Propaganda War in Serbia

“When the bombs began falling in Yugoslavia on March 24, the seven Serb journalists who happened to be visiting our offices in New York during a tour of the United States all ran for the phones. They were worried about the families they had left behind, but they also feared for the survival of Serbia’s independent media which they had painstakingly, and at great personal risk, helped to create. Indeed, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic quickly demonstrated he would brook no dissent. That same day, Radio B92, Yugoslavia’s leading independent radio station, was temporarily shut down and its editor, Veran Matic, was detained.

Despite sustained government repression, a small but vital independent press has emerged Yugoslavia in the last decade. While state television remained the primary source of news for most Serbs, scores of independent radio and television broadcasters, as well as newspapers and magazines, had begun to challenge the government’s control of information. Many were members of ANEM, the Association of Independent Electronic Media, lead by B92 with a network of 100 journalists who covered everything from the Kosovo conflict to election fraud. When the Milosevic government tried to silence the station by severely limiting the power of its signal in Serbia, B92 outmaneuvered the regime by broadcasting over the Internet and then beaming its programming back from Western Europe.

What little tolerance existed for critical reporting in Serbia began to evaporate more than a year ago when Milosevic geared up for a military offensive in Kosovo. But the media crackdown escalated after NATO bombing began last month. By March 25, Albanian-language newspapers in Kosovo were being forcibly closed and some independent radio stations were taken off the air. By March 31, formal censorship had been largely imposed. On April 11, Slavko Curuvija, owner and editor of the first private daily in Yugoslavia, was murdered by two masked gunman, who ambushed him as he was returning home from an afternoon walk. Two days later, after the government installed a Milosevic loyalist as manager of B92, the editorial staff resigned-ending, at least for now, Yugoslavia’s most innovative experiment in free speech.

In just three weeks, Milosevic systematically dismantled the independent media and replaced it with state-controlled propaganda. What kind of news are Serbs now getting? Serb television is reporting that German and French soldiers are throwing down their guns and deserting NATO. It is reporting that refugees in Macedonia are actually Albanian “actors” performing in an elaborately staged NATO production (in order to soften up its audience, Serbian television has offered repeated showings of the movie “Wag the Dog”). The pernicious power of propaganda is hard to fathom by those who have not experienced it directly. Even the most sophisticated quickly succumb, becoming disoriented and easily misled. The leaders of the former Soviet and East bloc countries knew that total control of information translates into total power. State propaganda has long been an instrument of war, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, where anti-Tutsi harangues by extremist Hutus incited genocidal massacres.

Certainly, NATO has realized that Milosevic’s propaganda machine-which has deprived Serbs of any information about the massacres in Kosovo while inundating them with gory images of the carnage wrought by NATO bombs-has become an important component of his military strategy. NATO generals have pledged to take Serbian state radio and television off the air by bombing transmission towers (many have already been hit). Like other press freedom organizations around the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists has deep concerns about NATO’s position that Serbian state television is “a legitimate target.” Such a broad definition leaves open the possibility that not only transmission towers but television installations will be hit, and fails to explain how NATO distinguishes between “journalists,” who are not targets, and “propagandists,” who are. And it raises the fear that NATO’s decision to target state television might erode journalists’ status as non-combatants under the Geneva convention. Could one side in a later conflict use NATO’s actions as justification for attacking the press from a hostile country during a military campaign?

While we worry for the safety of independent Serb journalists, there has already been another kind of casualty. The promise that new information technologies-fax machines, the Internet, satellite telephones-would make it impossible for a dictator to ever again gain total control of information has not been realized. Not only has Milosevic succeeded in shutting down the independent media, but we are quickly losing contact with journalists in Yugoslavia. Regular phone lines have not been reliable since the bombing began, and in the last few days we have had great difficulty getting through to our sources on cellular phones. With telephone lines and local servers saturated, even communication by e-mail has become extremely difficult.

Of the seven independent Serbian journalists who were in our office when the NATO bombing began, five have returned to Yugoslavia. While none of them have been injured in the conflict, it has been extraordinarily painful for them–and for us–to witness the rapid destruction of the independent press movement that journalists risked so much to establish. “My basic feeling is sadness,” wrote one of the returned journalists in an e-mail message. “I don’t think that anything can be like before. All you can see or hear [in the media] are official statements. It is hard to understand what is true and what is propaganda.”