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Cracks in the Serb Media Monopoly

NATO seized Bosnian Serb transmitters yesterday. In Serbia, rival radio emerges.

By Michael J. JordanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 1997


The residents of Pirot were like any others in the Yugoslav federation: isolated and inundated by state propaganda spewed forth from Radio & TV Serbia (RTS).

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During the war in neighboring Bosnia, for example, many came to believe it was Muslims, not Bosnian Serbs, who were shelling the Serb city of Sarajevo. Today, with war and nationalist rhetoric becoming pass, RTS shows bogus snippets of a thriving economy, despite years of devastating UN sanctions.

But in the wake of last winter's antiregime demonstrations, alternative media outlets have sprung up. And their take on the news casts increasing suspicion on the state-run media.

"RTS thinks we're all fools or sheep," says Dragana Stojanovic, an unemployed secretary here. "They talk about prosperity. What prosperity? We don't have work."

With more like Ms. Stojanovic slowly growing increasingly aware of the RTS tactic, Serbia's democratic forces hope to finally make serious inroads against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialist Party. Mr. Milosevic's control of the electronic media - which he has wielded masterfully - has been his most effective tool for rallying rural supporters and muzzling the opposition.

Now that may change. Yugoslavia's first independent radio network crackled to life in June. Created by the Belgrade station B-92, it's expected to soon cover 70 percent of the Yugoslav federation, comprising Serbia and Montenegro. A similar network for television is also in the pipeline.

There is also talk of possibly expanding the network into the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-controlled part of Bosnia. The nationalist, state-run media there paints NATO peacekeepers as an "occupying force." NATO commanders responded with threats to jam transmitters and yesterday closed four transmission stations of Bosnian Serb radio and television because of what a UN spokesman called ongoing "distortion of the truth."

One week earlier, rival Bosnian Serb factions in Pale and Banja Luka had agreed to alternate daily broadcasts until parliamentary elections in November.

Back in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, the network had immediate impact on the Sept. 21 presidential elections and it will likely do so on the Oct. 5 runoff between Socialist front-runner Zoran Lilic and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj. The network served as an effective counterweight to RTS. B-92 studio interviews with opposing candidates and various international election observers presented listeners in the countryside with a clear picture of the campaign, say analysts.

But it still wasn't enough to bring moderates to power.

For the beleaguered anti-Milosevic crowd, hope for awakening the rest of society now rests with the new radio network. But they now see the process will move glacially.

"The public has been brainwashed for 10 years," says Hari Stajner, a longtime journalist and general manager of the Belgrade Media Center. "You can't expect they'll change their opinions overnight."

An old story

Actually, media-generated propaganda began a half-century ago. Media strangulation - plus a loyal police force, Army, and judiciary - was a vital pillar of the totalitarian Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe.

Among the media, the electronic mediums have the greatest impact. Newspapers don't circulate much beyond the cities and are relatively expensive for the public. Radio and television news, on the other hand, reaches into all corners of the country and is free.

With few independent electronic news sources, and a public conditioned to kowtow to authority, it's easy for people to accept what they're told.

Nobody knows that better than Milosevic. Taking a page from his predecessors, he used RTS during his drive for a "Greater Serbia" to reignite Serb nationalism throughout the former Yugoslavia.

In some Serbian circles there is now discussion that it was "words, not bullets" that sparked the bloodshed. Several analysts here have gone so far as to suggest some government journalists ought to be tried as war criminals.