December 17, 2000
BELGRADE, Serbia, Dec. 16 - Bombed by NATO during the Kosovo war and then burned by pro-democracy demonstrators, Serbia's state television and radio network remains an enormous prize for the new authorities as they work toward consolidating power in elections for a new Serbian government on Dec. 23.
How they handle the bloated and degraded network is also a test of whether the new leaders, and the journalists themselves, can really break with the authoritarian past.
Initial signs are discouraging. The new leaders, gathered in a broad 18- party coalition still known as the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS, have applied considerable political pressure on the temporary managers of the broadcasting empire. In general, even without the obvious abuses of the past, the journalists have slipped easily into being cheerleaders for the new democrats.
Along with the police and the army, state television was considered an essential pillar of Slobodan Milosevic's 13-year rule. Its newscasts glorified the government, smeared the opposition, demonized the West, distorted facts and history and helped inspire Serbs to patriotism, paranoia, nationalism, conquest and war crimes against their neighbors.
The network, owned by the government of Serbia and known by its initials, RTS, was among the first targets of the demonstrators who pushed Vojislav Kostunica into power. On Oct. 5, the downtown studios were seized and burned and the network's director, Dragoljub Milanovic, was nearly beaten to death.
About 9 p.m., with the police capitulating and army troops remaining in their barracks, it was on Serbian state television that Mr. Kostunica wanted to show his face, to symbolize that he and his allies were now in charge. He was driven to a suburban studio with a handpicked interviewer, cameraman and editor. His words were not especially memorable, but for many Serbs his appearance was the real confirmation that Mr. Milosevic's power had crumbled.
The overstaffed, underequipped and much derided network is an emblem of who is in charge in Serbia, and how much ó or how little ó has changed.
"RTS represents not just a media problem but a problem of the whole society," said Snjezana Milivojevic, who has studied RTS for over a decade. "We need a new legal and moral framework, with institutional guarantees, to ensure that the last 10 years can never happen again."
Ms. Milivojevic, who is on a panel compiling new media regulations, said the future of the media in Yugoslavia would depend on the way RTS reorganized. But despite talk in the first days of the revolution about a "new" RTS ó democratic, open and free from undue political influence ó the new leaders seem reluctant to allow much independence.
They have provided political advice and instructions on what to cover and whom to invite from the very first night, Oct. 5, said Gordana Susa, the acting editor in chief of news at RTS. She heads an independent television production company and is president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia.
"Some leaders of the opposition act in the old way and want to put everything under their control," Ms. Susa said. "Every day there is pressure from the political parties."
The open pressure is especially troubling, Ms. Susa said, because the network's employees are so accustomed to toadying to power and so frightened for their jobs that they would favor the new authorities without even being asked. In the meantime, she admits, the news is awful: boring, predictable and uncritical.
Zarko Korac, leader of a party in the coalition that unseated Mr. Milosevic, said the television presented "a Darwinian problem of natural selection." Current employees "can't think and just follow political instructions ó they couldn't make good programs even if they wanted to."
Milivoje Mihajlovic, who worked for RTS, said it remained Serbia's worst television. "It's obvious they still work in the same way. They've just changed their master."
The problems are similar at Politika, the once respected state newspaper that became a mouthpiece for Mr. Milosevic. "Of course people in RTS and Politika do what they are used to doing," said Aleksandar Nenadovic, 72, who was fired as Politika's editor by Tito, Yugoslavia's Communist ruler for 35 years. "It's a function of the level of political evolution here. Everything is in ruins, so everyone is trying to reserve a place for themselves, and with the elections it's crucial to maintain control."
Ms. Susa said the problems stemmed in part from the appointment of Nenad Ristic as acting director. Mr. Ristic, 60, ran RTS from 1985 to 1990 and then moved, under political pressure, to producing harmless shows, he said, about "ecology, bugs and insects."
Ms. Susa said, "DOS called an old man to be the new general manager who accepts all their requests." The station's crisis committee, acting like a temporary management board, has fired him four times, but "each time," she said, "DOS tells them to calm down and not create chaos" before the elections.
The new authorities also put pressure on RTS to stop a documentary about the way the station had been used to foment war and hatred, and then urged that further segments be shown late at night. "It was DOS's first effort to censor us," Ms. Susa said.
Mr. Ristic says he is doing his best with a bad situation. He has brought key editors back from 1990 and urged about 60 people, editors and prominent reporters most associated with the old regime, not to come to work "for their own safety." He has banned well-known faces from the air. He has also stopped stealing new movies and television shows without benefit of copyright. The result has been a run of cheap talk shows, films from the 1930's and archival material.
As for the news, Mr. Ristic said, "there is slavishness, and it's true that DOS gets most of the airtime." As the election nears, with other parties more active, there has been some improvement in balance.
Mr. Ristic is presiding over a damaged, sick elephant built for a much larger and differently run country, Tito's Yugoslavia, with three state television channels and numerous radio stations. The equipment is old, most of it dating from the late 1970's and 1980's.
RTS currently has 8,018 employees on its books, Mr. Ristic said ó twice as many as CNN employs worldwide. While salaries for all but the loftiest were meager ó between 2,000 and 3,000 dinars a month, about $33 to $50 ó RTS had become a kind of social welfare agency for journalists too untalented or afraid to seek work elsewhere.
Caught between a vague desire to modernize and a stronger wish to avoid violence, Mr. Ristic seems reluctant to let go even the most incompetent or compromised journalists.
"The first night we agreed there would be no revenge" against those who served Mr. Milosevic, Mr. Ristic said. "Most journalists here felt they had to do it. They didn't do it because they believed in it."
But Mr. Mihajlovic says that too many journalists were working for the Milosevic regime, and journalists must take responsibility for their own profession. "We have a dirty yard, and someone has to clean it. It would be better if journalists did, to teach people not to let it happen again. I think there is already too much forgiveness."
Mr. Mihajlovic was an editor at Radio Pristina, and says there was both censorship and self-censorship. He has been asked to return to work in nearby Prokuplje to help cover Kosovo. "They said to me, `You were kicked out, you were not theirs.' But I said: `I have to be honest. I worked as honestly as I could, but I was their editor. I don't have the moral right to pretend otherwise. I stayed. I needed the money to feed my family. I know I have to pay for that in one way or another.' "
Mr. Mihajlovic's candor is rare.
Ruzica Vranjkovic, 35, was an editor of the last evening news while covering energy. She still covers energy, but she is not allowed to have her face on television. "It's silly," she said, but doesn't argue. "Everything's unsettled, and there's a lot of fear.People treated it like a job. It was hard to stay, but I worked to live."
Ms. Milivojevic, the media critic, said that journalists must be held to professional account for falsifying news and history and fomenting conflict. She and Ms. Susa agree that RTS must be taken away from the government, and politicians should not serve on its board. They feel one channel should be a public service news channel, the second more commercial and the third should be privatized.
But it is not clear that the new Serbian government will go along. Even Mr. Kostunica has decided to keep open the federal television, YU- Info, started less than two years ago by Mr. Milosevic and his Information Minister, Goran Matic. New top editors will be named by the parties in the ruling coalition, just as in the past.
"The crisis in journalism is similar to the crisis in the judiciary and the universities and other institutions," Ms. Milivojevic said. Even after 10 years of writing about RTS, "I was shocked when the doors finally opened at how old, unprofessional and poor the whole thing was ó it was like a virtual reality, a cover for a regime that had rotted from within."