Journalists asfreedom fighters

Mirjana Stefanovic is going home this week.

She is going home, after an absence of a bit more than a month, to a country recently transformed during her absence.

Her country is Yugoslavia. When she left, it was in the grip of Slobodan Milosevic, the dictator who, for more than a decade, has spread his murderous influence throughout the Balkans. She returns now after Milosevic has been dramatically toppled.

Ms. Stefanovic is deputy editor of the Belgrade newspaper Blic. She is a Serb, but one who has little love for Mr. Milosevic. Nor has her newspaper, which has been harassed and hobbled by the Milosevic regime. In her late 20s, she's one of Yugoslavia's brightest post-Communist, and now post-Milosevic journalists. She has spent a month at my newspaper under a program sponsored by the Freedom Forum and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is designed to give promising editors from less-free countries a look at how the American press works.

For Stefanovic, it has not been an easy month. She wanted to study our technology and our on-line operation. As a former investigative reporter, she wanted to see how our investigative reporters worked. She wanted to see how the American media could preserve freedom from political and economic pressures. As it turned out, she had to sandwich all this in between the distractions of watching from a distant vantage point a revolution in her homeland. So in the early hours of the morning, she was on the Internet, or on the phone to colleagues in Belgrade, or scanning our Associated Press and New York Times wire services, to find out exactly how the upheaval was faring.

She was also a useful source of interpretation for, and argument with, some of our writers and editors. Though she detests Milosevic, she believes it is impossible for the fledgling new government at this stage to turn him over to The Hague tribunal as a war criminal. Though she is warm to Americans, she deplores the US-led bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO. In this respect she is at odds with Agron Bajrami, a young editor from Kosovo, who spent a month with us under the same program two years ago. Mr. Bajrami and his newspaper had similarly been harassed by the Milosevic regime, but as an ethnic Albanian, he argued strongly for the NATO bombing. "Without it," he told me by phone after he returned home, "we are finished."

Both Stefanovic and Bajrami, and their newspapers, have suffered as they sought to tell the truth in the face of oppression.

As a reporter who published unwelcome stories from Kosovo, Stefanovic was arrested by Milosevic's police and beaten up so badly she could not walk for three days. She was told she could be charged as a spy - with ominous consequences under the Milosevic regime. Her newspaper had to print on a variety of presses, was reduced in size by the regime, was limited in what it could charge for advertising, and was frequently fined.

Bajrami's newspaper offices were trashed by the Serbian military, who smashed $200,000 worth of computer equipment and $500,000 worth of presses, killing the night watchman. Bajrami himself was in hiding and on the run for 30 days before finding temporary refuge in Macedonia.

In the past four years, we have played host for a month each year to four editors from Eastern Europe or the former Soviet republics. The first, Andrey Sidorin, had trouble leaving his country of Tajikistan, roiled by an ugly internal war in which 30,000 people had been killed, among them 30 journalists. When he went home, the borders of his country were closed, and he had to hike for six days through the mountains.

These are journalists who have displayed courage; they represent millions for whom the flame of liberty beckons, even though it may have been hidden for a generation or more.

As Stefanovic wrote movingly in a column for my newspaper: "How do we Serbians feel about getting our freedom back? About restoring our dignity? I find it difficult to put into words. I have my life back."

As a journalist, I am particularly sensitive to the struggles of other journalists who face challenges, and sometimes give their lives, in pursuit of freedom. Millions they represent still await the time when they, too, will have their lives back.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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