Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

W A R   I N   K O S O V O:
A Victory for the Media?
Part 2: Serbia - A clear-cut case

Marina Blagojevic

In the Kosovo conflict, three sides were clearly involved: the Serbs, the Kosovo Albanians and NATO. Though nominally representing positions of different political and cultural interests, there were striking similarities between the media of all three, which clearly suggests that the media can be considered as a single, specific element of the conflict.

The Serbian situation is the simplest to analyse because media control in Serbia is absolute. Open attack on independent media in Serbia was an essential part of the Serbian regime's preparations for war in Kosovo. In the first half of 1998, three simultaneous actions by Slobodan Milosevic's regime took place: instigation of the Kosovo crisis, the introduction of new laws which effectively placed universities under the absolute control of the regime (thereby making them an important center of opposition to Milosevic) and of other laws which annihilated the independent media. Both universities and the media became victims of complicated bureaucratic games leading to confusion and exhaustion, fear and coercion in a way that was not visible to the majority of the population.

At first glance it may seem strange, even coincidental, that attacks were mounted simultaneously on these three "fronts," however, the creation of chaos is a favourite Milosevic strategy which, over time, has proved "successful." It became necessary for the opposition to disperse its resources in different directions, thereby decreasing its power and effectiveness.

Among the Serbian public, immediately before the war started, an atmosphere was created which effectively neutralised any possibility of questioning, discussion or negotiation about the regime's policies towards Kosovo. Kosovo was never on the agenda as an issue which it was possible to resolve in various ways. Moreover, since the mid-1990s it had been treated as a non-existent problem..

A referendum - instigated by Milosevic at the onset of the war - showed a suspiciously high percentage of the population rejecting external mediation. A referendum, though a useful democratic tool, can in fact be easily subverted as a means to justify a totalitarian leader's decisions. The purpose of the referendum was less to exclude foreign influence than to expose the public to the absolute will of the leader, who overnight "invents" a referendum to confirm his "patriotic" position. Paradoxically, far from encouraging free and open discussion of the painful and serious problem of Kosovo, the referendum created momentum for its suppression.

In Serbia, pressure on the independent media is calibrated to the regime's strength. In all of the previous free elections it was proven that election results are closely linked with the independent media's sphere of influence. However, the democratic opposition in Serbia made the catastrophic mistake of accepting free elections in combination with limited freedom of the media. In all of the protests against the regime, including the currently ongoing ones, the regime did everything in its power to block the free flow of information. Today, in 1999, the Serbian opposition to the regime has been thrown back into a communication and information "Stone Age," in which only informal communication channels can be relied on to counter the distortions of the official state media.

During the war with NATO, the Serbian regime had the pleasure of introducing its full range of special controlling mechanisms. However, when a country is in a state of war, it is, in any case, unrealistic, even unfair, to expect objectivity. What is significant is that before, during and after the war, a strong continuity has existed - expressed in discourse, narrative strategies, symbols and visual elements. The war itself simply offered convincing justification for a further continuation of the Serbian regime's on-going anti-Western propaganda.

Under the hail of NATO bombs, it was easy to convince the people of Serbia that the West "hates" Serbs and that the whole world "is against us." It was extremely easy to perpetrate a credible conspiracy theory, to picture an "upside-down world" created by "the new world order." In the NATO war against Serbia/Yugoslavia, Serbian reality became the self-fulfillment of Western prophecy.

What is happening now that the war is over is also full of deja vu. The special regulation of media during the war continues. As Milenko Vasovic, a journalist from Belgrade, reports in IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting) report number 57: "Pumping out a steady diet ofreports on reconstruction and war heroes and on opposition politicians as anti-Serbian traitors, Belgrade has allowed no opening for fresh debate after the Kosovo debacle. There is no information about the shortage of petrol, the absence of salaries and pensions, or the prospects (as yet lacking) for rebuilding the destroyed bridges. Instead, State Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and the pro-regime press appeal blindly for national unity. The demonstrations being held throughout the country are hardly covered, so that citizens sometimes find out about them only when going out in the streets."

The state authorities are using a varied assortment of strategies against the independent media. In some cases, independent media were shut down during the war, some are currently exposed to absurd legal and bureaucratic regulation, some to financial pressure through taxation and some editors and journalists have been arrested. For those who regularly ask "What is the Serbian opposition doing?" it might be interesting to know that, for example, Nebojsa Ristic, editor of TV Soko from Sokobanja in Southern Serbia, was sentenced to a year in prison for hanging a "Free Press - Made in Serbia" poster in the newsroom during the NATO bombing.

There are many similar examples. However, most indicative of the cynicism of the regime is the example of Radio B92, symbol and core of the free-media movement in Serbia. From the first days of the war, the staff of Radio B92 were replaced with "patriotic staff," who "converted this usually lively alternative culture and politics station into a standard government-run organ" (Vasovic), which in the case of Serbia means a combination of cheap propaganda and kitsch patriotism via neo-folk music.

However, contrary to the fallacious invention of Western media that was packaged as a widespread over-simplified formula, for the Serbian public, Kosovo has represented a problem for more than 15 years, pre-dating the Milosevic regime. The Serbian population was already leaving Kosovo, under the pressure of Albanian nationalism, in the 70s, and especially in the 80s (Petrovic, Blagojevic, 1989). Up to one third of the Serbian population left Kosovo after experiencing various kinds of discrimination and violation of human rights, while thousands of Serbian demonstrators were coming from Kosovo to Belgrade to demand protection from the federal political leaders.

However, within the context of the already strong centripetal forces of ex-Yugoslavia, the Kosovo situation could not be resolved within the federation, which was already fragmenting. Instead, the real issues of inter-ethnic relations in Kosovo were adopted by Slobodan Milosevic as a platform to promote a resurgence of Serbian nationalism. According to M Thompson, the Kosovo media campaign was a cornerstone of the Serbian Cultural Revolution (1986 to 1989). The "war language" promoted by the media was invented long before the real war started.

The media on both sides of the conflict, Serbian and Albanian, was deeply involved in its radicalisation. Already in 1990, Svetlana Slapsak analysed the correspondence section of Politika, the most prominent Serbian daily newspaper, showing how a whole new rhetoric was invented to describe the Kosovo situation. From the late 80s and especially in the 90s, the Kosovo problem wastreated in the Serbian media purely as an emotional and historical issue, thus resisting any possible realistic, rational, forward-looking solution.

The atmosphere created around Kosovo prevented any part of Milosevic's opposition from adopting a different stance on the issue, because the risks of losing public sympathy were too high. On the other hand, there did exist a very weak, often unbalanced and incomplete critique of Serbian nationalism which, however, completely ignored the aspect of Albanian nationalism. For the Serbian public of the 90s, Kosovo became a dividing line between "patriotism" (related to Serbian interests) and "human rights advocacy" (related to Albanian interests). The truth was seen as belonging to either the Serbian or the Albanian side.

These two mutually exclusive positions were each dealing with only one part of the truth, never both. Efforts to show both sides in the conflict in objective terms were marginal and sporadic. They were exemplified by the independent weekly Vreme, which, before the war, was giving accurate, objective, highly professional and anti-war information, warning of the escalation of the conflict. However, the public influence of Vreme was limited to a narrow intellectual elite.

The content and influence of Albanian media remains largely under-analysed. There are some studies showing that during the period of the Albanian administration (1974 to 1989), the Kosovan media played a key role in justifying discrimination against Serbs. During the Communist regime, there was nothing unusual about the manipulation of information according to the needs of the power-holders, and the Kosovo Albanian media was no exception. For example, in 1981, large demonstrations in favour of secession were largely ignored by the media. Discrimination against Serbs also went unreported.

To understand this phenomenon properly one needs to understand that ethnification of institutions - which had already commenced in the 70s with the Constitution of 1974 - was also influencing the media. In ex-Yugoslavia, this ethnification first took place precisely in Kosovo, probably because the society was pre-modern, meaning that the role of ethnic/tribal collectivities was extremely significant. The media's role in defending ethnic interests was paralleled by similar processes in other spheres of social life - such as politics, education and culture.

Through inventing Albanian history (Dogo, in: Blagojevic, 1998), the Kosovo Albanian media, together with the Albanian educational system, were responsible for the creation of "ethnic truths," and "ethnic argumentation." A paradox of the media war can be illustrated in the phenomena of "mirroring." Serbian and Albanian media were frequently offering identical arguments for their opposite causes: that a certain ethnic group had a longer history in a given territory; that a certain ethnic group is the only one which had been discriminated against in the past history; that a certain ethnic group was forcefully divided (by the Communist regime) into separate states and should be re-united. Even the terms "Albanisation" and "Serbisation" of Kosovo, which were supposedly neutral concepts of changes in ethnic composition, were imbued with negative content by both sides.

The combination of media propaganda with the NATO attack on Serbia has resulted in absolute confusion among the Serbian public. The least confused are the Serbian nationalists, because everything was and is clear to them and accords with their long-held beliefs. The most confused are Serbian democrats and the pro-Western urban middle class - those who protested for several months in the winter of 1996/97 and whose cities were severely bombed. Missing is any common denominator for what has happened and why, as well as any new narrative strong enough to replace the old outdated ones. Although it might be conveniently simple to believe that the common denominator is President Slobodan Milosevic, everybody in Serbia knows that the truth is much more complex. Nobody is innocent, both inside and outside Serbia.

Without cognitive and ethical acceptance of reality, with all its paradoxes and contradictions, it is hard to imagine how any way out can be found. At the same time, it is also hard to believe that there can be any way out unless the "Serbian part" of the truth is also acknowledged. So far, this truth has been so fragmented that it seems that a necessary precondition for resolution must include the establishment of a discourse to identify and confront the main causes of the Serbian trauma.

Marina Blagojevic
Faculty of Philosophy
University of Belgrade, Belgrade
Collegium Budapest, Budapest

Click HERE for the first installment in this three-part series, part 1: The construction of a conflict.

NEXT WEEK: Part 3 - Western Media: Professional invention of reality



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