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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.