Serbia: Djindjic Dumps Propaganda Chief

Premier bows to foreign pressure and abandons communications chief accused of terrorising media groups.

Serbia: Djindjic Dumps Propaganda Chief

Premier bows to foreign pressure and abandons communications chief accused of terrorising media groups.

Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has sacked his propaganda chief after he was implicated in a series of controversial incidents that damaged the premier's reputation.


Djindjic confirmed on Friday, October 25, that the chief of the Serbian communications bureau Vladimir "Beba" Popovic had left his post to concentrate on his business activities.


However, Belgrade analysts believe that a recent attack on the popular independent TV and radio company B92 - which provided a soundtrack of resistance to the Milosevic regime during the Nineties - was allegedly orchestrated by Popovic, but backfired and effectively ended his career.


So powerful is Popovic within the media scene - and so prominent his role in controlling the flow of governmental information and access, acting at times as a virtual censor - that despite his departure no Belgrade senior media analyst was willing to comment for IWPR on his role in the B92 affair on the record.


Diplomatic sources in Belgrade confirmed that news of an alleged media smear campaign against B92 had reached the US Senate Committee for Foreign Relations, prompting Washington to place pressure on Djindjic to replace his communications chief.


Popovic is said to have attempted to discredit B92 by placing a critical article, claiming that its editor-in-chief Veran Matic tried to illegally privatise the station, in the Montenegrin daily newspaper Publika, which is close to President Milo Djukanovic, a Djindjic ally.


Serbian media groups allied to Djindjic such as TV Pink and TV Braca Karic, TVBK - whose respective owners Zeljko Mitrovic and Bogoljub Karic were close to Slobodan Milosevic before switching allegiances - then broadcast coverage of the Publika article.


This gave the impression that these television stations were merely transmitting reports from the neighbouring Yugoslav republic without any political interference from Belgrade.


A senior official from Djindjic's Democratic Party, DS, speaking on condition on anonymity, admitted to IWPR that the campaign had originated from Popovic's office.


"Popovic created the campaign against B92 and documents were first given to the Montenegro daily Publika, which printed all the details," the source said, adding that TV Pink had covered the story expressly to support the prime minister.


"Frequent meetings demonstrate that there was complete coordination between Popovic, Mitrovic and Karic (namely the propaganda pillars of Djindjic's government)," said the same source.


Matic said the real motive behind the attack on B92 was hostility to its independent approach. "We were in someone's way, as we are an authentic institution dealing with the reform process," he said.


A similar campaign was launched against Forensic Investigative Associates, a British investigations agency looking into state funds Milosevic allegedly stole and the possible involvement of the present government in tobacco smuggling.


A number of articles critical of the investigative group were published in Publika and subsequent reports appeared in as well as TV Pink and BKTV.


The British agency had accused the Serbian authorities of not making a serious effort to tackle the problem of tobacco smuggling. (For further information, please see IWPR's investigative report, Belgrade Stung by Smuggling Claims.)


The editors of Publika, BKTV and TV Pink, Velizar Brajovic, Milomir Maric and Tanja Jordovic respectively, have all denied that they had collaborated with the government when questioned by IWPR.


Many editors in Serbia were so afraid of Popovic that, even now, they would only express their concerns to IWPR on condition of anonymity, and stopped short of calling him a censor.


Aleksandar Tijanic, media advisor to Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica - a fierce Popovic opponent - said he could explain why no journalist had ever gone on the record about approaches from the communications bureau chief.


"No journalist did that. Does that mean that there was no pressure? No, that only demonstrates that reporters and editors were afraid," he said.


Manja Vukotic, editor of the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti, told IWPR that a year ago he had "made short work of Popovic's first attempt to meddle in our affairs and since then we haven't been on speaking terms".


Vukotic believes that Popovic's personality was to blame for the failure of the original concept behind the communications bureau, which was set up to assist journalists in contacts with the government and ease the flow of information. "Instead that man only concocted scandals," he said. "The pressure was constant and the other editors avoided talking about it."


Politika editor Milan Misic told IWPR that Popovic had not interfered with his work, though he would not elaborate on whether he had exercised influence over other circles in the newspaper.


Popovic's media dealings are seen as a serious warning to the Djindjic government to change its policy. Until now, it has shown no sign of surrendering any of its influence or control over the media.


Djindjic set up the bureau in winter 2001 to replace the former information ministry. As its head, Popovic rapidly spread his influence in the media, granting some groups access to confidential information - that only the police could have possessed - on the criminal activities of members of the Milosevic regime.


In return for his aid, the communications chief demanded unquestioning loyalty to the government, which was not difficult at a time when Serbia was in a state of post-revolutionary euphoria and generally in sympathy with the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS.


Many media editors say it was around that time that Popovic started telephoning them and demanding that various items of information be published while other material, less favourable to the government, should be buried.


Popovic, who was born in Jagodina, central Serbia, is now 44 years old. In the late 1980s, he founded the Spektra marketing agency in partnership with Misa Beko, Djindjic's best man and Milosevic's minister of privatisation from 1997-2000.


While the company took part in Milosevic's 1990 election campaign, it later changed sides after Popovic became closer acquainted with Djindjic. Three years later, Popovic and Spektra were running the Democratic Party campaign, widely seen as one of the most successful in Serbia's 12 years of multi-party elections.


Popovic continued to work on Djindjic's image, presenting him as a modern western European politician and helping improve his appearance, which was then seen as nervous and unattractive.


Today, Popovic is a director of the Belgrade branch of the international advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather.


In July this year, Kostunica accused him of installing listening devices in his office. For the first and the last time, Popovic appeared in public to testify before a Serbian parliamentary committee set up to investigate the federal president's claims.


The communications chief insisted that his bureau did not possess any such surveillance equipment. But when asked to comment directly on this issue, Popovic angrily refused - and warned IWPR not to approach him again.


His toughest test came two years after Djindjic assumed power, when Popovic was asked to promote the prime minister's chosen candidate Miroljub Labus in the presidential elections, which were being contested by the prime minister's greatest political rival Kostunica.


During campaigning for the presidential elections on September 29, the communications bureau is believed to have tried to undermine Djindjic's political opponents by putting pressure on sections of the media.


But the election process failed at the second round on October 13, when poor voter


turnout led to the poll being declared void.


In the end, Popovic proved more successful in discrediting Djindjic's opponents than in improving his boss's image with the voters and western donors.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor in chief of Belgrade weekly Blic News.


Daniel Sunter and Boris Darmanovic are IWPR coordinating editors in Belgrade and Podgorica. Dragana Nikolic is an IWPR assistant editor. Gordana Igric is IWPR Balkans project manager.


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