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Interview with Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, Radio B92 Belgrade
"independent media are the main lever for democratic changes"

JURIST Exclusive, August 16, 1999

[Editor's Note: Veran Matic is Editor-in-Chief of Radio B92 Belgrade, Yugoslavia's leading independent broadcaster. Radio B92 was closed down by the Yugoslav authorities during the Kosovo conflict, but in early August 1999 it came back on the air as Radio B2-92. This interview was conducted by e-mail; the questions were posed by JURIST's Director, Professor Bernard Hibbitts, Associate Dean for Communications & Information Technology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. For more about B92 and independent media in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict, see JURIST's Radio B92: The Legal File. For more about the situation in Kosovo and Yugoslavia in General, see JURIST's Kosovo and Yugoslavia: Law in Crisis.]

JURIST: Especially in light of the evidence of numerous war crimes carried out by Serb forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, do you believe in retrospect that the air campaign against Yugoslavia was justified?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: I must admit that I do not have enough information about true cause-and-effect relation between the bombing and the crimes against Albanians in Kosovo. There are too many wild guesses, generalizations and exaggerations on all sides.

As a matter of fact, I do not know exactly how the planners of NATO intervention expected Serbian forces in Kosovo to respond when the bombing started and what was the expected extent of their response. Some statements of Western politicians and generals implied that a very high degree of killing and persecution of civilians had been seriously counted on. Although the fact that is most often used as the main counter-argument is that cases of mass repression had existed before the bombing began, especially in areas under the KLA control, everything shows that repression dramatically increased from March 24 on. If NATO's true aim had been to stop terror and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, I am sure that the very strategy of military intervention would have been completely different. In that case, intervention would not have lasted for almost three months, some kind of safe enclaves would have been created in Kosovo very quickly, and Albanian refugees would have been admitted and sheltered in a more organized and more humane way by surrounding countries.

Also, if the original goal of NATO was to stop ethnic cleansing, I am sure it would have spared Montenegro from bombing, because it was sheltering more than 100,000 Albanian refugees. Stories about Yugoslav army anti-aircraft positions in Montenegro which allegedly jeopardized NATO are pure nonsense. Planes that bombed Yugoslavia were first coming over Albania, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia, and later from over Hungary and Bulgaria. There was no need for flights over Montenegro. Montenegro was dragged into the war, which seriously jeopardized positions of reformist Montenegrin government and position of Albanian refugees who found shelter in Montenegro. I hope that one day someone will speak openly about the real and true aim of NATO intervention. Media used their influence and an average ordinary man found the intervention necessary.

As for me, I doubt that those who approved and planned the intervention had defense of human rights and prevention of humanitarian catastrophe as their main and primary goal. Firstly, there was a lot of pure retaliation against Serbian regime in it, the regime which has been undeniably cheating the international community for the past ten years. Any retaliation policy necessarily requires setting of a collective guilt and a collective punishment. It sounds childish and primitive, but it is true. Secondly, the problem of human rights was used here for the first time as not only a state issue, but also as an ideological weapon. To solve a problem of human rights, borders and integrity of a sovereign country were "de facto" changed. To give a separate country to a nationality! Was that the aim? My personal opinion is that any forceful keeping of a people inside a country is senseless and harmful. I would never support anyone waging war for it. However, when we analyze the deeper causes and effects of NATO bombing of FR Yugoslavia, it is a different thing. From this viewpoint, now when the bombing is over it may seem that it was necessary to bomb, but I think that all means for prevention of bombing, especially political ones, had not been exhausted.

Secondly - this intervention is a big precedent and I think it is not a good example of how to establish a new position for treatment of human rights issues (with a military alliance highlighted as a defender of human rights). I certainly agree that issues of human rights should have priority over issues of sovereignty. It is clear that fewer and fewer countries are able to emphasize their sovereignty due to global development and integration.

JURIST: What were the principal political, legal and technical challenges Radio B92 faced in covering the outbreak of the war?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: Technical challenges first. We were driven out of our premises. We were left without our equipment, without transmitter and antenna, without Internet and satellite links. Legally, we were able to function only as ANEM, but its operation without a satellite link was technically impossible. Members of ANEM, local radio and TV stations, had to fight on their own and to find their own ways of survival, in which they were successful in most cases. However, the biggest of all problems, besides being banned and technically disabled, was the state of war and military censorship. Possibilities of working under military censorship is a topic that is big and insufficiently spoken about. Anyway, we somehow managed to work even in such conditions. At least in a way that hate speech was never used.

In the first dozen days after we had been officially banned from air, while we were broadcasting via Internet and satellite, we tried to get our female correspondent out of Kosovo. She is Kosovar herself, and of course, we could not use her as our correspondent because she was in hiding until we finally managed to evacuate her. NATO propaganda was so strong that we watched its press briefings with suspicion. When NATO spokesman stated that large number of intellectuals, including editor of Koha Ditore Baton Haxhiu had been killed in Pristina, we started sending protest letters and condemned all those acts (and thus risked government persecution in a state of war). Soon afterwards it was found out that it had been just a propaganda trick from Brussels. Unfortunately, moderate Albanian politician Fehmi Agani was really killed later. The way that Jamie Shea presented events that were going on - with a large dose of propaganda in it - simply pushed Yugoslav media away from using his statements as a source. Media were not only pushed away, but they often had to criticise such a way of presentation - such presentation was against principles of professional journalism.

Journalists who attended briefings in Brussels, London and Pentagon put too few critical questions. Dominant non-criticism opened a large space for propaganda - and no one in our country could support that.

JURIST: Were you surprised by the effective government takeover of B92 on April 2?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: Basically not. We knew that if the war broke out there would be neither legal aid nor legal procedure. Nothing could stop the execution. And the order was: close down that radio! We were aware that even more severe repression against people was possible, as it happened to newspaper publisher Slavko Curuvija who was killed just a few days after the bombing had started. It meant that anyone of us could find himself in the same position.

JURIST: Did you seriously believe that legal action in the Yugoslav courts - especially during the State of War - could rectify the situation?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: We knew that nothing serious could be done as long as the war was going on. But, after the war... Another political situation would come along. Law would have its time once political conditions and circumstances were changed. We hope it would happen soon. Now we are trying to take advantage of the current balance of political forces and to use our campaign for the return of our radio.

JURIST: Did you or your journalist colleagues ever consider yourselves to be in any personal danger from the authorities after the station shutdown?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: The answer is simple: yes. However, it is not the right time yet for me to speak about it in detail, because I am afraid of putting many people in danger - the people who informed us about certain plans of the regime. Due to direct threat, I had to leave Belgrade 50 days after the bombing had started.

JURIST: As an independent Serb journalist, what was your reaction to the NATO bombing of RTS [Radio-Television Serbia]?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: I thought it was stupid and that it would only strengthen a repressive non-democratic system. Besides, we also knew that the extent of ethnic cleansing and war crimes in Kosovo thus would only be increased. Also, I was afraid that it might topple Montenegrin government. I should not even mention the increase of nationalism, xenophobia and various other extreme movements.

We, just like the International Federation of Journalists and number of other international journalist organizations, condemned this bombing. Although we were aware of the evil that this TV station had produced through its hate speech, bombing was not the way to solve the problem.

Only with an earlier more intensive development of independent media and democratization could this be prevented from happening. However, Milosevic has been a partner of the West for too long time. The West often protected him for practical reasons (most often he was considered a guarantor of peace, of the Dayton Peace Agreement...)

JURIST: How would you evaluate Western coverage of the war, on CNN, BBC, Sky and other major media?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: I think they were all carrying out certain propaganda tasks, especially in early stage of the war. They all had a common matrix and implemented it. Later on, things slowly started to change. I think it was not at all difficult to make critical reports about the nature and character of Serbian regime, but it was also necessary to provide much more balanced picture of the KLA activities in Kosovo. It was difficult to accept that the KLA was a NATO ally in the moment when Western politicians claimed that the aim of intervention was to establish democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo. If we learned anything in the past ten years in this region it is that there are no big and small nationalisms, no useful and harmful nationalisms, nor pretty and ugly nationalisms. All nationalisms are dangerous and harmful, especially when they advocate chauvinism and hate towards others. Besides, such a balanced approach is the task of any professional journalism.

There was an obvious difference between reports sent by correspondents on the ground (for example, [John] Simpson from the BBC) who were doing their jobs professionally, and editorial policies from central studios, in debates etc. Even Tony Blair several times criticized reports sent by the BBC's Belgrade correspondent, but he did not criticize the BBC as a medium.

JURIST: How would you characterize the role of the Internet in the war, considering it as an extension of traditional media (like B92), a platform for new information media (such as INET, Beograd.com and JURIST), and an informal medium linking individuals by e-mail?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: The Internet has become an important part of the media picture, including both propaganda and independent reports. Some such initiatives were launched quite spontaneously, but a large part were initiated and supported by the state. The most genuine segment included direct news on what was going on at that very moment. Internet users thus were able to find out what was bombed and when, minute by minute... The problem of free access to Internet is related, of course, to the general status of media freedom, although the Internet is not directly affected by the Serbian Law on Information. However, if you are not able to be a free and active Internet provider because you cannot obtain free telephone lines, more room and necessary equipment, then the very use of Internet is necessarily restricted.

The role of Internet could have been even bigger on the side of independent media, but none of us was prepared for guerilla forms of dissemination of information in conditions that included bombing. We always focused our preparations on possible internal repression by the regime (we were banned three times) but we simply could not be prepared for situations like this, too.

JURIST: Has the war and its outcome strengthened or weakened democratic and liberal forces within Yugoslavia? Do you think there will be free elections anytime soon?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: I think it is not easy to be a prophet in this field. The fact is that the war caused certain movements and shifts on the political scene. The regime is in deep crisis, but its democratic alternative is also in crisis. Enormous discontent among the people is evident, as well as the need for changes. But the question of how it would all develop remains. Elections are not enough for themselves. Before that, conditions and methods for control of elections must be changed, stable institutions must be established, the institutions which would not be subservient to the regime. For example: the judiciary. In this process, role of independent media, especially television, is enormous.

Although the prerequisite for all changes is change of the regime, long-term consideration of necessary changes within society itself must be started - including fundamental changes in education system, cultural models, privatisation etc. It must not be permitted that some new political structure entrench itself in a new authoritarian rule after Milosevic. Reconsideration of all that happened in the past ten years in Yugoslavia and the role of our people in it is also an important element that would make development of society possible without a mortgage of collective guilt.

JURIST: This month you are finally back on the air as Radio B2-92. But how independent are you in your new incarnation, given that you're currently broadcasting from the premises of Studio B TV, controlled by opposition leader Vuk Draskovic? From the other direction, how concerned are you about the possibility of legal action by the state-appointed directors of B92?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: We were and we are independent. We were independent in times when there was a possibility for all of us to be arrested. More serious threats should not be even mentioned. Why would we risk losing our independence now and thus compromise ourselves? Our approach is very pragmatic. There is an enormous need for independent radio program in Belgrade. In that aspect people in inland Serbia are in much better position than Belgraders. Not only is there no state TV in provincial towns, but independent local TV stations also exist there. If anyone, including Vuk Draskovic, tries to control our programs, we would immediately go out of the whole story.

While making this contract on cooperation with Studio B, we made it very clear that we would not give up our own programming and independent editorial concept we are well known for, not only here but in the whole world. From a strictly legal perspective, the new management of Radio B92 has no basis to launch measures against the people who renewed what they had been themselves creating for years. We and whole democratic public in Serbia consider the new management of B92 as nothing but a group of usurpers. You should know that this group of petty political pawns and apparatchiks, in essence, do not care at all about development of radio or its programs. Their primary goal from the very beginning was to prevent journalists and employees of Radio B92 from doing their jobs.

Of course, they would try to take away and rob everything we have been creating for years. It is often being forgotten that Radio B92 was not only a radio but also the center for various activities. We were a very successful publisher - we published about a hundred books - we had music production, we produced a dozen award-winning films, we founded the most successful cultural center in Yugoslavia, we were an Internet provider...

On the very first day of operation we heard that the ban of our new project was in preparation, but it was prolonged by the fact that we managed to have Yugoslav Prime Minister as the first person to be interviewed. That brought confusion among those people from the same government who wanted to ban us. Anyway, we can expect repression any day, but we would be heard again both via satellite and via our network members.

JURIST: Are you optimistic about the future of independent media in Yugoslavia? How might Western governments, media and other organizations help you in your efforts?

Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief, B92: Independent media are the main lever for democratic changes and modernization of the country. If there are no independent media, there will be no positive changes. I am convinced that true changes are going to happen soon. It is then that the role of independent media will be crucial. It is not enough simply to change a damaging and anachronous regime. Essential changes will happen when all strata in society are included in them. After the agony we went through, I am convinced that a new and more optimistic time is on its way. More investments must be made in the development of media in this country. Our network was the best example that it was possible to make a serious breakthrough in the establishment of media scene.

JURIST: Thank you very much for answering our questions.

Return to JURIST's Kosovo & Yugoslavia: Law in Crisis

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