Uphill battle: building Serbia's free press

Revolutions, by definition, are supposed to change everything.

And indeed, six months after Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power, some things are changing. The new democratic leadership is beginning to rebuild a civil society, and has finally put the man accused of inciting four ethnic wars behind bars.

But the mighty propaganda machine that abetted Mr. Milosevic's rule - and bolstered the Serb nationalism he espoused - still sounds pro-regime, with just a flip-flop of allegiance.

No one these days is forcing dinosaurs like Politika newspaper and Radio Television Serbia (RTS), which are estimated to have informed 80 percent of the population for the past decade - to toe the government line.

Their difficulty embracing newfound freedoms, analysts say, is indicative of the obstacles to change across Yugoslav society, where reform of top-heavy, ossified institutions is key to reviving the failing economy.

The enormity of the challenge has been evident to Nabojsa Spaic, a director of the Media Center in Belgrade, since the day after the popular rebellion. He was amazed by the Oct. 6 edition of Politika: "You could still smell the smoke from the burning Parliament building and the sacked state TV. But there was not a word of that on the front page," Mr. Spaic says. "It was entirely devoted to [new President Vojislav] Kostunica's speech."

Breaking that pro-regime pattern is proving difficult, but reformers are trying. They include the Media Center, which is spearheading a Transition to Free Journalism project. Since November, the center, along with the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, has coordinated four working groups to oversee the transition.

Taking a cue from European free-press models and the example of reforms that worked in other former East-bloc nations, they aim to revolutionize the media's role in Serb society.

A new public-broadcast law is being hammered out. Study groups will visit Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia to see what works. And a planned journalism-training school will teach media ethics. That work so far has cost $100,000, funded by the European Union, George Soros' Open Society, and Scandinavian donors. Much more will be needed, Spaic says. "As we try to change things, I see how deep the problem is," he says. "And let's be frank: It's one small part of the whole system."

Overcoming entrenched history is not easy. "Politika and RTS were the pillars of the regime - they not only gave up their professionalism, but the worst elements rose to the top," says Alexander Nenadovic, a former editor of Politika who was dismissed by Milosevic allies years ago. "The rehabilitation will take years and be agonizing, if it is honest."

During the latter half of the 1990s, feisty and often embattled independent news outlets set a critical standard here, especially for the intelligentsia in Belgrade. Opposition magazines like Vreme reported on Milosevic's wrongdoings and rampant government corruption. The respected and popular B-92 radio was a target of repeated government shutdown efforts. Staff still apologize for business cards that only list mobile-phone numbers due to frequent moves.

This "opposition" still plays combative role - criticizing Mr. Kostunica for what they call his "dangerous" commitment to "moderate [Serb] nationalism."

But still prevalent in much of the media - though less strident - is Serbian nationalism, a potent political force used by Milosevic from 1989, which led to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and ethnic cleansing campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

"Independent thinking, and looking at these [past events] without prejudice is very rare indeed," says Mr. Nenadovic. "If you want to prove you are a good Serb, you have to hate someone. This is the heritage of the old regime, this xenophobia, and it is still there." Right-wing broadcasters, for instance, use new press freedoms to continue to influence smaller stations around the country.

And then there are the new leaders themselves, who analysts say have hardly encouraged critical coverage.

"Even if there was no Milosevic, the reform of Politika would be painful," says Milivoje Calija, managing director of B-92 radio. "The question is: Are the journalists or politicians guilty? There is a push for a high degree of loyalty from the new politicians. Instead they must say: 'You are free now,' and release [the media] as you would free a genie from a bottle."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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