By Jovanka Matic*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
The year is 1982. I am in Canada. I came from Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, to study for a master’s in communications. A $500 scholarship affords me little. I live in a shared basement, do not dare going to a dentist, never use a taxi, and wear only clothes that I brought from home. In the four previous years, I worked as a journalist at a national weekly paper, used to fly to different parts of the country at least once a month, spent a four-week vacation in Paris, and smoked the most expensive cigarettes. But I do not mind. Everything is new and exciting. I am 28. This is the best year of my life so far.
My main academic interest is in the news: what is the relationship between news and social change? I know well the limitations of journalism in Yugoslavia. It is a communist country, but different from others in Eastern Europe. Based on collective or what was officially called “social” ownership rather than state ownership, on participation of all employees in business decision-making, on a guiding instead of a direct governing role for the Communist Party, Yugoslavia was an alternative to a Soviet-type system. Orwell’s “1984” was widely read among my colleagues, but we all thought that it did not concern us. Yugoslav media are “something in between” the East and West. They are public enterprises, active in the market and free in hiring their staff. Most respected journalists are well-educated and liberally oriented.
Yet, the official ideology lays down clear lines of acceptable discourse in the public sphere. The ideas of socialism, workers’ self-management, “brotherhood and unity” as the dominant relationship between numerous ethnic groups, non-alignment as the foreign policy strategy and the role of Tito, who is simultaneously the country’s president, the Party’s leader and the supreme military commander, are all beyond criticism. Discussion of the way these ideas work in practice is allowed but only if it is initiated by official organizations, all under the eye of the Party, careful to prevent ideological deviances.
The circumscribed autonomy of media served the population well as long as the country was progressing economically, which it was in the 1960s and 1970s, owing to Western financial aid. The first serious cracks in the system started appearing after Tito’s death in 1980.
In Canada, I comprehend the complexity of the social roles of media and view journalistic practices from new perspectives. I gain new knowledge about the importance of media pluralism and content diversity for social development, but also about concerns over the belief that the free market by itself can bring freedom of expression and fully meet consumer needs.
I learn that the concept of the “objectivity” of news was born as journalistic credo at the beginning of the 20th century, after a long period of political partisanship, and as a means of bolstering the commercial interests of owners of mass-market daily press outlets: they could reach a wider audience with neutral and diverse news than with one-sided political content. Decades later, the main business of media in established liberal societies is selling the audiences to advertisers. This business model gives the media independence from the political powers-that-be but makes them dependent on the economic logic of capital, mass production, mass consumption and the commodification of every human need and product. In these societies, the news can be objective and still serve as an ideological institution.
I learn that the process of representing the reality in the media, inevitably selective, consists of choosing from among the available facts and organizing them to create meaning. The result is the promotion of a certain way of interpreting reality – one of many possible ones. These routine journalistic practices are deeply embedded in dominant social values and cultural assumptions on how the world functions and how society should be organized and governed. The media do not simply reflect the consensus on fundamental issues but produce it on a daily basis and thereby reproduce the existing social structures and relationships. They accept the given institutional arrangements—such as dramatic differences in wealth distribution–as natural, neutral, commonsensical and universal when in fact they favour the interests of the most powerful social groups. This attitude is generally adopted even by those who benefit least from these arrangements. Thus, the news media act as the agents of the status quo and as key actors in the process of social control.
I also learn about different strategies designed to oppose the ways in which media can obstruct social change. These strategies include diversification of ownership structures, allowing for various forms of public and community media to thrive; limitations on the concentration of media ownership to prevent monopolies; protections for independent media that give voice to minorities; proactive encouragement of a diversity of media content; and broadening sources of media financing beyond advertising.
The year is 1993. I am in Belgrade and work as a media researcher at the dying Yugoslav Institute of Journalism, planning to get a new job at Serbia’s Institute of Social Sciences. Yugoslavia does not exist anymore. Everything it stood for has turned to ashes, literally. Slovenia departed after a short war. Now the fight rages in two other former Yugoslav republics, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yesterday’s united “working people”, the fundament of the Yugoslavia I was born in, over years transformed themselves into antagonistic Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Albanians.
Now, my country is Serbia – one of rare parts of Eastern Europe in which the former Communist Party, reformed to become the Socialist Party in order to match the proclaimed new order of political pluralism, won the first multiparty elections in 1990. Eastern Europe overall is consumed with the transition towards a market economy and pluralistic parliamentary democracy. Serbia is on a different path. It is engaged in the process of building a nation-state, based on the etatization of the economy and the autocratic rule of a nationalistic and war-oriented Socialist Party and its leader, Slobodan Milosevic. With the country isolated because of UN sanctions, crime and corruption are flourishing.
Inflation reaches a history-record peak. My salary is now in the millions of dinars. Actually, it is worth about ten German marks. For these millions I can buy less in the afternoon than in the morning, if there is anything at all left to buy in regular shops. People live by spending their savings, doing additional jobs, buying on the black market, or receiving goods through charity. Petrol is sold in plastic bottles at street corners. I smoke the cheapest cigarettes, smuggled from who knows where. This is the worst year of my life so far. (The 1999 NATO bombing is still years in the future.)
The media are among the strategic pillars of the regime. The largest and most popular outlets have been transformed from their previous status. They are state-owned, state-financed and state-controlled, and they function as a classic propaganda apparatus, now in the service of the ruling party instead of the working class. Their crucial aim is to foster ethnic and political homogeneity in order to help achieve the regime’s ideal of “all Serbs in a single state”. They use intolerant and militant rhetoric. Every day I wonder anew how people I previously knew as clever, educated and generous have become part of this horrible world of journalistic dishonesty.
Yet, some journalists refuse to take part in such “patriotic journalism”. They were either fired or left the state media, and some of them established independent media organizations. These outlets are small, poor, badly equipped, and boycotted by advertisers, and they survive largely because of international donors. Still, they nurture high professional standards and cover topics that the state media barely mention or hide altogether.
With a co-author, I wrote my first book – an analysis of TV coverage of the 1992 national elections. It compared the news shown by the state’s national television network and an independent Belgrade-based television station. These two news organizations offered completely opposing pictures of the election process, the crucial issues confronting voters, the candidates’ political platforms and promises, and the images of the leading political personalities.
The national state television was openly and sharply skewed towards the ruling Socialist Party and its allies, especially the extremely nationalistic Radical Party. It gave the ruling party twice as much airtime when reporting on the elections than the main opposition. The ruling party was presented overwhelmingly in positive terms, while the strongest opposition party was portrayed exclusively negatively.
For the ruling party, the main electoral issue was the need to defend what it viewed as Serbian national interests from ethnic enemies in Croatia (i.e. Croats) and in Bosnia-Herzegovina (i.e. Muslims) and from the anti-Serb-oriented international community (i.e. the West), which did not want a strong and independent Serbia in the Balkans. It promoted itself as the only guardian of these interests, the best established, most popular and only political actor that could govern effectively. It labeled the opposition as traitorous, ready to sell out the national interest to foreign powers, and described it as incapable, unpopular, disorganized, immoral and dangerous. The entire news programming on state television – the choice of domestic or foreign news topics unrelated to the elections, the visuals of political rallies, the selection of politicians’ sound bites – all supported the ruling party’s positions.
Independent television gave more time and positive publicity to the opposition, although it ignored the Radical Party altogether because of its extreme nationalistic positions. For the main opposition party, the key election issue was a need for a democratic regime instead of the slightly reformed communist one. It promoted an end to the wars, the introduction of a market economy and a functional multi-party parliament – which would save Serbia. Independent television reports focused on the harsh consequences of the government’s policies on the everyday lives of citizens rather than on ethnic issues. Its entire slate of programming gave more sense to the opposition platforms than that of the ruling party.
The majority of voters across Serbia had access to only one version of the election coverage – that of the state-controlled national television. The independent television programming was seen only in Belgrade and its surroundings.
The lack of media pluralism and the absence of representation of diverse opinions, ideas and interests of various political actors were great assets to Milosevic’s ruling party. They contributed enormously to its electoral victories not only in 1990 and 1992, but also in subsequent national elections in 1993 and 1997.
Along with other media experts, I had to fight for a simple idea: favoring and idolizing one political force and discriminating against and demonizing another was not journalism. It was political propaganda. It prevented voters from being able to make informed choices. It made multiparty-elections meaningless.
Media transition turmoil
The year is 2000. The day is October 5. I witnessed the most important political event in my life – the collapse of the nationalistic Serbian regime. A massive political rally in front of the Parliament demonstrated the popular rage against the Serbian ruling party and its president Milosevic, who tried to fake the results of the presidential election. I was hit with a lot of tear gas, from which I could not see clearly for hours, but that was an irrelevant and miniscule price paid by thousands of citizens in exchange for such a great gain. Serbia soon got a democracy-oriented government and started down the road of post-communist transition. There was great hope that the country had irrevocably left behind the authoritarian, war-oriented, nationalist dead-end in which it had found itself and was on the path to a democratic, well-organized and prosperous society.
The regime-controlled media changed editorial policy overnight. Starting on October 6, they all – with one exception – began criticizing yesterday’s ruling party and its policies, promoting the new ruling elite as the long-awaited saviour heralding a bright future. However, the painstaking work of systemic media change had yet to start.
I was an active part of the media community arguing for a thorough reconstruction of the media system. Media reform, media pluralism, public broadcasting, independent regulator – these were the buzzwords of the decade in all professional conversations on the media. Still, there was no agreement on the optimal direction for the media transformation – neither in the media community nor among the new political rulers. Short (“The media are free”) or very detailed media law? Exclusively private media or some public media? Lustration of former war propagandists or not?
Ten years earlier, after the fall of the Berlin wall, when countries in Eastern Europe launched their media reforms, Western scholars of critical communications argued that the development of private commercial media was not by itself a sufficient guarantee of free and diverse media. They hoped that the East would not allow market-oriented media to be a dominant element of the post-communist media scene. Most radical scholars expected that the social circumstances in new democracies would allow for the development of different kinds of communication institutions and media infrastructures than in Western societies.
These expectations failed. The experience of media reforms in post-communist societies showed that there was no shortcut to a free, autonomous and democratic media system. All of them finally accepted a model of media transformation that was to make them similar to the media in Western Europe. This approach rested mostly on the liberal idea that market competition among multiple media voices inevitably leads to content diversity. Yet, it included limits on media ownership to avoid monopolies and insisted on the creation of public service broadcasting.
However, the idea that the post-communist media would play the leading role in the democratization of the whole society, which had been taken for granted, did not turn out to be the case. Instead, the country’s new political elite held the greatest influence over the process of becoming a democracy. It used this power to limit the development of democratic structures within the media system.
Along with other post-Yugoslavia countries, Serbia accepted the model of Western Europe as an example to follow. I found myself in a peculiar position. In my work, I advocated for the need to develop the dominant market-based media system, whose shortcomings I had analyzed in my master’s thesis 20 years before. However, the repression of critical thinking and promotion of controlled patriotic journalism, as leftovers from both the communist and nationalistic perceptions of the role of the media, were so strong that the development of the media system based on private commercial media and the abolition of the state control, seemed like a great achievement. In addition, the model I promoted also included restrictions on the concentration of media ownership, incentives for both structural and content diversity and, especially, the establishment of public service broadcasting as a new media institution very much different from state-run radio and television.
In this period, I also supported, advised or participated in many kinds of training of journalists aimed at sensitizing them to the need for including ethnic and political diversity in their stories. This training was organized by domestic NGOs and professional associations as well as international ones, including the Media Diversity Institute.
During the first decade of these reforms, the media transition went poorly. Serbia continued to lack the crucial conditions for positive changes: a stable economy allowing for a developed media market, a consolidated democracy based on a broad social consensus, adequate legal and institutional frameworks, and a professional workforce bound in solidarity to the goal of defending journalists’ rights.
Numerous democratic governments never made media reforms a priority. They never developed a coherent media policy oriented toward dismantling the financial dependence of the media on the state and towards disabling political influences on media representation of the social spectrum of opinions. They all preferred to use the major media as a resource in mobilizing political support, justifying this behaviour by citing a matter of the utmost public interest – the consolidation of democracy.
It took a lot of psychological strength for me to continue fighting for media reforms, now hindered by democracy-oriented politicians, yesterday’s opposition figures, whom I had supported all along in elections and trusted when they professed sympathy for free media and political diversity. I worked day and night, analysing the reporting of major media and demonstrating how they fail in their main roles: providing a credible and balanced picture of events and issues, serving as a watchdog on the authorities, and acting as a forum for public debate. None of my research results provoked a serious debate on media policy, even when they gained considerable publicity. Once, when I concluded that the news program of the public television network discriminated against women because they very rarely appeared in news stories, its editor-in-chief countered my conclusion with the irrelevant claim that there were more females than males among the public television journalists.
The dismissal by the political and media elites of criticism of their work coming from various sides had more serious consequences than my personal frustration. A feeling of disillusionment with all political parties was spreading among citizens, combined with a downward trend in appreciating the benefits of democracy. Among journalists there was a growing doubt that Serbia was even capable of having autonomous, professional and multi-perspective media organizations.
Neo-authoritarian downward spiral
The year is 2012. The neoliberal policies of the democratic governments in the previous decade, and the politicians who championed them, are rejected by voters. The authorities did not keep their promise that Serbia would become a normal country – a boring one, without negative news for the front pages of the international press. In addition, Serbia is one of the poorest European countries, although it is a prospective EU member.
Serbian voters returned to their traditions this time and expressed a preference for a strong nation-state that would guarantee economic security. A former high official of the Radical Party, Aleksandar Vucic, soon becomes the leading figure among the new group of authorities. He previously served as the Minister of Information in the Milosevic government and personally conducted censorship of the media during the NATO bombing. In the meantime, he established a new Progressive Party, abandoned his former chauvinist stances and put a pro-European hat on his head.
From 2012 onward, the government is formed by the parties that ruled during the nineties – the part of the former Radical Party reformed into the Progressive Party with the Socialist Party as its ally. Given a new chance to govern, they use it to bring back many values, policies and institutional characteristics of the authoritarian regime. They define October 5 as a negative turn in Serbian history and blame all the country’s problems on the treacherous and greedy governments established after the year 2000. They never speak about their roles in the period before 2000.
The important difference between Milosevic’s and Vucic’s Serbia is that the latter gets wide support from the European Union, both economically and politically, resulting in some economic stabilization of the country. The EU nourishes a typical stabilitocracy regime in Serbia whose only task is to preserve peace in the Balkans, even at a high cost for Serbian citizens – the killing of democracy.
The Progressive Party rules through state-capture and media-capture. The state is extremely centralized and all-important decisions are made in one place, disregarding the divisions of power designated in the Constitution. All state institutions are colonized by people loyal to the party. Vucic has personal control over the key levers of power. He has exerted his influence far beyond his constitutional responsibilities, first as Prime Minister, and from 2017 as President of Serbia.
Vucic personally holds a monopoly on public discourse. He defines the official stance on all important social issues, which he disseminates to the public himself in very frequent public appearances. The mainstream media and a massive army of party trolls, active on social networks, spread his messages.
The news media are again divided into two camps. The first includes the most popular media – all five national television networks, along with the public service broadcaster, and seven out of nine national daily papers, with strong online news portals. The latter camp consists of two cable TV channels, two dailies and several weekly news magazines.
The first camp acts as a typical propaganda tool of the regime and is privileged in many ways, especially in terms of finances and access to information. It brutally promotes the ruling party, all of its policies, and President Vucic in particular. It either ignores all negative outcomes attributable to the government or ascribes them to the wrongdoings of enemies of Serbia and the Serbian people, enemies of the Progressive Party, and enemies of Vucic and his family. The enemies include the 2000-2012 democratic governments and all critics of the ruling party, ranging from international actors and neighbouring countries to domestic opposition parties, civil society organisations and activists, and independent media owners and journalists. The leader in demonizing critical voices is the tabloid press, which is openly anti-Western and strongly pro-Russia oriented. On the day of the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the most influential tabloid ran the title “Ukraine attacked Russia” on its front page.
The other camp follows the tradition of independent media from the 1990s, promotes itself as a guardian of the public interest and nurtures a critical attitude toward the government. The ruling party boycotts the independent media. Its representatives steadfastly refuse to give statements and interviews to these organizations and never accept invitations for live studio appearances. These media are economically distressed and under constant pressure from the government and party representatives, as well as from the regime-controlled media. They are regularly labelled as traitors and servants of foreign powers.
During the development of the Serbian hybrid regime, I was involved in many public events aimed at informing both the domestic and international audience about the process of media-capture. Together with other colleagues from the Balkans, in 2014 I spoke at the conference in the EU Parliament, but only a few MPs were interested in the problems of the media in our region. In 2018, I participated in the Perugia Journalism Festival’s panel “Fascism is back. Is journalism part of the problem or of a solution?”, organized by the Media Diversity Institute, criticizing the EU’s “stabilitocracy approach” to Serbia. It raised concerns among international journalists.
My greatest effort in opposing manipulative functioning of the Serbian media was participation in an expert group that proposed a set of reform measures in advance of the 2020 national elections, which the opposition parties threatened to boycott. A group
of representatives from the EU Parliament organized a series of consultations between the relevant political actors in order to reach an agreement.
In my opinion, this was Serbia’s last chance under this regime to introduce some normality into its political life and the everyday functioning of the media. The hope of our expert group was that the pressure from the EU could stimulate the Progressive Party to make some concessions and that the election results would normalize the work of the national Parliament, which in turn would halt the downward autocratic spiral.
None of our proposals were accepted. Most of the opposition parties boycotted the elections. For the first time in 30 years of multi-party political life, the new Parliament did not include any opposition parties.
The ruling party again rendered the elections meaningless. Without fair media reporting on relevant events and without representation of diverse political opinions, the elections simply affirmed the party’s hegemonic position.
The year is 2022. I officially retired three years ago, due to a compulsory age-retirement for employees in public institutions. My pension is half of my last salary, which was about 1000 US dollars a month. But I do not mind. Many things are new and exciting. Within the year, I travelled to Italy, to Spain, to Croatia and for the first time to Britain and to Vietnam. I still work, participating in various projects. But I no longer have to follow the regime-controlled media for research purposes. My reservoirs for awful journalistic products are already filled up – no place left for new ones.
I gave myself a treat by ignoring the media reporting of the 2022 snap elections. Due to EU pressure, the government made some changes in the electoral process and conditions, but none of them address the ruling party’s enormous advantages. Despite the odds being against them, the opposition parties were still able to win some seats. But they are in the minority, so their presence does not bear any influence on the way the Parliament makes decisions or on how the country is run.
I have new research interests. I am strongly convinced that the Serbian media system needs another radical reconstruction. There is also a need for the re-education of politicians, journalists and news audiences of both traditional and digital media about the necessity of active and passive access to media by local communities, a variety of cultural and social groups, and above all, of political actors with diverse interests, opinions and values. I want to be part of that process, which should be grounded in the new relationship between the media and audiences. I am not alone. Many others are willing to contribute.
I still believe that Serbia could give birth to some new communication structures that would stimulate and allow the news media to be the force of progressive social change.
*Jovanka Matic lives in Belgrade, Serbia, and holds a PhD degree from the University of Belgrade, MA degree in communications from Simon Fraser University, Canada, and BA degree in journalism from the University of Belgrade. She started a professional carrier as a journalist and later transferred to the academic field of media and journalism. She worked at the Yugoslav Institute of Journalism and the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade. She is the author of three books and about 100 articles dealing with the role of media in transition processes and conflicts, media system of Serbia, media policy, media coverage of political issues, audience studies and journalism culture.