AIM: start

WED, 02 JAN 2002 01:28:36 GMT

The Media and Politics

Journalism of Cheap Sensationalism

Journalist have thrown the door open to politicians, let them into editorial offices, allowed them to run the papers so that now they have nothing to complain about, not even when they are being brought in by the police for questioning or when provision of Milosevic's laws are applied to them.

AIM Belgrade, December 18, 2001

The journalists are to blame. When the village headman of the Serbian politics, Velimir Ilic (leader of the New Serbia) beats them up; when they are brought in by the police for questioning for writing about policemen wanted by the Hague; when they are refuted and threatened; when politicians drag them through courts; when they are dismissed or prevented from becoming editors of major state media; or when provision of Milosevic's laws apply to them.

There is more of this, naturally, but further listing is unnecessary, among other things, because the short introduction to this text explains it all - journalists are truly the ones to blame. And whereas during Milosevic's time this sentence was a cynical reproduction of a slogan by those in power, today, in post-Milosevic's Serbia, it is unfortunately, just a hard and undeniable fact. Journalists are to blame and we shall see why.

Let us start with some benign examples. In early December, wanting to raise its circulation, one of the newly-created newspapers carried a first-rate sensation on its front page in capital letters and with the usual exclamation mark - according to this paper the conflict in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) would be resolved by Milan Milutinovic's, President of Serbia, dissolving the Assembly and calling new elections! Before this piece of news was published, no one in this editorial office, from journalists to editor of the domestic-politics section, desk chief and editor-in-chief knew a very simple fact that is written in the Serbian Constitution: President of Serbia can dissolve the Assembly, but only on the Government's proposal. Had they known, they would have not printed anything since the President of the Serbian Government is Zoran Djindjic, one of those who are in conflict within the DOS, who doesn't have any intention of dissolving the Assembly (in which he has the majority) or calling the new elections.

That was for starters. The Serbian newspapers (the media) publish all sorts of things, totally unaware of what they are doing, without checking their sources or feeling any responsibility for their own work. Opposite of them are Serbian politicians, to whom these same words apply in describing what they do and how they see journalists and newspapers. Together, they both produce stupidities which unpunished, to put it mildly, poison the Serbian public opinion by feeding it half-truths, misinformation, mostly depending on the centres of power they work for.

It is common knowledge that Zoran Djindjic's stream is more influential in the media, primarily the electronic ones, whereas, at the same time, it is nothing unusual for an editor to be appointed in "The Politika", for example, at the insistence of Kostunica's office; and no one is surprised by the fact that "Nedeljni Telegraf" (Weekly Telegraph) is openly closer to Djindjic and "Blic News" to Kostunica. The result of this influence is a recognisable chaos. For example, without checking anything, "The Blic" (The Blitz) ran a story that the murdered protagonist of one of the greatest post-Milosevic affairs, one Gavrilovic, a former State Security agent, was killed several hours after he left Kostunica's Cabinet where he had given both the President and his staff 'written proof" about Serbian Government's connections with the Serbian mafia.

The whole problem was in the fact that Gavrilovic had visited Kostunica, more precisely his advisors, but without leaving any proof in either written or any other form. As far as "The Blitz" was concerned, someone in that paper didn't care to make a few phone calls. That much was needed to get a first-rate sensation about the murder of a man who just came out of President's office, without the unnecessary, incorrect additions which reduced the whole story to a mere manipulation.

Naturally, "Weekly Telegraph" reacted with even more fantastic story about Kostunica secretly preparing a military coup. Leaving the nonsense about "secret preparations" aside - as if military coups can be prepared openly - this story was totally in contravention of basic journalistic principles: to check and talk with all protagonists of a story.

Papers, which should (at least publicly) act as sophisticated and serious, also succumbed to the epidemic of cheap sensationalism. The Belgrade edition of the Banjaluka "Reporter" plunged into (in the style of "Telegraph" and "The Blitz") a scandal about policemen for which "the Hague was interested". This paper published a list of policemen (362 names), but to this very day no one knows what was kind of list was actually in question. Reporter's front page published the following bloc: "Exclusive - The Tribunal's List: 362 POLICEMEN ON THE HAGUE LIST", and inside the paper a text entitled "Djindjic and Kostunica Too?" which did not mention the list but the crushing of a rebellion of Special Operations Unit of the Serbian MUP State Security Service. The text only referred to the list stating that "red berets" (the usual name for members of the mentioned unit) might easily get on a list similar to the one published by "Reporter".

Immediately after that "Reporter" published a list with an even more strange editorial comment. A part of the list was given under a subtitle: "A list of persons on whom materials on possibly committed crime are being collected-MUP Serbia", whereas the other part was given under a subtitle which literally read: "List of witnesses/suspects-proven participants in the operations of the Serbian MUP in Kosovo". One might add: if anyone can understand any of this. Later on, even the Hague denied that the names on the list were of the indicted persons, so that now some policemen who had been wounded in Kosovo and whose names were also on that list, are suing "Reporter".

Had "Reporter" checked the story, had it taken the statements from various sources and contacted the Serbian MUP and Government in order to obtain their interpretation of the list, in other words, had it prepared the story as it should be done according to rules of journalism, there would have been no scandal, at least none with the newspapers and journalists and Serbian Minister of Police Dusan Mihajlovic would have been spared the shame of giving distasteful statements, such as the one that "journalists think him stupid", which he repeated at various press conferences in an attempt to explain why were the author of the text and Reporter's editor brought in by the police for questioning.

What is especially horrid in this whole story, apart from the grief that every admirer of journalistic profession must feel when faced with such amateurism in the Serbian media, is that in all the mentioned cases editorial offices received information from one of the opposed headquarters, i.e. partly from Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia and partly from the Democratic Party and the rest of the DOS, favouring Zoran Djindjic.

In other words, journalist have thrown the door open to politicians, let them into their editorial offices, allowed them to run the papers and now truly have nothing to complain of. Not even when the village headman, Velja Ilic tries to beat them. Anyway, the title of the text why Velja Ilic raised his fist against a journalist read: "Velja Ilic's Cypriot partners members of the largest tobacco mafia in Europe?"

Another example of ignorance. One of the oldest journalistic rules says - never put a question mark in the title. Simply because you either know something or do not know. If you do not know, why write about it. And why print newspapers and claim to be a journalist. Go and do something else or stop complaining. It's your own fault.

Ivan Radovanovic