How Yugoslavia's Destroyers Harnessed the Media by Christopher Bennett


Bennett is Director of International Crisis Group's Balkan Project and author of "Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse" (Hurst, London, 1995)

Media have arguably been the most destructive weapon in the wars of Yugoslav dissolution. Indeed, it is said in the former Yugoslavia that all victims died twice: first on television and then in reality.

In the years preceding the outbreak of war, during more that five years of fighting and in the first two years of peace, media were able to behave with impunity. That impunity disappeared, in Bosnia at least, when NATO-led peace-keepers seized transmitters of Bosnian Serb television in October 1997. The seizure deprived Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb war-time leader and indicted war criminal, of his most potent weapon. It also heralded a long-overdue restructuring of the entire Bosnian media.


I became aware of the extent of the distortion in the Yugoslav media when, in 1991, I moved in with a local journalist. I was then a young reporter cutting my teeth as a war correspondent. The local journalist I moved in with was Vesna Knezevic, Radio Belgrade's Zagreb correspondent for the preceding seven years. A Serb Jew originally from Pristina, she invited me to share her flat because, as a representative of Serbia in Croatia, she was receiving threatening phone calls and feared both for her own security and that of her five-year-old son. As a male foreigner and a reporter, I was able to offer her some protection. Sure enough, the death threats dried up soon after I began answering the phone.

Vesna was about as good as reporters came in the former Yugoslavia. She was courageous, she was persistent and she had terrific contacts. Above all, her reporting was invariably faithful to what had, or had not, taken place. In 1991, however, these were not the qualities that editors in state media valued in their journalists. Soon after I moved in with her, Vesna's career with Radio Belgrade came to a premature end.

Vesna's offence, which cost her her job, was that she refused to lie or distort events. She was formally suspended in October 1991 and laid off permanently a few months later. In the months leading up to her suspension, Vesna's dispatches had on occasions been prefaced with comments like "This woman has Ustasa [Croat fascist] sympathies", or even dropped from news entirely.

By 1991 Vesna was already an anachronism in the Yugoslav media.

Having become Radio Belgrade's Zagreb correspondent in 1984, her appointment pre-dated the rise to power in Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic by three years. Since she was based in Croatia, she survived the savage purge of the Serbian media which took place in the late 1980s and continued to work professionally until her dismissal.

For much of 1990-1991 Yugoslavia was a powder keg on the verge of explosion. However, wars do not just break out of their own accord. They have to be started. Yugoslavia required a detonator to set it off and push it over the edge. And a key element of that detonator was the media.

The first show down between Serbs and Croats took place in Pakrac, a town in western Slavonia with a relative Serb majority. On March 2, 1991 armed Croats and Serbs faced each across the town while the Yugoslav Army waited in the wings. The media were also there in force and, though shots were fired, both militias backed down and the day passed off without casualties. Nevertheless, Radio Belgrade reported six Serbs had been killed.

Pakrac was ostensibly part of Vesna's patch and under normal circumstances she would have been expected to cover the stand-off. On that particular day, however, she was specifically ordered not to go there.

Radio Belgrade had decided to send in its own, specially-selected journalist from Belgrade.

In the emotionally-charged atmosphere of Croatia in March 1991, reporting the deaths of six Serbs in the absence of bodies or any other proof cannot be considered an error. Journalists simply do not make mistakes like that. Instead, the bogus report -- which described Croats as Ustasas-- has to be viewed as deliberate misinformation, presumably designed to generate a pretext for intervention. It failed on that occasion only because local Serbs were fearful of the consequences and exercised restraint.

Media had always been a political tool in communist societies like Yugoslavia, serving as a conveyor belt for the views of authority. This was fine as long as that authority was benign and pursuing policies aimed at bringing Yugoslavia's various peoples together in the Titoist spirit of "brotherhood and unity." However, as Yugoslavia disintegrated, the media of the various republics served not to inform their respective publics but to bolster support for the stances taken by their leaderships.

Since there were few alternative sources of information, what average Yugoslavs believed depended almost entirely on what their media were telling them. Years before the first shots were fired, the media were already at war and the journalists who deliberately fanned the flames of national hatred must bear a heavy responsibility for the carnage.

The decisive battle in Yugoslavia's disintegration took place not in 1991 but in 1987. Moreover, the struggle was not between Serbs and non-Serbs but between two wings of the Serbian League of Communists--between adherents of a Serb nationalist ideology which was incompatible with a multi-national country and those who clung to that concept.

The principal protagonists were Slobodan Milosevic -- then President of the Serbian League of Communists, today President of rump Yugoslavia -- on behalf of a Greater Serbia and Dragisa Pavlovic -- then President of the Belgrade League of Communists, today long forgotten -- and the battleground was the League of Communists of Serbia itself and the Serbian media.

Milosevic and Pavlovic slugged it out within the media organs that each man controlled for much of 1987. The evening tabloid Politika Exspres and even the quality daily Politika became rabid in their denunciation of Pavlovic. Meanwhile, NIN, the quality weekly attempted to stand by Pavlovic and was highly critical of the upsurge in Serb nationalism, including mass rallies, which Milosevic was orchestrating.

The power struggle came to a head in September 1987 at the infamous eighth plenum of the Serbian League of Communists when Milosevic engineered Pavlovic's expulsion. With his rival out of the way, Milosevic further purged both the League of Communists and the media, bringing NIN and radio and television firmly under his control. Journalists who were not loyal to him were sacked or shifted to inferior jobs.

The purges were all part of the so-called "anti-bureaucratic revolution", an ongoing quest reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The campaign was supposed to weed out corruption in the League of Communists. But, in practice, it served to purge those elements which were prepared to think for themselves. Meanwhile, the hate campaign against everything which was not Serb went into overdrive in the media and at Milosevic's now notorious rallies.

The Serb national psyche which has so revolted the world since 1991 is not the product of centuries of historical evolution. It has been deliberately manufactured and intensively cultivated by the Serbian media since 1987.

Myth, fantasy, half-truths and brazen lies were packaged each night into television news. The conspiracy theories dreamed up by frustrated nationalists in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s which formed the ideological basis of the Greater Serbian program became the literal truth, and anyone who challenged it was labeled an "enemy of the Serb nation". Every conceivable event from Serb history was dredged up and distorted to feed the persecution complex of ordinary people, who were gradually taken in by the barrage of xenophobia.

Milosevic was able to beam his new Serb nationalism into every home in Serbia and beyond via saturation television. Moreover, since virtually the entire Serbian press was located within the Politika publishing house, for almost three years -- until in 1990 a handful of brave journalists founded the independent weekly Vreme -- there was hardly a dissenting voice in the Serbia media.

Between 1987 and 1989 Milosevic's media offensive was focused against Albanians, an alleged Islamic conspiracy and Tito's vision of Yugoslavia. Moreover, it accompanied an equally aggressive political offensive. As soon as Milosevic was triumphant in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro, as well as in Serbia, the Serbian media moved against the rest of the country and, in the process dredged up absurd and exaggerated interpretations of past relations between Serbs and non-Serbs. The allegations against anyone who dared to question Milosevic on any matter were ludicrous, yet by this time reality had gone out of the window. Milosevic's two most outspoken critics, Pavlovic and Bogdan Bogdanovic (a former mayor of Belgrade) were accused of being "enemies of the Serb nation", though to outsiders they represented all that was finest and most appealing in Serbia. Bogdanovic, who was an architect by training, had even designed the monument of the external flame to the dead from the notorious Ustasa concentration camp at Jasenovac.

At the end of 1988 the media offensive against Croatia went into overdrive with allegations that radioactive waste had been deliberately dumped in Serb villages in Croatia and that Serbs were falling ill and dying as a result. The outcry was so great that Croatia's then-communist authorities -- headed at the time by the Serb Stanko Stojcevic -- decided to dig up the alleged site to resolve the matter. While predictably no radioactive waste was ever recovered, the affair dragged on as Serbian media demanded further sites be examined.

When in 1989 Slovenia's communist leadership stood up to Milosevic, the Serbian media again reacted swiftly and predictably. Though it was difficult to dredge up a history of animosity between Serbs and Slovenes, enterprising propagandists rose to the task and within days everybody in Serbia knew how Slovenia had systematically exploited Serbia ever since the creation of Yugoslavia. The allegations were endless and the propaganda campaign was so overwhelming that it became dangerous to speak with a Slovene accent or even carry a Slovene newspaper in Serbia.

Milosevic's media offensive against Croatia was combined with attempts to stir up the republic's Serb community. Nevertheless, Croatia's communist authorities refused to rise to the bait. Wary of the consequences of any deterioration in relations between Serbs and Croats within Croatia, they ensured that the media under their control remained committed to "brotherhood and unity".

This policy changed when the by-then reformed communists lost elections in April 1990 and Franjo Tudjman and the Croat nationalist party HDZ came to power. Tudjman was elected on a platform to stand up to Milosevic and fight fire with fire. The purge of Croatian radio and television when the HDZ came to power was on a similar scale to that in Serbia just a few years earlier and set the two republics' media on collision course.

More important than what was or was not actually happening in Yugoslavia in the run up to and during the war were perceptions of what was taking place. These depended not on real events but on an atmosphere created by the rival media. As the various republican leaders adopted increasingly antagonistic positions, so did the media they controlled. It was a vicious cycle. Even now, some seven years on, it has not been broken.

 


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