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

NATO Strikes Home

By an IWPR Correspondent in Belgrade (BCR No 23, 22-Apr-99)
By IWPR

NATO has struck home, taking out transmitters of the state's main Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), and several local stations in Belgrade. As a result, the media choices are rapidly declining, and with them the regime's ability to pump out its propaganda.


Four weeks ago, just before NATO launched its attacks on Yugoslavia, people in Belgrade could choose among 13 TV channels. The first three on the dial were all programmes of the state Radio Television of Serbia (RTS). In addition, Belgraders could receive TV Novi Sad and Novi Sad Plus from Vojvodina and the local stations TV Politika, TV Palma, SOS Channel, TV Art and TV Studio B. There were also TV BK, owned by Bogoljub Karic, a media mogul and close friend of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, and entertainment stations, TV Pink and TV Kosava. Owned by Milosevic's daughter Marija, TV Kosava has been involved in organising and heavily covering the anti-NATO protests, and also rebroadcast RTS programming.


When air strikes on Wednesday, April 21, hit the 20-plus storey tower in New Belgrade, it destroyed the transmitters of TV BK, TV Pink and TV Kosava, which were on the top. For years this tower symbolised the Milosevic regime since it also housed Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and, for a time, his wife Mira Markovic's Yugoslav United Left (JUL) Now after a few missiles, the signals of TV signal from TV Pink, TV BK and TV Kosava are out.


More importantly, the television signal of Serbian State Television can no longer reach the whole of Serbia. Its signal in Belgrade has become patchy, and its transmitters in Vojvodina and Kosovo have, according to official reports from RTS, been knocked out. A score or more of local transmitters have also been destroyed in Serbia proper. As a result, the ability of the regime to manipulate information and public opinion for its own purposes has, for the first time in a decade, been seriously weakened.


The strikes against the party headquarters have in fact had a larger propaganda impact than those against many military objects. This is the first time that NATO has hit something directly belonging to the Milosevic family. Indeed, despite its puerile output, his daughter's TV Kosava had the some of the most sophisticated and expensive equipment of any station. Many people in Belgrade could not hide their pleasure in seeing the building in flames. Then the next day, NATO strikes compounded the affront, hitting a presidential command post, essentially one of Milosevic's residences.


But the key blows may still be those against the television. For 12 years, Milosevic used RTS and other TV stations for the most vicious kind of political manipulation. It was the media, many analysts have argued, that created the hatreds which made the wars possible. The power of the propaganda has been so strong that many people in Serbia became accustomed to coming to any political opinion only after they had watched the report on TV.


Without the power of the television, the regime may be in serious trouble. There will be no clear way to guide its supporters or gain feedback from them. Gossip about the duration and impact of the NATO attacks will spread uncontrolled. The situation in Serbia is becoming very different from what it was four week ago: Milosevic is losing the power to tell people what to think.


This report is written by an IWPR correspondent in Belgrade, whose name is withheld to protect him from reprisals.