| CPJ Home | Attacks on the Press 1998 | About CPJ |

by Sylvia Poggioli

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 silenced.

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 statements.

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 Yugoslavia. At 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 Yugoslavia particularly 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 free speech.

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.