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Vol 3, No 17
14 May 2001
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Showing Your Socks at the Rubicon Showing Your Socks at the Rubicon
Montenegrin media and the semantics of change
Koča Pavlović

During the prolonged campaign against the Belgrade dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević, the West invested substantially in Montenegrin State Television (TVCG). At that time, this media outlet was viewed as a potent weapon in the fight against Milošević. However, since October's insurrection in Belgrade unseated Milošević, Montenegro has witnessed a change in Western attitudes towards TVCG.

Once the dictator was gone, TVCG ceased to be the main focus of attention for the Western representatives of democracy and in turn their interest in its activities began to decline. This apparent change of attitude constitutes the basis of and the starting point for initiating the long-awaited process of transforming Montenegrin state-owned media.

This long and arduous transitional process must include the rapid transformation of the party/state-owned and state-controlled media outlets into a democratic and responsible public broadcasting service. Such a transformation must also include establishing mechanisms for public accountability. The recent extraordinary parliamentary elections in Montenegro (22 April 2001) and the atmosphere surrounding the media coverage of the election campaign only reiterates the need for substantial changes within the TVCG.

Equal time means equal access

The impact of a number of international factors (non-governmental as well as governmental organizations) upon the design and transparency of the election created conditions where all relevant political forces in Montenegro gained equal access to the media. The scope and importance of this feature of the Montenegrin election campaign is outlined in a recent report completed by the European Institute for the Media. This institute coordinated the Media Monitoring Project during the election campaign in Montenegro.

The central feature of equal media representation became embodied in the newly established Parliamentary Channel. Namely, TVCG set up (rather quickly and without clearly delineated long-term goals) a separate channel devoted solely to the election campaign and to following the activities of every political party that took part in the elections.

The dynamics and the level of media coverage of individual political parties were determined by a special inter-party memorandum signed by all the election's participants. It should be mentioned, however, that the state-owned Montenegrin Television cautiously favored political parties of the ruling coalition in its regular news coverage and in-house news production. It is also worth pointing out that apart from these news programs, TVCG barely has any other productions of its own.

This Parliamentary Channel somewhat satisfied the parties' appetites for more airtime and longer promotional spots. Opposition parties and their criticism of unfair media coverage were also temporarily pacified. This in turn provided the ruling coalition and TVCG with some room to maneuver. It seems that those in charge of the TVCG thought it possible to introduce changes without attempting to address the central issue of the Montenegrin media landscape.

Such manipulation tactics are typical for many societies in transition where the state apparatus is not willing to dismantle some of its control mechanisms (it is accustomed to using). Their endeavors can be summarized by the phrase: the more things change the more they remain the same.

State interference and party control

In the case of TVCG, an attempt to project a false impression of change represented itself in a rather peculiar manner. As the result of an earlier agreed upon Western aid package to TVCG, the station received a considerable amount of equipment shortly before the elections. To the management of TVCG this unused equipment seemed like the perfect tool for promoting their vision of a public broadcasting service. They decided to place it in a vacant section of the huge State TV building and create a new studio. Furthermore, they announced that programs developed in and produced by this new studio would be independent—without any input from (ie, abuse by) the current TVCG management.

According to officials at Montenegrin State Television, this segment of the production would represent "public service." These state officials also emphasized that the conceptualization of the TV program and the control mechanisms for its production, as well as TVCG's funding, should stay unchanged. More importantly, the same old cadre would remain at their old posts. What became apparent at this point was the true character of the TVCG: a party-owned and -controlled media outlet.

Strangely enough, such ownership status is not in conflict with the persistent rhetoric of state-owned and -controlled television. The seemingly extraordinary lack of conflict derives from the fact that, in Montenegro, the state has been perceived for a long time as "party property" and thus treated accordingly. Bearing this in mind, it is obvious that the intention was to preserve party control over TVCG.

They thought that in this scenario the new studio would represent virgo in tacta a segment of an old and rigid structure and would serve as a modern day Potemkin Village for all ardent advocates of this absurd interpretation of the idea of public service broadcasting. It seems as though a typically "Balkan" misapprehension of the concept of a public broadcasting service would be materialized in a most sinister way in Montenegro.

Unable to hide biased reporting

With regard to the media outlets that are not under state/party control it should be said that their role in the recent elections was somewhat ambiguous but still rather crucial. It is important to point out that despite the persistent rhetoric of neutrality, segments of the federal political structures from Belgrade were active participants in the Montenegrin elections.

Federal authorities lent their support to FRY President Vojislav Koštunica. Their engagement was echoed in the partisan approach of several media outlets in Montenegro in how the elections were covered. On the other hand, the republican power structure in Serbia proper—including Zoran Đinđić, as well as the Serbian media, in favor of his vision of the region's future—succeeded in maintaining a neutral stand.

As for the privately owned Montenegrin media, the appearance of their impartiality quickly faded away in the course of the election day and turned into a distant memory during the first post-election night. The night after the elections showed in its pure and sometimes radical form the division lines between those media favoring Montenegrin independence and those opposing it.

The change in media coverage was very apparent and on occasion even frightening. One could summarize these extraordinary parliamentary elections in Montenegro and their media coverage as the last minute crossing of the Rubicon. But this time around everyone had to show the color of his socks before stepping into the water.

Once the elections were over, the pro-Yugoslav coalition immediately went on to dispute their results. Initially they refused to acknowledge the victory of their political opponents (the coalition of the current Montenegrin President Đukanović) by a slim majority. The pro-Yugoslav coalition was whole-heartedly aided in its effort by the pro-Yugoslav oriented electronic media. Through their biased reporting, these media further radicalized the already deep polarization within the population.

As the result of such media frenzy, street rioting in Podgorica seemed immanent on more than one occasion. During the first post-election night, groups of pro-Yugoslav voters, whose frustrations were fueled by the false media reports, tried twice to approach en mass the government building in downtown Podgorica. Private television from Podgorica—TV Elmag, and Belgrade-based TVBK (owned by avid Milošević supporters, the Karić brothers), as well as YU INFO (established by the federal government in Belgrade and operating illegally in Montenegro via the army-owned communication lines—were the media flagships of the pro-Yugoslav coalition in Montenegro.

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Throughout the night they aired numerous reports about the alleged victory of the pro-Yugoslav coalition, even though the incoming results indicated otherwise. Such irresponsible and biased reporting could have easily resulted in the repetition of the 1997 bloody riots in Podgorica. After the 1997 presidential elections in Montenegro, the armed supporters of Slobodan Milošević attacked the police who were securing the government building. Several police officers were injured when a hand grenade exploded.

State media at a political crossroads

When analyzed from a perspective of general lines of division, the new political reality in Montenegro presents the following statistics: 55 percent of the electoral body is in favor of the Montenegrin sovereignty and independence, while 45 percent advocates the option of a common state with Serbia. Such partition could easily determine the dynamics and the character of the transition of the state-owned media in Montenegro. At present, it seems that the members of the political forces that support independence will form the new government of Montenegro.

If this prediction proves correct, that would introduce a new and important player in the field of contemporary Montenegrin politics: the Liberal Alliance of Montenegro. This party seems to be the only political entity in Montenegro whose record to date has not been compromised by savory alliances from the past. It is almost certain that the future power sharing with the Liberal Alliance will result in an intense and speedy transition of the state-owned media, as well as all other segments of Montenegrin society.

However, one should not discount the importance of an international factor in the contemporary political bargaining in Montenegro. There are indications that the current US administration would act benevolently if the past coalition of pro-Montenegrin and pro-Serbian parties were preserved in power. Once again, the more things change...

But, no matter how appealing it might sound to some people, this slogan has a serious downside to it. The fact is that any future political coalition in Montenegro that would exclude the Liberal Alliance would indefinitely postpone any attempt towards transition and the transformation of Montenegrin society and its media.

Koča Pavlović, 14 May 2001

Koča Pavlović is Editor-in-Chief of nTV Montena, Podgorica, Montenegro, an associated member of Circom Regional.

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