In Belgrade, on the morning of October 14, 1998,
a group of journalists gathered on the street outside their office building.
I watched as plainclothes policemen standing guard barred them from entering.
The night before, their independent newspaper, Danas, had been shut down by
police on the charge that the paper had "spread fear, panic, and defeatism."
The Danas shutdown -- and that of another independent paper, Dnevni Telegraf -- came
hours after Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic had struck a deal with the U.S.
special envoy Richard Holbrooke which averted NATO airstrikes against Serbia in
retaliation for months of assaults by its security forces against the majority ethnic
Albanian population of Kosovo. A week earlier, two independent radio stations had been
The journalists outside the Danas building -- several of whom had risked their lives to
report truthfully about the nationalist hysteria that destroyed their country and claimed
so many lives -- had seen all this before: The Belgrade regime had ordered a similar crackdown
against the independent media in 1995, shortly after Milosevic had signed the Dayton peace
accord that put an end to the war in Bosnia.
But this time, the circumstances were more ominous. Two weeks earlier, Deputy Prime
Minister Vojislav Seselj, leader of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, had said in
parliament, "We may not be able to shoot down every NATO plane, but we'll grab those
within our reach," and the various "foreign agents" he listed as potential targets
included Serbian independent journalists, several of whom he mentioned by name. And
on October 1, Seselj had menacing words for journalists working "in the service of
foreign propaganda"in Serbian-language broadcasts on the Voice of America, Deutsche
Welle, Radio Free Europe, Radio France International, and the BBC.
"If we find them in
the moment of aggression, they shouldn't expect anything good," he warned.
Following these threats, some Serbian journalists who had been singled out by
Seselj left the country. A few days later, the Serbian parliament passed a
draconian new media law. In violation of both the Serbian and Yugoslav constitutions,
it established a system of prior censorship of press statements critical of the Serbian
government and exorbitant fines for those who dared to flout the law by publishing such
When I heard Seselj's threats against journalists, I could not help but think about
the incredibly high price the press has paid in the bloody breakup of
least 45 journalists were killed during the fighting between 1992 and 1995. And from
the war's outset, journalists were perceived by the regimes in power as either agents
of the state or as its enemies. Through massive purges of journalists who would not toe
the government line, manipulation, and outright lies, the state-run media fomented the
ethnic hatred that led to the Croatian and Bosnian wars. That pattern was repeated this
year as the long-festering crisis in Kosovo exploded.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian combatants, too, posed dangers for journalists covering the
fighting. As a foreign reporter, I often witnessed armed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)
rebels harassing and even menacing my Albanian interpreter because he was not with them
in the trenches. The Kosovars showed even less tolerance for Serbian journalists working
for independent or foreign media outlets in KLA-controlled areas, trying to provide fair
and balanced coverage.
Harassment of the media is not exclusive to the Balkans; Attacks on the Press in 1998
contains much crueler examples of repression by authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the
world. But what makes ill-treatment of the media in the former
disturbing is that this region has been the object of intense diplomatic involvement and
scrutiny by the international community over the last several years. Yet Western diplomacy
has focused mainly on regional stability at the expense of freedom of information and
Not only in the Balkans, but throughout
Eastern and Central Europe, regimes frequently
pay lip service to democratic principles, including support for independent media. The
constitutions of most of these countries embrace the right of press freedom, but
post-communist governments -- including those formed by dissidents who came to power
after 1989 -- have been reluctant to relinquish control of the media. Communist-era media
legislation remains on the books in many parts of the region and, throughout the area,
state-run television and radio stations still hold virtual monopolies over most broadcast
frequencies and thus effectively control the flow of information.
I dwell on these examples not only because these countries are part of my beat, but primarily
because many of them aspire to become full-fledged
members of the Western community of nations. Several are poised to become NATO members,
and their democratization efforts are under close Western scrutiny. Yet too often their
most zealous monitors have been free-market
missionaries whose democracy-building yardstick is limited to privatization of industry
and the creation of a consumer society. In assisting post-communist countries in their
transition to democracy, Western governments have shown little interest in encouraging
the creation of open and free media in these
formerly closed societies.
This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists chose a
journalist from this part of the world -- Pavel Sheremet of Belarus -- to receive a
1998 International Press Freedom Award.
His example and that of many other courageous
journalists in the post-communist
world illustrate that a free press is the measure of how fully democratic an
emerging democracy is willing to be.
Sylvia Poggioli, National Public Radio's senior
European correspondent, has covered the Balkans since 1998 -- from Slobodan Milosovic's rise
to power through the disintegration of Yugoslavia and its aftermath. She has also covered
Eastern and Central Europe before and after the collapse of communism.