Comment: “Free” Press Failing Serbs

Five years after the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, chaos reigns on the Serbian media scene.

Comment: “Free” Press Failing Serbs

Five years after the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, chaos reigns on the Serbian media scene.

“There is none of you who dares write your honest opinion, and if you were to do so, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print…. Any of you who would be so foolish as to write your honest opinions would be out on the street looking for a new job.”

These were the words of John Swinton, the former managing editor of the New York Times spoken at the end of 19th century, to a person so naïve as to make a toast to a free press.

Five years after the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, Swinton’s remark resonates more then ever in Serbia.

Freedom of the press is not an issue here, the issue is rather how this freedom is interpreted. On the one hand, in Serbia today this means literally freedom to write and broadcast whatever you want. It means to persistently call Kosovo Albanians “Shiptar terrorists”, to publish gory pictures of dead people and to orchestrate smear campaigns targeting either individuals, politicians or companies. Those are just some of the more extreme examples of our freedom.

On the other hand, a free economy means the media in Serbia today has to sell copies in order to survive. International donors are slowly leaving the Balkans, which has become “yesterday’s news”.

Big businesses are now the new patrons of the media. They hold financial control over the press by means of their advertising contracts, and they use them as a means of protecting their interests.

They lined their pockets during the Milosevic era and are busily reinventing themselves as pioneers of democracy. They understand that the best way to buy respectability in the new era is through the media.

Due to the lack of investigative skills and their own survival instincts, few media have ever questioned these people’s business activities. Just to take one recent example, what lies behind the rapid decline of the national airline JAT? Has this been orchestrated from the outside in order to sell the company assets, which are going to be privatised for less money? People surely have a right to know.

Since the ousting of Milosevic in October 2000, few media outlets have understood that they have to take the lead in order to initiate the transformation of Serbian society. This is a nation visibly ravaged by nationalism and war, which desperately needs shepherding along the path to a better future.

As a result, Serbia today is a society that lacks almost any consensus. Rather than helping to form public opinion, the media is a space in which various political and business interests converge, leaving the ordinary citizen in confusion.

Serbia still has to face its war crimes past. A few media outlets such as B92 and the Belgrade daily Danas have tried to deal with the issue, but for the rest it is a taboo or a turn-off.

In the tabloids, hatred for The Hague war crimes court is a unifying force. The Serbian media has done its bit in discrediting it and has had a clear influence in shaping the public’s negative public opinion of the tribunal. As a result, arresting war crimes suspects here means political suicide. The Hague court issue is also conspicuously absent from all election campaigns.

The vantage point of the war crimes indictees is the one that dominates the media. The ordinary citizen rarely hears the victims’ story.

For example, Sreten Lukic won the sympathy and sympathetic outrage of large sections of the Serbian media recently for the way in which he may, or may not, have been dressed when he was taken to The Hague. Was the poor man really taken away in his pyjamas? No questions were raised regarding the attire of his Kosovo Albanian victims.

Once again, we see compassion for war crimes suspects and none for those who were killed and brutalised.

The intimacy between the media and those branches of society that prosper in the shadows, especially during the post-war transition period we are experiencing now in Serbia, is responsible for a print and broadcast media that fails in its duty to make the “smoke and mirrors” of political-business-mafia alliances clear and comprehensible.

These political-mafia-business affairs, scandals and intrigues abound in Serbia today, as they have done for more then a decade. But the media, rather than explaining, illuminating and enlightening them, simply cloaks the mystery further in fog and so increases the public’s ambiguity.

One case in point many will probably be familiar with is the forensic police reports concerning the indictment of suspects in the assassination of the late prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic.

Questions were raised by the media about the credibility of every version of events carried out in the investigation – even before the trial itself started. Was he killed by two or three bullets? Was he facing the government building or facing his car? Were there more people involved? Is this a fair trial or just a political set up?

At no point was a trustworthy scenario presented to the public. Once again, ambiguity was sown in the minds of citizens regarding the who, the why and the what of an event that will continue to shape their lives for a generation.

The Serbian media scene could be best described as pure chaos. It has not been regulated since Milosevic’s time and includes more than a thousand electronic media outlets that work with no broadcasting licence, lack of transparent and visible ownership and newspapers which sprang out of nowhere only to be closed when their purpose was fulfilled. The chaos is here to stay because it serves some people’s interests.

This chaos, in which information has become a commodity, will continue to plague Serbian society until - as a result of international and internal pressure and the help of international donors - it is finally resolved and put straight.

Dragana Nikolic-Solomon, IWPR’s Belgrade project director, gave this presentation as part of a panel discussion on the role of the free press organised by the Atlantic Council of Serbia and Montenegro and the Fund for Peace on April 11.

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