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Views and opinion 03 Jun 11

Serbian TV Apology is Kicking a Dead Horse

It’s not hard to congratulate yourself for doing better than Milosevic’s journalists did 11 years ago. How about addressing the pressures that journalists face today?

Ljiljana Smajlovic

Nearly eleven years after Slobodan Milosevic’s fall from power, his former mouthpiece, Radio Television Serbia, RTS, has apologized to viewers throughout former Yugoslavia for having been a propaganda tool for his “undemocratic regime” in the 1990s.

The newly elected managing board of Serbia’s Public Broadcasting Service stated at its first meeting that the station’s programming had been “almost constantly and crassly abused” with the aim of “discrediting the political opposition in Serbia”.

According to the board, the programmes in the 1990s had repeatedly violated the “feelings, moral integrity and dignity of the citizens of Serbia, the humanistically oriented intelligentsia, members of the opposition, critical journalists, a number of ethnic and religious minorities in Serbia, as well as some neighboring nations and countries”.  

The board’s gesture follows in the wake of President Boris Tadic’s official apologies to neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia for Serbian war crimes, and the board itself is stamped with Tadic’s imprint, stacked with Tadic’s inner circle and friends, as is the board of another powerful state-owned media company, Politika.

The chair of the board of Radio Television Serbia chair is the historian Slobodan Markovic, a protege of Tadic’s influential friend, Sonja Licht, who presides over the managing board of Politika.

Moreover, Markovic’s deputy on the RTS board is Licht’s husband, the sociologist Milan Nikolic.  

The media refer to Licht and Nikolic as “independent intellectuals.” In reality, the two are the power couple of Serbia’s political and media scene, Licht also being the founder of an influential NGO, the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, which trains young politicians, members of parliament and party leaders to guide Serbia’s transition toward democracy and European Union membership.

In addition to other important functions, she chairs the Foreign Ministry’s Council on Foreign Relations.

The RTS board is right on the money about state TV’s role in the 1990s. There is no question that in its heyday under Slobodan Milosevic, RTS was a hotbed of Serb nationalist cant and government propaganda.

It’s old news. RTS as a much-hated symbol of repression in Serbia was the opposition’s rallying cry. No wonder the RTS building was set on fire by anti-Milosevic demonstrators in October 2000.

Eleven years after Milosevic’s downfall, it hardly requires political courage or moral idealism to restate the obvious.  

That is why I have little enthusiasm for this politically correct apology, so clearly calculated to win easy points abroad for Serbia and its government.

Simply kicking a dead horse will get us nowhere. Instead, how about waking up to the reality that Serbian journalists are facing, 11 years into the democratic transition that swept Milosevic away.

Is this really the time to pat ourselves on the back merely for being better than Milosevic?    

Serbia is far from the liberal democracy with a vibrant press that those of us who worked against Milosevic promised, when we encouraged protesters to challenge his police on the streets of Belgrade in October 2000. Yes, the regime’s propaganda indeed dominated the airwaves.

But what of the government propaganda now pervading the Serbian media? It is hard to rejoice simply because the propaganda now comes from a pro-Western, pro-democratic and pro-European government.

The problem, in other words, is not that we did not apologize enough for the misdeeds of the Milosevic regime--a regime, by the way, that we ourselves brought down.

The problem is that subsequent democratic governments in Serbia have persisted in holding the press in bondage, that ruling politicians, their business partners, their public relations and marketing gurus, coupled with their good friends, are not relinquishing the levers. Indeed, they are tightening the screws on the media even as I write.  
A week from now Belgrade will be hosting the annual meeting of the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ, an organization whose webpage opens with a slogan than encapsulates the conundrum that Serbian journalists face daily:

“There can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty and fear.”

The EFJ’s president, Arne Konig, wrote to President Tadic in April, pressing the point of view shared by thousands of Serbian journalists that “press freedom in Serbia is still seriously compromised” and that the situation is “utterly unacceptable”.

Konig added that this was one of the main reasons why the EFJ is coming to Belgrade this spring.

It is important to note that two years ago, Tadic’s government adopted a draconian, anti-European media law, designed to intimidate the press. The government willfully ignored protests from Serbia’s journalistic community.

The Constitutional Court quashed the law last summer, but a poll by the Journalists’ Association of Serbia since indicated that up to 40 per cent of journalists and editors say they still experience one form of self-censorship or another.

The reality is that things haven’t been this bad for the media since 2000. Journalists live in penury and sometimes in fear. The local press is on its deathbed, while municipal financing comes with the proviso that journalists do not publish critical stories.

Independent papers and journalists also experience pressures from both politicians and advertisers.

To this day, the authorities are either unable or unwilling to bring to justice the murderers of my former publisher, Slavko Curuvija, killed in 1999, or the reporter Milan Pantic, killed in 2001.

Meanwhile, three investigative journalists are forced to live under 24-hour police protection. Others fear for their safety. When reporters are beaten up and brutalised, the judges are lenient to their assailants.   

There is, therefore, no real reason to applaud the RTS Board’s decision. It’s not difficult to do a little better than Milosevic. Serbia needs to do much better.

Its government must stand behind the people’s right to know, must encourage media pluralism and respect freedom of expression.

Ljiljana Smajlovic is president of the Serbian Association of journalists, UNS. This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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