes.

Veran Matic is the director of B92 Radio and TV in Belgrade.

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