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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Media on message

Serbian TV's message depends on the political mood. With a diplomatic opening, anti-Western rhetoric cools. But the solidarity for China knows no bounds.

By a journalist in Belgrade

Television has long been the most powerful medium in Serbia. During the past month and a half of war, it has also proved to be the most vulnerable. NATO bombing, the destruction of transmitters and intermittent electricity supplies have taken most television stations off the air, if not permanently, then at least for several hours at a time. The largest television stations, with many studios and large numbers of employees, have fared the worst.

Since the Aberdareva Street headquarters of Radio Television Serbia was bombed, most of the station's employees have been on enforced vacations. News broadcasts are now prepared in several different locations in improvised studios. The first, second and third channels of state television have effectively ceased broadcasting. However, state television's flagship evening news programme still goes out at the usual time on private stations linked to the regime, such as Studio B, Palma, Pink, and Art, though these stations also now broadcast with weakened signals.

State television continues to broadcast via satellite, but only the minority who possess the necessary dishes can watch it. Nevertheless, according to the television supplement of the official daily Politika, the crews of the Radio Television Serbia are the "only ones with an exclusive right to record current events and the effects of the criminal bombing of NATO forces". The news invariably reflect the message which the state wish to convey to the population. In the past two weeks, the diplomatic initiatives of Russian special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin and prospects of a negotiated settlement have merited special attention. Before Saturday's bombing of the Chinese embassy, news readers had begun to moderate or omit many of the abusive names used to describe leading Western statesmen and NATO officials. At the same time, the vitriol aimed at opposition leaders, in particular Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Obradovic, has been increased, which, many analysts believe, may be a harbinger of things to come.

Leaving prime-time news to state television, the remaining private municipal and local stations focus on entertainment, in an attempt to help their viewers get through the hours of bombing. After 10:00 PM, they broadcast films and series, most of which come from the United States and South America. Most of the films are pirated recent productions portraying the violent reality of American society, corruption among politicians, the influence of the Mafia and the moral bankruptcy of the West. In addition to criminal and political thrillers, stations broadcast many hours of comedy and South American soaps, such as the popular Kasandra, which is devoid of any political content--an apparent attempt to distract viewers from the reality around them. Television Politika specialises in children's programming, screening cartoons from the early morning until late at night.

A special curiosity is the 24-hour re- broadcasting of the Chinese news and entertainment satellite station CCTV-4 on TV Kosava, a private station owned by Marija Milosevic, the daughter of the Yugoslav president. The station halted regular programming after NATO bombing destroyed the building housing its offices and studio. The Chinese re-broadcasts began before the embassy bombing and clearly indicated where the sympathies of the Yugoslav state leadership lie, as well as perhaps their political and state role models. However, it is interesting that this Chinese programme with a lot of sharp commercials and slick music actually comes across as pro-Western, with news broadcasts modelled on European and American stations.

Special NATO bombs which are designed to short- circuit Serbia's high-voltage power network have cut electricity supplies and made all forms of mass communication difficult. Much of Serbia regularly finds itself without electricity, and hence without television. Radio stations have proved more resilient. As a result, portable radios have become more important than television sets. Since the celebrated independent station B- 92 was banned and taken over by the regime, the most listened to station in Belgrade has been Radio Pancevo, whose broadcasts, even in the current conditions, remain informative, rather than propagandistic.

The author is an independent journalist in Belgrade.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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