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

State Media Revolt

Journalists loyal to the Milosevic regime are rebelling in the aftermath of the opposition election victory.
By Mirna Jancic

The fearsome Serbian propaganda machine appears to be beginning to falter as hundreds of state media journalists call for more balanced reporting.


The independent media have dismissed the unprecedented protests as cynical opportunism by regime journalists who fear opposition retribution if Milosevic is defeated.


Political observers in Belgrade believe that while the revolt in itself will not pose a serious threat to Milosevic, it suggests that his regime is beginning to weaken.


In the biggest revolt to date, 300 employees at Serbian state television and radio, RTS, are reported to have gone on strike in Belgrade on Thursday, demanding an overhaul of the station's editorial policy.


"Radio Belgrade's informative programmes offer a one-sided and twisted view of events, and are therefore incorrect, " the protesters are reported to have said.


Similar calls have come from RTS employees in Novi Sad. Protesters there organised a strike committee and called on their colleagues to oppose the daily production of "false information". Committee members were sacked last week after demanding the resignation of their editors.


A small group of demonstrators managed to get into the RTS building in Novi Sad on Monday, temporarily disrupting programme output. They were expelled by a group of around twenty policemen.


Last weekend, 50 journalists from the pro-regime Vecernje novosti demanded their editorial board become more objective. The journalists called for a "return to the elementary ethical and professional principles of journalism," Free B92 reported.


If their demands, set out in a letter to editor-in-chief, Cukic, are not accepted, they will insist that he along with his deputy and assistant resign. In the letter, they said they were "no longer prepared to fool the public, with a virtual and upside-down Serbia."


Elsewhere, journalists at the pro-regime daily Politika and Kraljevo TV have also called for impartial reporting. The former are urging their colleagues to join them in strike action. In other developments, eight local radio stations across the country have ceased re-broadcasting RTS news.


Serbian journalism has long been sharply divided between pro-regime and independent papers. Milosevic purged RTS of 1500 dissident journalists in 1991. He has continued to target the regime's critics in the press ever since.


After TV station Studio B was taken over by the regime in May this year, Milosevic's apparatus stepped up its crackdown on the media, prosecuting stations and arresting journalists, most notably the IWPR reporter, Miroslav Filipovic.


The state media revolt comes as a surprise given its pre-electoral support for the regime. Pro-government radio and television stations allocated more than 90 per cent of electoral time slots to the ruling coalition.


The protests are however unlikely to seriously weaken the Milosevic regime. The number of journalists involved is still relatively small and the regime remains firmly in control of its propaganda arm.


The main state media continue to broadcast pro-regime news and maintain their stranglehold over information in Belgrade. The only independent broadcaster in the capital Radio Index is barely audible because the authorities are suspected of jamming its frequencies.


Many independent journalists are sceptical about the motives of the state media demonstrators. IWPR sources say there are few senior or influential journalists amongst the protesters - and that many of them are simply employees dissatisfied with their low pay and status.


There's also a feeling that they are cynically backing the opposition because they realise their patron, Slobodan Milosevic, is on his way out. "If Kostunica wins these protesters will want to call themselves heroes," said Mihajlo Ramac, the editor of newspaper Vojvodina.


According to the Belgrade commentator Petar Lukovic, the protesters are either scared or have guilty consciences, " They fear they'll lose their jobs if the opposition comes to power or they want to make amends for their past - but it might be too late for that."


Some independent journalists, however, are prepared to accept that the revolt is genuine. Gordana Susa, the president of the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia, said when the state media employees witnessed the government's recent electoral abuse they could take no more.


"Of course they are trying to save their pride by protesting, " she said. " The opposition's victory is imminent, if not today, then tomorrow, or in a months' time, and these people finally feel it is safe to protest."


Mirna Jancic is an IWPR member of staff