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

The Television War

A central pillar of the regime's power had been shaken, and the battle over public information has begun to claim many victims.
By correspondents

Five weeks of air strikes have changed the media order in a country where, for ten years, the state has held the sovereign right to control television truth. Now the struggle over television in Yugoslavia has become synonymous with the fight for the survival of the regime.


After repeated attacks against Radio Television Serbia (RTS), the majority of Serbia's population is unable to watch RTS channels. The destruction of the RTS building in the centre of Belgrade, which may have claimed more than 20 victims with many more wounded, and the bombing a few days earlier of the 20-plus storey office building in New Belgrade where transmitters of other TV channels close to the regime were situated, has forced Belgrade to take urgent steps to ensure that the government and its message stays on the air.


On Monday, April 26, Minister for Information Aleksandar Vucic, a member of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, called an urgent meeting of the editors-in-chief of private television stations and asked them to take over the broadcast of RTS programmes, in particular the vital news programmes Dnevnik 2 and Dnevnik 3. Studio B, effectively owned by Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement, also had to comply with this request.


This meeting took place only a day after Draskovic's controversial interview on Studio B. A central part of these remarks were Draskovic's criticism of state television for hiding the truth about the current military situation, as well as for the viciousness of the vocabulary used towards the West. He also supported international troops in Kosovo. In short, he said everything that normal Serbs are apt to say once they are in the privacy of their own homes. And that was the real danger.


Even though Draskovic himself has parroted the party line throughout the bombing campaign, it seems he could no longer support the unsupportable. The clampdown on all major independent media and the imposition of war-time censorship on the rest has ensured full state control of the flow of information. The bulk of the Serbian population has not seen a single picture of Albanian refugees nor any news about atrocities in Kosovo.


In recent days, the vocabulary of RTS has become even more radical, describing NATO leaders as "bloodsuckers", "fascists", "paedophiles", "imbeciles", "idiots", "morons" or "retards". According to RTS news, NATO is crushed, Serbia's peace-loving politics have won, America will pay, and Europe is on her knees. Serbia is defending the planet from fascists, and has saved its people from Western criminals--and cloned sheep (the current epithet for US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). Everyone must show their gratitude towards Milosevic for taking them into the new millennium.


To break with this propaganda is to break with the regime. As the Draskovic interview became the key story--Ministry of Information censors banned Danas daily from publishing it, while Studio B re-ran it five times--the regime took over the broadcasts of private TV stations. Currently, the information programmes of RTS are re-transmitted by TV Palma, TV BK, TV Art, TV Politika, as well as TV Studio B. With Draskovic's sacking, the moderate course has firmly lost the internal war in Serbia, and it can be expected that Studio B will be fully taken over by the government.


The ever-more ruthless propaganda suggests that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is prepared to accept numerous civilian casualties in order to prove himself absolute ruler of Serbia. Unofficial sources in Belgrade suggest that the government took a decision to make sure that lives were directly put at risk over the struggle for the media.


Reports have circulated that workers at the RTS building were blackmailed and threatened with sacking if they refused to work the night time, graveyard shifts. In the days preceding the NATO bombing, it was evident that the building in Aberdareva Street was a NATO target, and there seemed little doubt that it was going to be hit. If these speculations are true, the implication is that the regime is complicit in these deaths.


A week before the bombing, all of its employees had gathered on the street and formed a human chain around it. One of the people in the chain was the Serbian Minister of Culture Zeljko Simic. Three days before the attack, the CNN crew moved from the building to work from the Hyatt Hotel. Twelve hours before the attack, members of the state media union organized a protest in front of the building, with banners declaring: "Long live RTS".


The rally marked the first public demonstration in support of Radio Television Serbia--the heart of the regime which, for a decade, has advertised ethnic cleansing and extreme nationalism, orchestrating hate-campaigns against Slovene, Croats, Muslims and, finally, Albanians. Now, after the attack, the regime stresses that the people in the building were mobilised at a time of war and were doing their patriotic duty. The killings, Belgrade argues, demonstrate the evil of NATO.


"Criminal NATO aircraft targeted the building of Radio Television Serbia at 2.06 AM on Friday April 23, while a news programme was being broadcast, trying to kill the truth about their monstrous bombardments of our country," RTS declared several hours later, when it returned on air via other transmitters. "NATO is naive to think it can destroy the truth by bombing," the editor of Vecernje Novosti, Serbia's biggest selling daily, wrote shortly afterwards.


A special weekend edition of the pro-regime newspaper Politika declared: "Stupidly identifying the state TV as a source of political power, the criminals in Brussels at the NATO headquarters thought they could destroy our political leadership." Yet a central pillar of the regime's power has been shaken, and the battle over public information has begun to claim many victims.


The contributors to this report are independent journalists from Belgrade.


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