bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
 
The media's unfinest hour
by Gordana Knezevic

The media's unfinest hour

Neven Andjelic, Bosnia-Herzegovina: the end of a legacy, Frank Cass, London 2003

Kemal Kurspahic, Prime Time Crime: Balkan media in war and peace, USIP, Washington DC 2003

 

Reviewed by Gordana Knezevic

 

 

Bosnian director Danis Tanovic was in Toronto not too long ago promoting his film No Man's Land, just prior to winning the Oscar for best foreign film of the year.  At the press conference, one of the questions put to him by the assembled journalists was: 'Your movie does not blame any particular side for starting the war, and yet it is all about the war. Why is that so?'   'Well, if by now (summer 2001) there is someone out there who doesn't know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, even my movie would be unable to help them.'   In a way Neven Andjelic, the author of Bosnia-Herzegovina: the end of a legacy, belongs to that group of people whom even Tanovic's movie could not help to understand the events in his own country.

 

No Neven's Land

A former Bosnian journalist and founding member of the Green Party in Bosnia just before the war broke out, Andjelic  gives the impression that he has done his 'homework' in the sense of having thoroughly researched the political, social and media environment, looking for the local circumstances that led to the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.     The central idea of his book is that little internal fires, with some stirring up from outside, mainly from Serbia and Croatia, flared up into the major conflagration which he terms a 'civil war'.

 

Having myself been a reporter on the major wartime events in Sarajevo between 1992 and 1994, I never experienced a 'civil war', since for most of the time it was a war against civilians. It started as a one-sided slaughter that eventually left over ten thousand Sarajevans dead.  Neven Andjelic may have known many of the victims by name. He may know the names of their children, their favorite coffee shops and which newspaper they were most likely to pick up from the diversity of media in pre-war Bosnia.

 

In a civil war, different political factions, backed by armed militias, fight for power within a certain country. In Bosnia one side, the Bosnian Serbs, backed by the Yugoslav Army, was fighting to eradicate the existence of Bosnia as a state. If that was not aggression, how else would we define what aggression is?   However in his opening pages Andjelic opposes the arguments of 'some academics' regarding this clear case of aggression perpetrated by Serbia against Bosnia-Herzegovina. (p.12). To counter their arguments, Andjelic goes for the most obvious 'suspect' as the real cause of war: the totalitarian former regime. But unfortunately the regime was not sufficiently totalitarian to prove his point.   As he has to admit, 'the nature of Yugoslav socialism was significantly different from socialism in the rest of Eastern Europe'.  And he goes on to state that it was a soft communism, 'supported by the majority within all ethnic groups', who may not have been oppressed as much as was necessary to start a war. 

 

Since oppression does not play well as the cause of the conflict, therefore, Anpeliƒ moves on to blame democracy! It was the end of the one-party system that made it possible for nationalists to take over the political stage and wage the war. In developing this argument Andjelic points to the chronology of events, making it clear that of the three major Bosnian ethnic groups the Serbs were the last to register their ethnic party. Are they then the least to blame? It appears as if the Serbs were only following the example offered by Muslims and Croats, who were the first to register their parties in the early 90s. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic used to use the same argument in most of his speeches, and it worked well among fellow Serbs who were easily persuaded that they were 'defending their existence in Bosnia'. What is wrong with this argument?  It was not a 'war of words' that was to start as soon as all three national parties had been registered. Ahead of any public move to register the Serb party (SDS), the Yugoslav Army was secretly handing out weapons to Serbs in rural areas of Bosnia. The fact that formal registration of the SDS was delayed in Bosnia was related to Belgrade's strategy of exploiting the image of 'victimized Serbs', 'threatened by other ethnic groups', since this was the key to a successful mobilization of the wider population in Serbia and in Serb-populated parts of Bosnia.

 

Selective memory

In reality, Yugoslavia could have survived the expression of any nationalism other than Serb nationalism. In any multi-ethnic society, the nationalism of the most numerous group is most destructive and insurmountable. Andjelic blames the communists for opposing any form of nationalism; but he does not hesitate to adopt the communist dogma that every nationalism is equally dangerous. The fact of Bosnian life was that the creation of Muslim and Croat national parties was not devastating - it was merely bad taste. Neither of them had a military wing. The really dangerous development was the formation of the SDS, since half of Bosnia was already under the control of the Yugoslav Army and the idea of a Greater Serbia had already been revived by Miloševic and his generals.

 

In his analysis of events in Bosnia in the decade preceding the war, Anpeliƒ looks at media expressions, press releases from insignificant parties, employment figures, strikes - but he omits to glance at the mountains around Sarajevo. He downplays the role of the Army, which had already withdrawn from Slovenia and Croatia and had not gone back to Serbia, but instead had redeployed in Bosnia. Sarajevo was besieged by the Yugoslav Army with at least ten thousand artillery pieces, which were moved into position on the outskirts of the Bosnian capital several months before the first shots were fired in front of the Parliament building on 6 April 1992.

 

Discussing the last good years of Yugoslavia, Andjelic cannot avoid mentioning federal prime minister Ante Markovic: quoting a sentence from a movie of the time, he says that 'even heroin was cheap' while Markovic was in office. How strange that he should point out such a bizarre and anecdotal detail, that may or may not be accurate, without sparing the time to elaborate on the relentless opposition to Markovic's reforms - except for noting that Serbia, soon joined by Slovenia and Croatia, 'objected' to his monetary policy. It was Markovic's monetary policy that created improved conditions for exporting companies and resulted in rising salaries in most of the country.  In contrast to the overcast, concerned faces of federal politicians of an earlier era, for the first time Yugoslavia had a smiling prime minister, who also happened to be a very capable economist; and Andjelic should know by now that it was Miloševic who pushed him out of office, since the 'better life' promised by Markovic was not on the Serbian leader's agenda.

 

The good thing from the author's point of view is that his book ends at the point at which the war begins, since it is then easy to imagine that the genocide that he would have been obliged to deal with would look like a suicide; since he would have reminded us once again that the Muslims formed their national party ahead of the Serbs - and somehow by doing so contributed to their own tragedy.

 

Blame the victim!

Anpelic devotes a lot of pages of his book to documenting the scandals that undermined the one-party system and changed the social environment in the republic reputed to be the 'most dogmatic'. He outlines the details of the 'Agrokomerc' story which exploded in 1987, but does not go beyond quoting the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and documents published by the federal newspaper Borba, as proof that the action taken against 'Agrokomerc' and its general manager Fikret Abdic was legitimate.

 

Anpelic gives a selective account of the affair. He fails to mention such suspicious circumstances as the fact that the journalist who broke the story in Borba committed suicide. He does not say that the real target of the 'Agrokomerc' affair was Hamdija Pozderac, who headed the powerful federal committee for constitutional change. Miloševic wanted to change the constitution and annul the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina. That could not be carried through with a politician who had the integrity and background of Pozderac.

 

Andjelic is again resorting to chronology in order to dismiss any argument that Miloševic may have been pushing the buttons in the investigation of 'Agrokomerc'.

'The timetable of events tells a completely different story. Fikret Abdic was sacked from the ranks of the Central Committee of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the meeting that took place on 19 September 1987; the notorious eighth session of Serbian Central Committee happened four days later. It was not until that session that Miloševic took complete control of events in Serbia.' ( p. 60)   Andjelic obviously has not consulted the records of the International Tribunal for Crimes in Former Yugoslavia, where he could have found the evidence of a protected witness, an agent of the Yugoslav secret police, who testified that he was sent to get a job as an interpreter at 'Agrokomerc' in advance of the scandal and to find out 'all about Fikret Abdic'.

 

  It was not so strange that financial misconduct was discovered at 'Agrokomerc', since most large companies in Yugoslavia were using the system to their advantage. It was not strange that Fikret Abdic was declared responsible. But the fact that the production lines of 'Agrokomerc' were left without electricity, and that a successful food-exporting industry was left to gather dust in ruins, was very unusual.  After serving his prison sentence Fikret Abdic became a leading politician, winning a majority of the votes in the first free elections in Bosnia; but he never took a leading role in the Presidency. He went back to Velika Kladuša, the headquarters of his former company. But when president Izetbegovic was taken hostage by the Serbs in May 1992, Abdic did resurface - in the Bosnian TV building - ready to remind the voters that he was the one who should have led the country.   However, he never got a chance to read his speech: Izetbegovic was released and Abdic left Sarajevo in mysterious circumstances.   Later on he negotiated with both Miloševic and Tudjman, and with their military support he fought against the Bosnian Army's Fifth Corps in the Krajina region of western Bosnia.  It was only in this Krajina region that we may have seen elements of civil war, whereas in the rest of Bosnia it was a clear case of aggression from Serbia. Departing from his favorite argument - chronology - Andjelic fails to tell us that Miloševic did change the Yugoslav constitution and abolish the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina immediately after the resignation of Hamdija Pozderac. The latter's sudden and unexplained death in a Belgrade hospital is not mentioned either in Andjelic's book.

 

In his conclusion Andjelic says that financial scandals and cases of misuse of power caused a flood of resignations and the sacking of top officials, 'which coincided with Miloševic's rise but were not connected.' A claim that he feels requires no substantiation. How does he know that there was no connection?  'Once society in Bosnia-Herzegovina became totally divided on an ethnic basis, with the exception of only a few major urban centres, neighbouring politicians felt invited to join the struggle for more ethnic space', he says in his final sentence. Lord Owen would agree with him, as would Miloševic's lawyers. That is exactly what they would like the war in Bosnia to look like: merely a struggle for more ethnic space; or 'a tragedy for which there was no remedy', since 'each ethnic group needed more space'? Andjelic would like the war to look like an earthquake, as inevitable as it was natural, since this is a safe way of erasing the responsibility of the main players and of the international community. But this could not be farther from the truth.

 

Professionalism versus Nationalism

 

Searching for the truth is not exactly an obsession in the Balkans, and it is hard to imagine a book on the media that might have an audience in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Each country has its own narrative about the war, and its own reasons to suspect that whatever comes from the neighbouring countries should be dismissed as propaganda. One new book, Prime Time Crime by Kemal Kurspahic, may not be liked by nationalists, but it cannot be dismissed. Published simultaneously in English and Bosnian, Kurspahic's, book was promoted in the capitals of all three countries: in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo. What may have been recognized in all three places is the fact that Kurspahic is a unique witness: himself the editor-in-chief of Oslobodjenje during the most turbulent years before and during the war; in touch with other editors and journalists in what was Yugoslavia in the late 80s and early 90s; facing the same dilemmas, but standing in the eye of the storm when compared with his colleagues in Zagreb and Belgrade.  The nationalists may dislike his account of events, but they cannot object to the integrity of the author, since Kurspahic did not change his editorial line and did not withdraw his support for a multi-ethnic society even when the building of his newspaper was shelled to bits and members of his staff were killed and wounded.

 

Having myself been a member of the Oslobodjenje wartime editorial board, I did not expect to find a lot of facts that were new to me in Kurspahic's book, but I was wrong. Kurspahic had personal contacts with most editors and influential journalists in the former Yugoslavia, and he tells an extraordinary story of the media's readily shifting loyalties, diverging from professionalism and moving to defend The Nation. He provides a colourful picture of the media jumping from the communist pan into the nationalist fire.

 

Kurspahic describes in detail how Miloševic took control of the media and built up a propaganda machine of which Goebbels would have been proud. But individual journalists did have a choice. At the time during the late 80s when the media war between Belgrade and Zagreb was turning most news-rooms into war-rooms, two editors featured in Kurspahic's book maintained their integrity and persistently put professionalism ahead of their nation. The two in question are Stanislav Staša Marinkovic of the Belgrade daily Borba and Joško Kulušic of the Split (Croatia) daily Slobodna Dalmacija. Kurspahic met both of them at the beginning of Yugoslavia's slide into chaos, shortly after Miloševic seized power in Serbia. In the late spring of 1988 Kurspahic received an invitation from Slobodna Dalmacija to a weekend cruise of the Adriatic. Kulušic brought together a number of prominent journalists from all over Yugoslavia. Kurspahic names some of Kulušic's guests: Jurij Gustincic, Jak Koprivc, Staša Marinkovic, Zoran Jelicic, Stevan Nikšic, Drazen Vukov-Colic and Drago Buvac. The reason behind this meeting was the increased political pressure on the media.

 

'During the Adriatic cruise Marinkovic told us of the methods Miloševic's propagandists were using to bring him in line with the new patriotic journalism. Just before joining us in Split, he was summoned to a special session of the information section of the Serbian Socialist Alliance for "a democratic debate about some errors and mistakes in Borba's editorial policy",' Kurspahic writes; he adds that Marinkovic was accused of 'undermining relations between Borba and Serbia', and that according to him this was the final stage in the elimination of political opposition.

 

Belgrade promotion

By Kurspahic's standards Joško Kulušic was the most successful editor in prewar Yugoslavia. His newspaper was neither federal like Borba nor republican like Politika in Serbia, Vjesnik in Croatia, Delo in Slovenia and Oslobodjenje in BosniaSlobodna Dalmacija was a regional daily based in the Adriatic coastal city of Split. It was Kulušic's vision and hard work during his ten-year tenure as editor-in-chief (1983-93) that had transformed Slobodna Dalmacija into the finest daily in Croatia. With a circulation of well over 100,000, Slobodna Dalmacija was not just a quality newspaper, but a successful business as well. And that was the key to independence. A few days an a small boat sailing around Kornati, with Slobodna Dalmacija hosting the meeting, were decisive for Kurspahic:

'Being engaged in endless professional dialogue with Marinkovic, Kulušic and others influenced the way I managed the Bosnian daily Oslobodjenje in Sarajevo, after I became the first editor to be elected by the journalists themselves, in December 1988.'

 

Sadly, both, Marinkovic and Kulušic died untimely deaths of natural causes in the midst of their struggle for professional standards and values. In contrast to their heroic resistance to aggressive nationalism, Kurspahic exposes journalists who betrayed their principles and used their skills to manufacture hate and fear.  Prime Time Crime is an important reminder that after a war no journalist can say : 'I was just following orders...'

 

Asserting that even under the most difficult circumstances media must stick to professional standards, Kurspahic says that journalism is a profession and journalists are witnesses, not warriors.    This belief in professional journalism inspired Kemal Kurspahic to travel with his book to Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo - to do the walk and talk the talk - looking for an audience of professional journalists among those now running the media in the Balkans. The Belgrade daily Danas published excerpts from his book, and the launch of Prime Time Crime attracted a considerable crowd in the Serbian capital last summer. Dušan Simic, Slavo Ðukic, Hari Štajner and Joza Druker were seen at the Media Centre, where Kurspahic's book was promoted by Gordana Logar, Veran Matic and Stojan Cerovic. It may not be remembered by Kemal like his Adriatic cruise, but it was quite an event nevertheless.   And Kurspahic had to remind his audience that the unfinest hour of the media in Serbia is yet to be faced by Serbian journalists.

 


 

 

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