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).
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.
Milosevic's media manipulation finally backfired last November. He annulled the opposition's stunning mayoral victories nationwide, triggering three months of street protests. With daily demonstrations in more than 40 cities, most urbanites could see how RTS's nightly reports distorted the news.
Milosevic's most critical blunder came Dec. 3, however, when he silenced independent radio B-92 for 51 hours. The West denounced the move, while the BBC and Voice of America pitched in by broadcasting B-92 reports sent to them via e-mail.
B-92 management later used the station's notoriety to attract foreign funding for its 24-station network project. It solicited some $800,000 from the British Foreign Office, US Information Agency, European Union, and American financier George Soros's Fund for an Open Society.
Each B-92 affiliate broadcasts up to four hours of B-92 news programming, while providing the Belgrade station with regional reports. The small-town stations also receive free legal advice, an invaluable resource when contending with Milosevic.
This summer, in the run-up to the September presidential elections, he shut down 76 small independent radio and TV stations, mostly for alleged tax or licensing violations. International pressure forced him to allow a handful to reopen.
Another wave of closures is now anticipated, though B-92 is expected to remain active. The station is useful to Milosevic as an alibi, says B-92 director Sasa Mirkovic, because it allows him to feign support for independent media.
"Milosevic wouldn't want to burn all his bridges with the West," Mr. Mirkovic says. "But this is a political fight for our existence and the government's. They know if they lose, they'll never get another chance at ... power."
Likewise, pro-democracy forces have much riding on the new network. The new mayors, as the first opposition politicians elected in more than 50 years, look to consolidate their positions.
Some, unsurprising to analysts, have turned to the time-honored tradition used by their Socialist predecessors: They've taken the municipally owned radio or television station they inherited and converted it into their own mouthpiece.
These stations could be more accurately described, as one Western observer put it, as "nonstate" rather than "independent" media.
In Pirot, for example, a city of 50,000 deep in the southeast corner of Serbia, allies of the new moderate administration have pressured it to exact a little revenge on the Socialists. The preferred method: media bombardment. "They think we ought to be more vengeful, but I can't accept this," says Momcilo Durdic, an art historian-turned-opposition-politician who was appointed director of Radio Pirot six months ago.
"If I did, my station would be no different than it was for the Socialists. And we didn't fight for that," Mr. Durdic says.
The B-92 network
Yet the influx of new media does somewhat level the playing field. The B-92 network represents more than an alternate voice: It's a true "network," rare in a Serbian society bereft of a true civil society.
Through RTS propaganda, Milosevic successfully isolated the public. As news anchors railed against the West and Serbia's neighbors, blaming them for the country's woes, rural Serbians became more xenophobic, observers say. Now independent media can bring the world - and even the rest of Serbia - to them.
"As long as the people are divided, they can't see the big picture," says Sonja Licht, president of Soros's Fund for an Open Society in Belgrade, a B-92 backer.
"If they realize they share common interests and similar problems with the people in Belgrade or Nis or Kragujevac, they can form a joint movement," Ms. Licht says.
"So independent media are not only informing people, but educating them about how a democratic society works."