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Serbian Media Bias

Serbia's newly liberated media are accused of one-sided political coverage.
By Jovanka Matic

"The media are worse now than in our time," protest Serbia's former ruling

coalition partners as they prepare for this weekend's parliamentary

election, the country's first post-Milosevic ballot.

The Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, and the

United Yugoslav Left, JUL, all claim that they are receiving unfair media

coverage in the run-up to the ballot.

They accuse Serbia's most influential media of pandering to President Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia - odds-on favourites to triumph in this weekend's election.

The accusations are laughable, however, as they come from parties whose

stranglehold on mainstream national media over the past decade resulted in the most blatant pro-Milosevic propaganda.

But these parties are not alone in not being happy with what the newly

liberated media have to offer. Many people argue that all that's different about them is the object of their adoration.

Since the "October Revolution", they've failed to provide more diverse opinion. In effect, they've switched from promoting SPS and Milosevic to promoting DOS and Kostunica.

Under Milosevic's rule, the opposition had no access to regime-controlled media, while opposition leaders were depicted as NATO mercenaries, servants of the West, enemies.

Today, the presentation of political life has remained much the same, only the players have changed. The majority of TV and radio political news is devoted to DOS leaders - and their views are never questioned.

The official media no longer broadcast laudatory news on rebuilt bridges, increases in production, the patriotism of the freedom-loving Serbs. Instead, they focus on the impoverishment of the population under the former regime, the criminal activities of its leaders and their destruction of the economy.

Milosevic's political opponents, leaders of the victorious DOS coalition

parties, many of them now holding important state posts, are daily on the TV

screens. They talk about the burning issues of the day, proffering solutions

which go largely unchallenged.

The transformation of the media began on the very day Milosevic fell from power.

The headquarters of Radio-Television Serbia, one of the central pillars of

the former regime, was set on fire and its leading journalists beaten up.

The station was moved, its name changed to New RTS and a new editorial team

was appointed.

At other media closely associated with the former regime, the changes were

less dramatic but no less comprehensive.

Journalists at the Politika media company, which runs a daily newspaper together

with a radio and television station, switched sides after their boss Dragan

Hadzi Antic disappeared.

TV Pink owner Zeljko Mitrovic, until recently a prominent member of JUL, transformed the schedule of his station, the most popular commercial television company in Serbia. In the past, its strictly entertainment programmes were only ever interrupted for direct broadcasts from JUL and SPS conventions. Now, he regularly features news about DOS leaders.

While the former pro-Milosevic media may have been liberated from political censorship, they've now begun to exercise a high degree of self-censorship. They continue to present only the official perspective of society. The lack of professional impartiality is especially visible in the treatment of the new opposition.

This has been particularly evident at TV Politika in the build-up to this

weekend's ballot. The station daily broadcasts twice as many reports about

the pre-election activities of DOS, than all the other election candidates

put together. Under Milosevic's reign, the SPS enjoyed a similar advantage over its political rivals.

The same cannot be said for RTS. Poll contestants are granted equal air time

in election programmes - the station's coverage of the SPS in the

previous ballots was 18 times greater than the main opposition party.

In addition, RTS journalists are very careful when reporting the activities of DOS leaders to eschew the fawning style that characterised their predecessor's coverage of government officials.

For these reasons, many viewers believe that the state broadcaster has

undergone revolutionary change. But the election coverage is the exception to the rule. In all other daily news broadcasts, RTS reports only dominant public opinion and conceals DOS controversies.

Only those media that managed to retain their independence under the

previous regime, in spite of immense pressures, have managed to remain truly


Cartoons lampooning Kostunica are published only by the daily Danas and

weekly Vreme, whose credibility has been based from day one on its

unapologetically critical attitude towards official policy. Likewise, the

weekly NIN and Radio B92 remain as confrontational and controversial as they

were during the Milosevic era.

All things considered, it's probably unfair to be too critical of the media

so soon after the "October Revolution".

The transformation of Serbian journalism has only just begun and has a long way to go before it starts to meet the needs of a society emerging from ten years of censorship and propaganda.

In the aftermath of Milosevic's fall from power, it's clear that it will

take more than the burning down of buildings and the appointment of new

editorial teams to establish a new democratic media.

The mindsets of journalists will have to change so that they cherish and

defend their independence.

Jovanka Matic is a research associate at the Institute of Social Sciences, Belgrade

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