ALMOST 18 months into a war that has shown a barbarity many thought would never again be seen in Europe, diplomats and journalists see evidence that a carefully orchestrated media campaign - designed in Belgrade in the late 1980s - has helped prepare Serbs for and then helped prosecute the war against Croatia and Bosnia.
Some diplomats say the campaign, a product of the "Greater Serbia" program of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, is reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda of Joseph Goebbels in its use of lies, ethnic slander, and fear tactics.
Others compare Mr. Milosevic's reliance on TV to control the Serb public, and the use of working groups in the 1980s to infiltrate and neutralize individual opposition newspapers and magazines, to totalitarian techniques developed by Soviet Communists under Joseph Stalin.
"It's actually a little of both," says one Western diplomat in Vienna, "with a twist of Serbian nationalism."
Milosevic's takeover of crucial Serbian media was complete just before the 8th session of the Serbian Central Committee in 1987, according to Belgrade political scholar Slavoljub Djukic. During that session, Milosevic came to power and set a course to establish a Greater Serbia, aiming to restore the dignity of humiliated Serb minorities, particularly in Kosovo and Croatia. By 1987, according to Dr. Djukic, Milosevic "fully controlled the two most influential media: Belgrade TV and Politika [a group of t hree daily papers and 10 magazines]."
By 1989, Milosevic controlled 95 percent of the media, and editorial purges had been carried out in Belgrade TV and the influential liberal newsmagazine Nin. One longtime Belgrade wire service reporter recalls that a day after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the lead story in state-run papers was that Milosevic had became an honorary citizen of a small town in southern Serbia.
Following the outbreak of war in Bosnia last spring, Milosevic lost some control of Politika during a power play to make it entirely state-controlled. Popular Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic had begun to question the Bosnian war, and Politika chief Zirorav Minovic used that moment when Milosevic was weakened to retain some editorial autonomy.
But after Milosevic's presidential victory last month, some media losses have been recouped in Belgrade TV, whose chief, Milorad Vucelic, sits on the main council of Milosevic's Socialist Party. Last week, popular moderate TV figure Dragan Babic was sacked on a question of loyalty. Sources close to Mr. Babic say 1,300 Belgrade TV employees are also on a list to be fired for "not supporting the policies of Yugoslavia."
By far, TV has been the most essential medium in the Greater Serbia push.
"The war would be impossible without TV," says Vesna Pesic, leader of a Belgrade opposition party. Serbia is 35 percent illiterate, and TV is gospel in the countryside, but even many educated Serbs are devotees. A young medical student complains that his mother, a biochemist, has been following the TV news each night with a map, "marking where the Serbs have gained territory and screaming whenever Serbs are shot at. My dad and I can't believe it. It's like they stole my mother."
Efforts at alternative TV have failed so far. In a story still unreported in the West, $1 million in independent TV equipment ordered through the International Media Fund in Washington was hijacked last month. Several days later, a news item in Belgrade noted that $1 million in TV equipment was anonymously donated to the Serb Krajina government in Knin, Croatia. A second shipment of equipment was stopped by masked men outside Belgrade, and the TV editor who escorted the shipment was told to get out of hi s car, which the men then blew up.
The Serb media campaign since 1987 has roughly three phases:
* First, between 1988 and 1990, a propaganda war was aimed at creating fear among Serbs. TV began to regularly report that Serbs were endangered in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. "This had," says Srdja Pupovic, co-owner of the Belgrade magazine Vreme, "the unusual effect of creating real fear among people who lived in these places and who knew the reports weren't true.
"But that the media could even report that they were in danger itself upset the delicate balance of coexistence with Croats or Muslims - and created its own dangers."
* Second, once the war began, an overt propaganda campaign took place. Croatian forces are referred to by their hated World War II name, Ustashi, referring to Croatians allied with the Nazis. Bosnian Muslim forces are called mujahideen. In a typical TV discussion last month a panel of "experts" said all Muslim men were political criminals because they are ordered to fight a jihad, or holy war. Serbs are always victims. "To this day, according to TV, Serbs have never fired the first shot in a single battl e in Bosnia," one Serb reporter says.
* Third, press control influenced the December presidential election. Milosevic got 23 minutes per night; the other seven candidates shared 5 minutes. One ad showed a father, whose son died in Bosnia, in tears, saying, "the only candidate who can save Serbia is Milosevic."
The opposition coalition DEPOS produced an ad showing Serbs foraging in garbage cans with the message: "This is also Serbia." Belgrade TV did not run the ad, for "technical reasons."
Vreme columnist Stojan Cerovic says, "Those who hold it against Milosevic that he doesn't speak more often to the public lose sight of the fact that he does so every evening."