21 August 2003, Volume
MEDIA KINGS FOREVER
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg with Jovanka Matic, media researcher for the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences, and Besim Spahic, head of the Journalism Department at the School of Political Sciences of Sarajevo University.
Some government officials in Serbia complain that the media are irresponsible, writing rubbish and fabrications, particularly about the government. Mrs. Matic, are those allegations true?
There are really good reasons to criticize the professional level of journalism in Serbia. It has not gotten any better since the time of the great repression [under former President Slobodan Milosevic], when conditions were particularly bad for the media.
Those days are over, but the level of professionalism is still very low. The easiest thing to do is to blame the journalists, but they are not the only ones responsible.
We must bear in mind their working conditions, which are very difficult. They have no financial stability whatsoever, and chances for any improvement are slim. The situation with the electronic media is chaotic since Serbia has a record number of radio and TV stations, and some of them have no license for broadcasting. One can scarcely say how many stations broadcast at this particular moment in Serbia.
The situation with the print media is not much better. The purchasing power of the population and income from advertising are limited, which is the reason why many newspapers can barely survive.
Investigative journalism has practically vanished, and that is a major problem. I remember the '80s when the media were relatively autonomous, with great journalistic names, and when some breakthroughs were achieved. The journalists were educated, and many of them were real specialists in their fields, as well as great professionals.
That simply does not exist in today's journalism. People who work for the media are journalists without any field of specialization, because today's media offer no opportunity for that.
Can we say that the media in the '80s in former Yugoslavia were better than what we have now?
I think so. During the '80s, the communist regime was losing its bite. That allowed me to write and publish things that would have cost me my chair as a professor 10 years before.
Today it is very dangerous to do investigative writing. Many journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been threatened or targeted for violence. Cars have been bombed, and some journalists have even been killed. Of course the journalists are afraid -- and hence criticize mainly people from the opposite camp.
Journalism here centers on a doctrine according to which journalists must write in accordance with the so-called vital interests of the nation they belong to, and those interests are prescribed by the political elite. Of course, those belonging to the elite live in luxury houses with swimming pools -- very often built without a permit -- while the rest of us haven't a single public swimming pool in our canton.
The profession of journalism suffered badly during the war. Many journalists were warmongers, and only a few of them have since disappeared. The rest of them are still there. They are not warmongers anymore but still serve special interests. Mr. Spahic, do you share my impression?
Yes, there are too many of them, and I think that they are still unaware of the consequences of what they did during the war.
When a surgeon makes a mistake, his patient dies -- but when an editor or a newspaper or a broadcasting station delude hundreds of thousands, the consequences are catastrophic.
Those media people had very comfortable positions in former Yugoslavia. They were ready to do anything that the [communist] system demanded, and then they turned into fervent nationalists.
Once the war was over and national fervor diminished, they started justifying themselves: "You know, that's the way it was back then." They are typical chameleons; we have so many of them in politics today....
Of course, people like that exist in Serbian journalism, too. The biggest mistake in professional journalism in Serbia is that we failed to carry out a lustration process among the journalists....
The warmongers were prominent figures, and everybody knew them. But there were also many who remained silent. Now the silent ones say that they simply did their job, and when times changed, they were able to write differently. Your comment.
Now they simply say that they were behaving like professionals. This is disgraceful, since it explains what they understand by journalism. For them, journalism should serve the ruling ideology.
To be a journalist and remain silent, to know information and not publish it, to serve special interests -- that has nothing to do with professional ethics, [but few have had to pay a price for violating those ethics]....
What took place here is national and religious self-indulgence, which is what I call the phenomena in my book "How the Peoples in Former Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina Marketed Themselves."
Those involved think like this: Whatever I do, the nation will forgive me. We plundered, but they plundered more. It is true that we killed, but they killed even more. Whatever differences there are [between ethnic or religious groups] should be magnified.
The three peoples in Bosnia-Herzegovina share this same mental matrix. I am absolutely sure that we are one people, one nation, one entity, speaking the same language but lying to ourselves....
[A special case is that of people in mixed marriages, which] perhaps were the guarantors of democratization. They simply do not exist anymore, as far as public documents are concerned. Some even call them "frustrated bastards from mixed marriages," which once accounted for 30 percent of all marriages in Bosnia-Herzegovina....
The rationalization process exists in Serbia, too. People who served Milosevic now say, "Well, maybe we lied a bit on behalf of one side, but others lied for the other side, too, so what is the difference?"
...There is a general reluctance to face up to what was done. Let me give you an example. A very interesting book was published a year ago, "'Politika' and Politics." The author is Miodrag Marovic, who worked for the famous Belgrade daily "Politika" for many years. The book deals with landmarks in the paper's history and how the government tried since 1971 to influence the daily. A large part of the book is devoted to the wars [of the 1990s] and how "Politika" behaved. When Mr. Marovic offered his book to his own publishers for publication, they refused.
Mr. Spahic, is the press in Bosnia-Herzegovina free?
Yes, but it is also uncontrolled. The point is not just that everybody can slander everybody else. That sort of freedom of the press makes me afraid. I am also afraid that some media have taken the liberty of trying to shape human destinies.
I would say that the democratic segment of the Serbian public has won its fight for the freedom of the press. It was a long and difficult fight, but they finally made it.
However, freedom of the press is taking shape under very difficult conditions, within a chaotic media landscape that does not provide conditions for the development of independent media.