Independent Media in Former Yugoslavia was Discussed in New York City: NEW WORDS FOR GOOD OLD PROPAGANDA

We know it all too well. The role of media in creating and disseminating lies and propaganda as tools for promoting and perpetuating conflict during the 1990s Yugoslav wars of secession is so well documented, that examples of it made it to the textbooks, documentary films, and courts in the Hague. According to Marija Šajkaš, a journalist and media analyst and advocate based in New York City, USA, that was also the time in which independent media in the region was thriving.

“As paradoxical, as this may sound, the period of the late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s is not only marked by the rise of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and his doppelgangers in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. This was also a time in which some media outlets were formed with the mission to promote freedom of expression,” said Šajkaš.  She mentioned the fact that the first independent weekly in the country was Podgorica-based Monitor followed by Belgrade-based Vreme, both registered in 1990. “Since the days of their inception, articles in both outlets were against the war and in support of civil society values,” said Šajkaš, adding that the same principles guided Radio B-92 which was founded 1989.

Speaking at the lecture titled “In War & Peace: Development of Independent Reporting in Countries of Former Yugoslavia” at Columbia University’s East Central European Center last week, Šajkaš said that independent media consistently challenged the war narratives and advanced, accurate reporting during the tragic Yugoslav conflict. For instance, Split-based Feral Tribune was the first to run a full-length investigative story about Croatian army plundering Serbian houses and stores after the operation “Storm.” Sarajevo-based Oslobodjenje and Dani were investigating the treatment of Serbs in the city while the siege was still ongoing. Podgorica based Monitor and Belgrade based Danas and Vreme were among the rare outlets in which people at that time could read about the role of the Yugoslav army in the sieges of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, or about the actions of the Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces.

At the same time, the majority of the media in the war-torn country was manifestly obedient to nationalistic regimes. To understand the relative ease with which they slipped into disseminating fabrications and propaganda, Šajkaš argued about the importance of historical context and the fact that media outlets in the Socialistic Federative Republic of Yugoslavia were not free. “We were not encouraged to investigate wrongs or to act as watchdogs,” said Šajkaš whom herself made first media steps in Socialist Yugoslavia. “If anything, we were told that we are responsible for preserving and advancing socialist political system.”

The audience, mainly consisting out of professors, students and people who lived in Yugoslavia during the 1990s was also eager to discuss the present state of affairs. Professor Tanya Domi of School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who worked as a media expert in the region in the 1990s said that media situation in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro today “Very much resembles the one during and immediately after the wars.”  According to her, one of the main problems is prevailing tabloidization. Šajkaš said that the notion seems accurate, adding that nowadays we have set of the same problems and new words. “Today we say political spin instead of propaganda, and fake news instead of fabrications and lies. In essence, we are talking about the same thing. Unfortunately, we see these characteristics well beyond the Balkans.”

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