11 December 2003, Volume 5, Number 39
THE IMAGE OF AN IRRESPONSIBLE SOCIETY: IS THERE A PUBLIC IN SERBIA FOR SERIOUS MEDIA?
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Rade Radovanovic of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac and Grujica Spasovic, editor in chief of the daily "Danas."
Zarko Korac: The right question for all those representing the media -- like my colleague and friend Gruja -- is whether we have sufficient readers and a large enough audience for the most serious media. Are there enough readers to financially support the so-called serious media [as well as the ubiquitous tabloids]?
...And do we have a serious political elite to support the serious media? ...We still have one newspaper that publishes letters from its readers reflecting...essentially pro-fascist views, although dissemination of such material is banned by law. But nobody cared enough to take them to court.
RFE/RL: Shouldn't the government apply the principle of positive discrimination, aimed at encouraging the values you say are threatened?
Korac: I agree that the line is thin, but people here can tell whether a newspaper is serious or not....
The problem is that the tabloids are mostly antigovernment, and the two biggest tabloids in this country are pronouncedly antigovernment. This is why we risk being accused of applying political pressure on them [if we try to favor the more serious media]. The tabloids would then write to the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE, UN, Commission for Human Rights in Strasbourg, etc., [to claim harassment]. This is why government intervention is not an option.
My suggestion is that the only solution to save those [serious] dailies is for them to become a part of a big media group, which might then want to keep some of them to enhance its own reputation (if they have the sense to do so)....
What we need is a division like in the rest of the world, into the media for the broadest possible public and those very serious media for a more select public. It seems to me that we have a short supply of very serious media....
RFE/RL: A Greek daily was recently ordered to pay $360,000 for slandering a businessman. Of course, I'm not saying that improving the media landscape is the task of the courts and prosecutors. But don't you find, Mr. Korac, this branch of the state insufficiently involved here, at least as far as possible criminal wrongdoing is concerned?
Korac: Public figures in Serbia often refrain from reacting to obvious slander. There is a simple reason for that: our democratization has just started, and many public figures fear that suing somebody or appealing to the pubic information law might be misinterpreted [as an undemocratic attempt to silence the media]....
Some media here have conducted a form of journalistic "lynching" of public figures, but many newspapers pretend not to notice how unfair this is.
We haven't yet accepted one of the main rules of civilization, namely that the biggest power of all is the power over oneself. The most powerful financial group in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- and a media owner, too -- fought a systematic media war against the former government of the Social Democrats there. That financial group is particularly responsible for the Social Democrats' electoral loss [in 2002].
It thus appears that in our region the media are capable of toppling governments. Unfortunately, it seems to me that Serbia is slowly going that way, too. Some media are actually emerging as a very powerful instrument of social change -- in the wrong direction, however.
RFE/RL: Mr. Spasovic?
Grujica Spasovic: Well, I would rather avoid using the expression "lynching." There are many reasons to limit the right to privacy of public figures.
Let me remind you of the case of the late French President Francois Mitterrand. Two things came to light after his death: that he had an illegitimate child and that he had [long had] cancer.
Those were really two very private things. However, there was a public discussion, and the outcome was that France had the right to know that its president was seriously ill, but it didn't need to know about the illegitimate child.
What I am trying to say is that many embarrassing things concerning a politician's private life must become public, because sometimes that information tells us what kind of person he is and whether we should vote for him.
David Binder, a "New York Times" journalist, gave a lecture a couple of days ago here in Belgrade. He spoke about the way to correct a mistake or...a bad and untrue story. "The New York Times" has an entire team [to handle apologies or corrections].
Binder also cited "Danas" as a positive example and cited an apology we had published right after we made a mistake by running an incorrect story....
But people here do not like to apologize and do not do so unless it is publicly demanded by the person in question or their family....
And even though we are a rather moderate and reasonable newspaper, we have 50 lawsuits pending. One wonders what the situation is with papers that do not show the restraint that we do....
Korac: Step by step, we are emerging from our crisis by developing standards, like any other country.... I am an optimist, but I expect it will be a long-term affair, part of the overall process of building a democratic society, democratic institutions, and a democratic public opinion.
RFE/RL: Mr. Spasovic, "Danas" can never be the daily with the highest circulation in Serbia if it stays as it is. But what can it be?
Spasovic: That is correct. Let me remind you once again of the opinion poll I have already mentioned. Our readers belong mainly to the so-called "middle class." They are mostly employed in education, culture, health care, [and] administration (both local and federal)....
They had to pay the price for Milosevic's rule, and the price was their economic ruin, since they were not black marketeers selling oil, cigarettes, etc.
But without those people and their economic role in society, there will be no stable and democratic state. I think that we all agree on this. Once they start feeling more secure and confident and stop having to ask themselves whether they can afford to buy milk or a newspaper, it will be better for those of us who are trying to be serious journalists.