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Crisis 1999
Opinions Archive 1999
When Western Television Silences the "Other Serbia"

Nafsika Papanikolatos
Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group - Greece
(30/4/1999, AIM Athens)

In the weeks since the beginning of NATO strikes an overview of major Western media sources leaves one quite uncomfortable by the almost complete or superficial information concerning the consequences of the strikes on Serbia. In contrast, there is an overflow of information on the undoubtedly tragic and unacceptable daily exodus of thousands of Kosovo Albanians who are forced to flee to the neighboring states. This of course is most remarkably noticeable in the electronic media. But television has after all the power to reach and to influence the greatest number of persons and therefore holds the greatest responsibility in making a balanced presentation.

An enticing example was the conspicuous silence about an important event, which reveals the previously authoritarian and, now in war conditions, totalitarian character of the Milosevic regime: the near complete lack of coverage of the sad and disturbing news of Slavko Curuvija's murder outside his home by two men wearing dark clothes and face masks. The murder of the publisher of Dnevni Telegraph, critical of the Milosevic regime, was simply no news for western electronic media on 11 April.

Nonetheless western electronic media do not hesitate to bombard us with voices from Serbia. Voices though which help legitimize in the West the strikes since they present an image of a society drowned by nationalist passions and anti- democratic sentiments. Belgraders are shown merely in a naive frenzy of patriotic singing and dancing every night in the Square of the Republic while Serbia appears to be a homogenous society, with no individuals, no opposition, and no democratic rights' culture. At the same time, while the large majority of the Serbian population ignores the existence of Kosovo Albanian refugees being displaced by the thousands daily, Western audiences have rarely been informed on the tens of thousands of Serb refugees, who were forced to leave because their relations with the regime were already difficult and now in a state of war have become impossible or those who happen to live near possible targets.

Western electronic media has also ignored half a dozen statements made by representatives of civil society. Their statements are distributed through Internet, the last resource they have to communicate to the West, and never seem to reach any western electronic media, since they do not conform to the logic of a homogeneous Serb society embroiled in its nationalist passions and ethnic cleansing projects. Thus the western audiences have little possibility to find out about the other Serbia which struggled for at least the last ten years against the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. "In the long run", as a prominent representative of the human rights movement in Belgrade explains, "the biggest collateral damage will be the shattered possibilities for democracy in Serbia. The air strikes erased in one night the results of ten years of hard work of groups of courageous people in the non-governmental organizations and in the democratic opposition, who have not tried to "topple" anyone but to develop the institutions of civil society, to promote liberal and civic values, to teach non-violent conflict resolution."

On 6 April seventeen Belgrade NGOs issued a statement. It recalled their courageous struggle both against war and nationalist propaganda, their support of human rights, their struggle against the repression of Kosovo Albanians, the necessity to respect their liberties and guarantees for their rights, and the return of autonomy of Kosovo. They also stressed that only through civil society institutions any connection and cooperation was ever preserved between Albanians and Serbs. And, now all this has been undermined by NATO military action, endangering the very survival of the civil sector in Serbia. They made suggestions for stopping the war and establishing conditions for the resumption of the democratic process that was underway. An appeal was made to the Serb and also to the international media to inform the public in a professional manner and not spur media war, incite interethnic hatred, create irrational public opinion and glorify force as the ultimate accomplishment of the human mind. On 16 April, we another statement signed by twenty-seven democratically minded intellectuals from Serbia asked that civility prevails. It mentioned ethnic cleansing, the displacement of Albanians from Kosovo, Kosovo Liberation Army's violence that is targeted against Serbs, moderate Albanians and other ethnic communities in Kosovo, the destruction of the economic and cultural foundations of Yugoslav society, the destabilization of Southern Balkans, the reinforcement of the regime by NATO attacks, the weakening of the democratic forces in Serbia and the threats against the reformist government of Montenegro. With the exception of a few Western newspapers, these courageous and very meaningful texts went unnoticed. A false impression has thus been created that there is no civil society and no critics of the regime left in Serbia which is misleading the western audiences and hiding a possible democratic and anti-nationalist alternative for the Serbs themselves.

Those journalists and activists that the West was heralding before but has now forgotten feel almost betrayed by the international community, which is shaped so decisively by the dominant electronic media. If only to confirm these fears of Western censorship, the Serb NGOs (20 this time) alerted international community on 26 April that they may lose their only link with the West, the Internet connection. Their statement is eloquent.

"We, the representatives of the Yugoslav civil society, coming together to protest NATO bombing and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia now have to deal with another problem that could uncouple us from the world and practically forbid our free expression and dissent. One threat is coming from Yugoslav government agencies and the controlled domestic INTERNET providers. For them it is important to shut up all independent voices for which reason they banned the radio B92 and put under control other independent media. For NATO it appears important to cut off all dissenting people and groups from Yugoslavia in order to maintain the image of Yugoslav society as if it is totally controlled by Milosevic regime and made only of extreme nationalists who deserve punishment by bombs. For us who are long time activists of human rights, minority rights, union rights, free press rights, women rights, peace and democracy activists, it is vital to maintain Internet connection to the world in order to get information and communicate with people about our situation. We are using INTERNET with respect to the netiquette and urge all Yugoslav users to avoid hostile and insulting vocabulary. We also pledge to all our international contact people to exercise their influence on INTERNET public opinion to avoid aggressive language and hatespeech in correspondences to people in Yugoslavia.


If international electronic media want to truly stand up to the freedom it enjoys it must turn its eyes and its ears to these voices. And if we really want a democratic Yugoslavia because we want a democratic Europe it is about time that we use every means that democratic societies provide us with to support the democratic voices of Yugoslavia, without which there cannot be a future for democracy in Kosovo, in Serbia or, possibly, anywhere else in the Balkans.

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