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Yugoslavia: How The Independent Agency Beta Survived

  • Don Hill

For the last six years, Serbia's independent Beta news agency has watched both modest and ambitious independent news outlets come and go, start and die, in Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia. Through it all, Beta survived financial turmoil, government harassment and political hostility. In this second part of a two-part series, Beta Director Ljubica Markovic tells RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill that the news service is bracing to face its toughest challenge yet -- freedom.

Prague, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In 1992, a handful of rebels from Serbia's increasingly state-controlled Tanjug news agency struck out on their own to found the independent agency, Beta.

Ljubica Markovic, now Beta's director, remembers it as a difficult time to begin the endeavor. Civil institutions and Serbia's economy were collapsing, war had devastated the Balkans and international sanctions were undermining what little was left of normal society.

But, Markovic says, she and her colleagues believed that a source of credible, factual information was vital for the Yugoslav people.

After two years of struggling through the hazards of dubious suppliers, indifferent investors and hostile bureaucracies, Beta transmitted its first news item in May 1994.

Since then, in a Federal Republic of Yugoslavia increasingly hostile to independent journalism, Beta has grown into an internationally respected institution. The agency now employs 100 journalists, issues a comprehensive daily report, and its clients include every news outlet in the country and most of the major government agencies.

How did Beta survive for six years when hundreds of new publications and broadcast outlets died soon after they were born? Markovic says perhaps that, in part, it was because the authorities felt able to control Beta's output by censoring its clients.

"We are not going directly to listeners or to readers. We go to them through media, and [a] news agency has, so to say, [a] secondary role. Maybe, at the same time, the authorities [themselves] wanted to have access to true, objective information."

Markovic says, however, there was no time under the Milosevic regime that she felt certain either she or her increasingly successful -- and therefore increasingly visible -- enterprise would be allowed to survive.

A journalist and editor of nearly 30 years' experience, Markovic was uniquely positioned to know what could be known about a pattern of unpleasant events -- fatal accidents, outright murders, disappearances -- that struck people who displeased Milosevic. She also is a half-sister -- although long-estranged -- of Milosevic's wife and political partner, Mirjana Markovic.

Markovic says she believes she also survived because she was consistently, and openly, opposed to the Yugoslav government's repression. Never a member of Milosevic team, she therefore never was considered a turncoat.

"Those who had the terrible destiny were those who were very close to the regime, working with them. I must say [however], I never felt protected. On the contrary."

But suddenly last week, Milosevic -- the autocrat who had weathered a thousand storms -- acknowledged electoral defeat, and everything in Serbia changed. Markovic says:

"I feel like [a] miracle has happened in Serbia. The most optimistic expectations of what would happen were not enough, could not predict what has really happened in [the] last several days, It is really as if all pieces of a mosaic have come into ideal position."

Beta's director says she remains skeptical about many of her journalistic colleagues, who instantly found new democratic voices after years of being mere conduits for state propaganda. She is especially wary of her old employer, Tanjug, which last week issued a declaration of independence.

"Yes, [but] they have to prove it. They really have to prove it. Up to now, they have completely changed sides, you know, but changing sides...[pause]. What they did until Wednesday (Oct 4), they were applauding Milosevic. From Wednesday on, they are applauding [new Yugoslav President Vojislav] Kostunica. This is not enough. This is not professional at all. They have to prove that they are able to criticize even Kostunica, if he is wrong. And if someone says that Kostunica is wrong, they have to transmit that. I am not sure that they are ready to do it now."

A truly independent Tanjug, of course, would provide real competition for Beta. Markovic recognizes the challenge, but says it comes with a concurrent opportunity. With Western sanctions now being lifted, she expects Serbia's economy to grow and the society to become more open. She also expects a growing international commerce for her agency -- with an explosion of new clients, both from additional media within Serbia and newly interested media elsewhere.

Markovic says Beta plans now to magnify its economic report, which has been necessarily weak in a period of moribund economic activity.

"The economy is the big story coming ahead. And this is something we must have in mind. You know, the first things that will cross borders between the ex-Yugoslav republics are going to be goods."

But Markovic says Beta's leaders do not plan to change their basic working principles of straight news -- only the facts, without attacks or praise. She pauses, then revisits an earlier question: Why did we survive?

"Because we were good," Ljubica Markovic says.

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