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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

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 administration.

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 photographs.

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 new authorities.

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 other means.

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 impartiality.

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.

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