Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina
In the old days of the Soviet Union, a huge neon sign was clearly visible from Gorky Street in Moscow. It read, as I remember, “The Soviet Press—Strongest Weapon of Leninist Power.” Ever since Lenin, Communists have understood the importance of the press as a vital instrument of control. In Tito’s Yugoslavia, journalists strayed from the Party line at their peril. It was as a journalist, not as a Party official, that Milovan Djilas got in trouble. He was not condemned for discussing his radical ideas in private; in fact, several of his high-ranking comrades agreed with him. His sin was in publishing them.
The Djilas case is instructive for what it reveals about the complexities of a Communist country with fewer restrictions than others have, complexities that are no less apparent today. Djilas, who had been one of Tito’s top advisers, first started to publish his heretical writings in 1953, five years after Tito’s break with Stalin, when the Yugoslav leadership was casting about for a new ideology to go with its new independence. First Djilas attacked Stalinism; then he argued that communism should be abandoned as a goal; then he called for the end of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia; and finally he criticized the sumptuous life style of the Communist elite. All these heresies would reappear in The New Class, which was published abroad in 1957 and banned in Yugoslavia. But before this they were published inside the country, and in the Party press at that—in Nova Misao, the Party’s theoretical journal, and in Borba, the Party newspaper.
Djilas finally went to prison but not until he supported the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, three years after his first article was published. Tito’s censors were somewhat less inclined to suppress opinion than their colleagues elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and even writers far humbler than Djilas got away with the truth from time to time. Yugoslav reporting of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was objective—until Tito decided to support Khrushchev’s repression. And the Yugoslav press was among the best in the world in chronicling the events leading to the crackdown in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Jurij Gustincic, the Prague correspondent at the time for Politika of Belgrade, still writes excellent reports for the Belgrade newsmagazine Vreme and for Slovenian television.
In my three years in Belgrade during the 1960s as a young diplomat, I found that journalists were by far the most liberal and unconventional spirits around—willing not only to share information but also to criticize and speculate. As communism gave way to nationalism in the late 1980s, the best of the journalists could either follow the new line or join the dwindling number of relatively objective newspapers and broadcasting stations; or they could leave the country. One of the paradoxes of the new era of nationalism in former Yugoslavia is that in many cases former Communists now set the standard for whatever high-quality journalism remains.
The new nationalism shares one important element in common with the old communism. In both cases the press is a vehicle for transmitting the regime’s views to the people, and its purpose is to indoctrinate, manipulate, and intimidate. But the message has changed. For all their sins, the Yugoslav Communist leaders rarely incited their captive audience to hate other Yugoslavs for their ethnic origins; they invoked more abstract evils, such as “class enemies” and “capitalism.” Indeed the main cliché of Tito’s Yugoslavia was “brotherhood and unity.” The nationalists are different. From Belgrade and Zagreb they constantly exhort citizens to hate members of different ethnic groups.
In Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia one can see how the high-tech apparatus of modern mass communications can be effectively applied to the ends of virulent nationalism. Article 19, a London-based organization devoted to freedom of expression, has now published a guide to that process. Written by Mark Thompson, a journalist with considerable experience in Yugoslavia, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina is a well-documented, thorough, and altogether chilling account of how the press, television, and radio have transformed people’s attitudes and actions, turning some of them into monsters.
Nowhere in the former Yugoslavia are the mass media controlled more actively or more effectively than in today’s Serbia. The Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, learned the techniques of press control as a Communist apparatchik in Belgrade, and he uses them even more aggressively on behalf of Serbian nationalism today. During my time as US Ambassador to Yugoslavia, I was told that Milosevic met with the head of Belgrade Radio-Television every day. To the world, of course, Milosevic has always asserted that the Serbian press is free, and it is true that he tolerates an opposition press while making sure that it doesn’t reach beyond Belgrade. As for official publications and state TV, he relies heavily on that old Soviet standby, self-censorship; nobody imagines that the morning newspapers are brought to him the night before to be censored, as the People’s Daily used to be brought to Chou Enlai. Still, his hand can be heavy. A journalist friend of mine once overheard a dispute between an editor and a writer in the studio of Belgrade Radio-TV. The argument ended when the editor said: “Look—this is how the Boss wants it!”
The Serbian and Croatian leaders have little understanding of the concept of a free press. I recall a conversation I had with Borisav Jovic, the Serbian member of the collective Yugoslav presidency and from 1990 to 1991 the president of Yugoslavia. Jovic, an orthodox Communist of the Soviet variety, took me aside at a soccer game and said he had heard I didn’t think much of Belgrade television (I had criticized it in an interview with the daily paper Borba). I replied that it gave only one point of view. He said, “I have an idea for reform which will meet all the standards of a free press. We’ll have two dedicated television channels. One will give our line. The other will give the opposition’s line. That way both views will be expressed!”
Milosevic uses his control of the Serbian press for several purposes. In 1990, he decided to cultivate a moderate image for himself by secretly contriving to publicize a more rabid nationalist leader on his right; Belgrade television, therefore, began to give prime time attention to Vojislav Seselj, a psychopathic racist. When Seselj began to act like a serious rival to Milosevic, however, he suddenly disappeared from the screen. Milosevic has used the Bosnian Serbs in the same way. When the alliance between them was close, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, strutted freely across the Serbian television stage. But when Milosevic concluded last August that Karadzic was becoming too powerful, and was obstructing Milosevic’s efforts to get the UN sanctions against Serbia lifted, Karadzic and his followers vanished from Serbian screens. The irony is that a few independent papers—the very ones Karadzic has attacked the most—continue to report news about him, much to Milosevic’s anger.
Milosevic also uses the controlled press to make sure that events will turn out as he wants. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Serbian elections of 1990. The politicians running against Milosevic for president of Serbia were simply not heard of either on television or in the newspapers. Vuk Draskovic, an opposition leader with a flowing beard and deep-set eyes—a natural for Serbian television—drew tens of thousands of people to rallies in central Serbia, but relatively few people knew about him except those who actually came to see him.
Finally, under pressure from the US and his own public, Milosevic made a grand concession. He would give television time to all thirty or so presidential candidates, one after another. The results were comic. The serious candidates had to compete with the various drunks, religious freaks, rock stars, and lunatics who had put themselves forward (or who, as many suspected, had been entered in the race by the Milosevic camp). Milosevic himself loftily announced that he wouldn’t appear in this rogues’ gallery. In his devotion to democracy, he told me he “wanted to give all the opposition candidates a fair chance.” What he’d really done, of course, was avoid becoming another clown in a television circus. Draskovic told me: “He made fools of us, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it.”
Milosevic also uses the mass media to make sure that everyone knows the current line. During the Serbo-Croat war of 1991, a bomb destroyed part of the presidential palace in Zagreb. The Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, was in the palace at the time; so, it turned out, was the Yugoslav Prime Minister, Ante Markovic. The obvious conclusion was that the palace had been bombed by a Yugoslav Army plane on behalf of the Serbian side. After some hesitation, however, the controlled Serbian press came to a strikingly different conclusion: Tudjman himself had ordered the palace bombed, so that he could blame the Serbs for it.
I have my own reasons for knowing this was false. Tudjman, a leader with grandiose pretensions if there ever was one, showed me around the palace several times. It was clear that he personally had taken a hand in selecting every piece of furniture, every curtain, every painting; the palace was meant to symbolize the grandeur of his rule. It was absurd to imagine that he would have tried to damage his beloved creation. Yet, echoing the Serbian press and television, virtually every Serb official and many ordinary citizens claimed, and even seemed to believe, that Tudjman had committed an act of self-destruction. The tactic worked so well that it has been used over and over again. According to the Serbian press, the shelling in May 1992 of a bread line in Sarajevo, killing seventeen Bosnians, was the work of the Bosnians themselves. So was the mortar attack on the Sarajevo market in February 1994, when sixty-eight Bosnian civilians were killed.
Such techniques for controlling the press might have come from a Communist manual, but Milosevic has added something new by inciting the national hatreds that destroyed Yugoslavia and are now destroying Bosnia. Milosevic skillfully used the press to justify the most unspeakable atrocities. In both the Croatian and Bosnian wars the Serbian strategy involved a process with five stages. First the Serbian leaders would accuse the enemy of dreadful ethnic crimes, some true, most false. Then, borrowing from the Vietcong, they provoked violent incidents in ethnically mixed villages, causing the escalation of violence and numerous deaths, which could be publicized with the appropriately horrifying pictures. The next stage brought in the Yugoslav Army, which is controlled by the Serbs, ostensibly to “restore order” but really to consolidate Serb territorial gains. The fourth step was to set up Serbian “states” within the territory of Croatia—as in the Krajina—or Bosnia; this step was accompanied by strong support by the mass media for the principle of “self-determination.” Finally, Milosevic arranged for direct Serbian assistance to Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia across international borders, proclaiming in the press that all Serbs have the right to live in the same state.
Forging War demonstrates with much telling detail how Serbia led the way in corrupting the press, using it to advance Milosevic’s designs for a “Greater Serbia.” But the book is equally analytic when it comes to Croatia, where the corruption has been just as bad. Milosevic is a nationalist by vocation; for him nationalism has been an instrument for winning and holding power. Tudjman, by contrast, is a viscerally emotional nationalist; he sees himself as the living embodiment of Croatia and all its virtues and aspirations. Any attack on Tudjman or his policies is thus an attack on Croatia, a treasonable act. This cast of mind has led Croatian authorities, even more than their Serbian counterparts, to try to suppress independent publications.
Milosevic, a tactician rather than an ideologue, has concluded that it’s better to preserve token elements of a free press than to eradicate it altogether. Thus a Belgrade resident can watch television on Studio B, listen to B92 radio, and buy Vreme every week. If he wants, he can read the views of opposition politicians and even some direct criticisms of Milosevic’s policies. But those who don’t live in Belgrade have no choice. Milosevic has seen to it that Studio B and Radio B92 are denied licenses to expand their coverage. Distributors refuse to carry Vreme outside Belgrade and the government manipulates taxes and the costs of newsprint to make life more difficult for independent publications or broadcasters. An independent paper may have to pay three times as much for newsprint as papers loyal to Milosevic. Independent journalists are often beaten up and subjected to death threats, and in some cases they have been arrested to show them that they must pay a price for accurate reporting. Their veracity is consistently impugned in the official press and television, putting them permanently on the defensive.
Milosevic may have decided to end even his token tolerance of some independent publications. Last December 23, he moved against Borba, the former Communist Party paper (and one of Djilas’s tribunes), which has in recent times become a courageous example of high-quality journalism. The minister of information of the Yugoslav government, which Milosevic controls, occupied Borba‘s offices and began to put out a highly propagandistic official version of the newspaper. This blatant act of censorship put an end to the free daily press in Serbia and has understandably sent a frightening message to the few independent weeklies and radio and TV stations that remain there.
In Croatia the Tudjman government uses an even heavier hand. It simply tries to suppress all sources of independent views. Thompson describes the destruction of Danas, a Zagreb independent weekly comparable to Belgrade’s Vreme. Despite its strong criticism of Milosevic and Serb nationalism, Danas was judged insufficiently loyal to Tudjman’s efforts to make over Croatia in his nationalist image. The Croatian government imposed a new board of management on it and tried (unsuccessfully) to halt its publication on grounds of bankruptcy. It attacked Danas through the Party press, dried up its sources of advertising, banned it from the kiosks, and finally engineered its sale to a Croatian nationalist entrepreneur, who turned it into an outlet for extreme nationalist views. Advertising has miraculously returned, and the magazine has apparently been relieved of all its printing costs. Still, its new hypernationalist rhetoric brings it sales of only about 10,000 a week; whereas the old, independent Danas sold over 100,000. And last December 7, a bank whose director is a member of Tudjman’s party bought Vjesnik, a Zagreb daily which had been critical of Tudjman, and fired its publisher and editor.
With such coarse tactics Tudjman has achieved nearly total control of the press. The 1991 war with Serbia, in which Croatia lost over a quarter of its territory, and the current war in Bosnia have made things easier for him. Imposing restrictions on the press has since become a patriotic duty and Croatian journalists who support the regime actually see themselves as comparable to soldiers. Antun Vrdoljak, the director of Croatian Radio and Television, says his work is “part of my duty to the homeland in its war for survival…. When I ask myself if I have done anything for television, I think I can say: I have achieved my soldierly task.” Silvana Mendusic, one of Croatia’s best-known television war reporters, brags that she fought for Croatia with microphone in hand. In one case cited by Thompson, she reported falsely that the Croatian town of Kupres was still resisting the Serbs, although she had personally seen its fall three days earlier.
The Croatian press, radio, and television routinely use hostile stereotypes to describe the enemy; they are “Serb terrorists” or the “Serbo-Communist army of occupation.” The Serbian press and television have done the same, calling Croatian forces Ustashe, thus equating them with the criminal fanatics of Hitler’s wartime puppet state. Croatian and Serbian propagandists use racist rhetoric to incriminate entire nations.
In the Bosnian war the press has itself become a subject of bitter contention, a fact underscored by the killing so far of thirty-eight journalists in Bosnia. For months before the Serbian attack on Bosnia in April 1992, Serbs in Bosnia, most of whom could watch television from Serbia, were being fed distortions about the sins of the government of Alija Izetbegovic; they heard outright lies alleging that he would stop at nothing to establish an Islamic republic. In March 1992, a month before the Serb attack, Radovan Karadzic’s extremist Serbian party, the SDS, attempted to carry out a putsch in Sarajevo. When a spontaneous demonstration of people supporting Bosnian unity opposed the SDS, Karadzic demanded that a new Serbian television channel be opened as the price for calling off his followers. He was turned down.
In 1991, shortly after the Bosnian elections had resulted in a plurality for Izetbegovic’s Muslim party (the SDA), a broadcasting law was introduced in the Bosnian legislature to split the new country’s television into separate Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim services. The result would have been three propagandistic versions of the news. Serb and Croat extremists predictably favored the proposed law, and, to its discredit, so did the SDA—at least until it realized that dividing Bosnian broadcasting would be a step toward dividing Bosnia itself. Amazingly, the law was rejected because of the passionate opposition of the television journalists themselves, who were backed by their colleagues on the independent Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje. Following this unprecedented success, the journalists took a poll, which showed that nine out of ten viewers didn’t want television broken up into ethnic components.
The reporting of the Bosnian war by Serbian and Croatian nationalist press and television has been uniformly dreadful. Serbian television has never conceded that the war was started by Serbian irregulars pouring across the Drina River into Bosnia, even though its own programs showed those irregulars shooting up Bosnian villages. Nor does it ever show Serbs systematically killing civilians or driving them from their homes. Nor, in the fantasy world of Serbian television, do Serbs routinely attack villages or besiege cities. It was not until four days after people standing in line to buy bread in Sarajevo were massacred in May 1992 that Serbian viewers learned that Serb gunners had been shelling the town. Croatian television is equally biased. Occasionally the same mutilated corpses are shown on both Serbian and Croatian television, in the one case identified as Serbs, in the other as Croats.
In this situation journalists who try to report the facts must take serious risks. They include the independent reporters in Belgrade; the Sarajevo television journalists; the writers who still put out the daily Oslobodjenje from the basement of their bombedout office building, and the courageous Montenegrin editor whose house on a quiet street in Podgorica was blasted by mortar fire. These journalists and some others are acting according to the highest standards of their profession but their voices can scarcely be heard. According to Thompson, Sarajevo’s independent television station can be seen by only between 20 and 25 percent of the viewers in Bosnia, while Serbian television propaganda reaches 70 percent.
An even more disturbing problem—one that touches on the nature of dictatorship and how citizens react to it—is that in many cases people don’t want to know the truth. Mark Thompson cites a 1992 survey in which only 8.4 per cent of Serbs questioned said that official Serbian radio and television kept them well informed, while 43.5 per cent said they were badly informed by the official television and press. Asked about independent radio and television, however, respondents neatly reversed the results—42.9 percent said they trusted the independent broadcasts and only 12.9 percent said they were badly informed.
These figures would indicate that the real issue is not lack of information. People seem to know the difference between news and propaganda; yet when a choice is available, most choose propaganda. When they wanted genuine news, as they did during the anti-Milosevic demonstration in Belgrade in March 1991, many Serbs bought the independent Belgrade papers—temporarily. Moreover, the BBC, Voice of America, and other European services are still available throughout the former Yugoslavia. During the decades of Soviet colonialism, the entire Polish nation kept abreast of events in Poland through Radio Free Europe. Serbs and Croats have similar opportunities. Why do they seem to prefer official programs which they know to be biased?
Thompson argues that people’s basic attitudes toward the wars in Croatia and Bosnia are not formed by the official mass media. Prejudices already exist, he writes, and the press, radio, and television exploit them. This view is true as far as it goes, but it tends to absolve the nationalist leaders. While the carnage of World War II undoubtedly accounts for much of the animosity one finds in the Balkans, the hostility between Croats and Serbs is hardly unique. One can find vehement prejudice in all societies, not least in the US today. Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern would not be as popular as they are if this weren’t true. One function of democratic government is to protect an open competition of ideas that will, or so we may hope, offset the spread of hatred through the press. When government assumes precisely the opposite role—when it uses its power over the mass media to exhort people to hate—then citizens look to the press not for information but for emotional reassurance; they can take righteous satisfaction in discharging their anger at their neighbors. Many people in the Balkans may be weak or even bigoted, but it is their leaders—Milosevic, Karadzic, and Tudjman—who are criminal.
“Spillover” is a diplomatic word used to refer to the dangers of the Bosnian war spreading to Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and elsewhere. But there is another kind of spillover as well. It comes from the pathological effect on an entire generation of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims who are aroused by television images to hate their neighbors. When you realize that highly manipulated pictures of the maimed and the murdered, the cleansed and the condemned, are seen every night by nearly everybody in the former Yugoslavia, you can imagine the enduring effect they have on the minds of children and young adults. This spillover will last decades and will make peaceful solutions even harder to come by. The current nationalist leaders will someday be gone. What they have sown, through their iniquitous manipulation of information, will long survive them.