WAR in the former Yugoslavia was begun by media. Hence, giving equal media weapons to the democratic opposition is the only way to stop it from spreading to the Serb province of Kosovo and throughout the Balkans.
State-controlled media are the key to the power of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. This is the source of the nationalist insanity that has consumed the Balkans. A five-year propaganda campaign continues in Serbia; in Croatia especially, no opposition media exists for long. Lies, distortions, manipulation of historical fears, and grisly images are the means of waging psychological warfare.
People are sealed off from reality; most get their news only from government-controlled TV. One man who could still afford to buy Vreme, an independent magazine in Serbia, said, ``I read it so I can stay sane in my psychotic culture.''
Information can change people and politics. Milan Panic, former prime minister of Yugoslavia, argues that giving people the facts is the first step toward a political solution. The second is for the West to support the democratic opposition in former Yugoslavia.
There has been little backing for the democratic opposition in the independent media. Neither United States, Canadian, nor European politicians; peace activists; journalists; media organizations; or foundations have met the need.
The Europeans may be a bit better at it. However, the Council of Europe waited until last April to come up with a few months' funding for the Radio Boat that began broadcasting off the coast of Croatia. Though staffed by an ethnic mix of some of the best journalists from former Yugoslavia, the Council provided an inadequate antenna whose signal couldn't be heard in Zagreb or Belgrade.
Nor would that be enough to win the battle of words. Still, Messrs. Tudjman and Milosevic could not risk even that small threat to their control. The Serb government contacted the International Telecommunications Union, and on June 25 the Radio Boat stopped broadcasting.
Even though the West helped the Radio Boat finesse the broadcast regulations and get back on the air by mid-August, the media is too important to leave to Western governments that have mucked up almost everything in the former Yugoslavia. Their outdated thinking focuses on government radio. Yet to reach a majority of the people, the main battle must be fought on TV. In Serbia, 64 percent of the people get their news from television.
To have credibility and impact, a new TV competitor should not be run or funded by foreign governments. In a nationalist situation where most people support their government, news connected to foreign government would be dismissed as lies or propaganda.
To set up untainted, independent TV, media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, and Ted Turner are needed. So are organizations like Thompson in Canada, Channel 4 TV in Great Britain, Springer in Germany, Hachette in France, and MTV in the US. Legal skills are needed to overcome a proposed Serbian press law that would forbid foreign investment in its media.
One idea would be a ``Balkan Report'' - beamed widely with a footprint that falls on the 40,000 satellite dishes in Croatia, or the 500,000 scattered across Serbia and Montenegro. Separate broadcasts for each country by journalists from that country would have the best chance of reaching the nationalists. Market-research techniques should be used to develop programming that could break through a closed, nationalist mind set - rather than shows where intellectuals talk only to other intellectuals. News that shared a channel with sports or MTV could attract young men with guns. To get around repression, video cassettes could be carried to a neighboring country for broadcast.
COFY, a recently formed US organization of journalists and activists, is raising money for the ``Balkan Report.'' It is also setting up an Adopt-a-Press project to match a sponsor with a specific paper or station. In Britain, journalists formed a Friends of B92 Club, to support Belgrade's version of an underground radio station.
These are only the beginning stages. Other activist organizations, foundations, and journalists should supply financial and editorial help to the existing independent media, which face nationalist threats and limited resources. One important station is Studio B TV in Belgrade. Studio B dared to say the Serbs were conducting ``ethnic cleansing'' campaigns in Bosnia. Yet, like Radio B92, its signal is heard only in Belgrade, not in the rest of the country - the rural areas where Milosevic has his strongest support.
In Croatia, there is no opposition TV to challenge Tudjman. A youth radio station was taken over recently by the government. Viktor Ivancic, editor in chief of the Feral Tribune, one of the few independent papers left, was arrested and drafted into the Army in order to bring political pressure on the publication. However, Croatian journalists at Feral Tribune and Novi List continue to resist the distorted reality that makes the killing possible.
If the West isn't willing to fight the tragedy in former Yugoslavia with military force, it should at least battle it with words and images. Let's get busy. People don't have to fail because the politicians have. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.