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
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
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
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
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
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
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.