Reviving Local Media in Serbia

There is a famous scene in the movie Spartacus, with Kirk Douglas in the role of the leader of the Roman Empire’s most famous slave revolt. The Romans have captured the slave army and demanded that they give up their leader or else be slaughtered. Spartacus steps forward to save his men. He says, “I am Spartacus.” Out of a deep loyalty to their leader, one slave, then another, and finally a countless number stand up and cry, “I am Spartacus!”

Gordana Jankovic recalls a similar episode from her work in Serbia helping to strengthen local media during the Milosevic era. She was working for the Open Society Foundation in Belgrade and trying to set up an association of local media. A meeting in Kragujevac brought together representatives of media from around the country. But many of the participants were hesitant. They were worried about their families. They talked of surveillance.

“When I got back to Belgrade, I had a phone call from a very upset editor in Bor in eastern Serbia, which is a mining town with a politically negative atmosphere with lots of angry, hungry people,” Gordana Jankovic related to me in an interview in London last January. “The editor’s family was arrested. They managed to leave the kids with the neighbors. But the editor was also arrested the moment he showed up. Why? Because his paper published a caricature of Milosevic on the front page. I was able to send one of the best criminal lawyers to Bor. He was fantastic. I informed all the people in the network. The next day, everybody published the same caricature. That was the way to create a proper association. And since that day they haven’t stopped fighting for each other.”

Another story she told me involved a group of people in a village in eastern Serbia who had bought video cameras during their work stays in Germany and Austria. They set up these cameras around the village to take footage of weddings and other happenings. Then, during the long winters when there was no agricultural work to do, they’d watch whatever the cameras had recorded during their busy season.

“Many years later, I get a request from eastern Serbia to provide some support in building a TV station,” she remembered. “And I found the same people, the ones who had been the camera owners. They started providing space for opposition leaders and using those same cameras to report on local events. I watched some of those reports. Everything was live. They covered a football match with three cameras: zoom, zoom, zoom, following the match. We were able to help them build their television station at a critical time. Along with B92, we helped them create a network of stations ANIM, which was so important in the changes in the country.”

We talked about the importance of local media in building democracy, her own early work in the theater in Belgrade, and the names she ultimately crossed out of her address book.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?

 

I remember the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall very clearly. I was in London for some private reasons. I was sitting in the house of a Jewish lady from South Africa. We were having lunch and watching the news together, and we were crying like crazy.

It was the end of the era. It was important for everyone at the time. For me personally, it was also very important because my parents wanted me and my sister to, let’s put it this way, know both sides of the world. We spent two years during the summer vacation touring the former Soviet Union. It was very difficult for us to get to some places, because it was particularly sensitive to let Yugoslavs into those areas.

 

You started out doing political theater in Belgrade.

 

I was in theater from a very early age, the age of 13. It was an academic theater that gathered both professionals and amateurs, and worked very often with people from the university to put on plays that were at that time quite political. We worked on some entertainments and comedies. We did Daniil Kharms, a prominent dissident writer from Russia. We also did some historical dramas, national dramas with a twist and an alternative political interpretation. I was there for about 12 years. I studied theater production as well and later worked in a professional theater for a while.

 

When you put on these productions, did you and your ensemble think of them as political in terms of Yugoslavia or more generally for the region?

 

It was a very vibrant era of political theater in Europe at that time, from the early 1980s to early 1990s. The political theater was a very popular form of expression. In Yugoslavia, the academic and alternative theaters all over the country were addressing the issues that even professional theaters were not necessarily able to address. That was the time of the first alternative troupes. Some people, like Ljubisa Ristic, who later turned into a very different political player in the region, were at that time very prominent thinkers and quite brave in addressing some of the issues facing Yugoslavia and the region as well. There were productions of Ionesco, of various alternative writers.

I was the producer of the play that Vaclav Havel wrote while he was in prison and that was smuggled out of Czechoslovakia by Jovan Cirilov. This was my graduate work. It was about a general: his imprisonment and his rethinking of his participation in certain political events. It reflected what Havel was probably going through while he was in prison. It was very interesting but not one of his best plays. That was in 1986: a production of Belgrade Dramatic Theater.

 

With this play or other plays, did you encounter any political pushback?

 

There wasn’t much pushback at that time. I did have some difficulties with Milosevic when I was working with Television Belgrade. This was the reason why I left. There were some threats. There were some attempts by Milosevic’s wife to interrupt some programs that I was working on, and I refused. But the pushback wasn’t very present in the theater. The art world was much freer than the media. After the Seventh Party Congress in 1987-8, the media came under much more political influence. The theater, the radio: less. That came later.

 

Why did you leave this wonderful theatrical world to enter the hornet’s nest of media?

 

I studied both theater and media. I did documentary production. I did work in theater and in radio. I loved media because of how influential it could be. The world of art was lovely but a bit isolated from the majority. You know how life takes you. When the war started, I was here in London. I decided to go back to Yugoslavia and do something. I had hopes. I’d left the country because I was losing hope as a result of some work experiences. But when I went back everybody was open. I was a freelancer before with a decent record, so I had seven or eight work offers when I returned. I tried each of them. I was kicked out of each one after a couple weeks because I thought differently. It was a very complicated period for me personally as I faced the changes that other people had encountered during the two years that I was here in London.

 

Can you give me an example of where your views conflicted?

 

The day I arrived back I got a call from a very close friend asking me to be a bridesmaid. I went shopping for presents on Knjaz Mihailova, the main shopping street in Belgrade. When I got there I was shocked. There were so many people dressed in black, kind of rural-looking, drinking tea and coffee in the middle of the street. I walked further and saw people that I liked and respected in the music world selling horrible, nationalistic CDs to survive but also to promote nationalism. Some of them I considered friends from the past. Some of them played on the TV programs that I produced. I approached them and tried asking questions. They were of course very happy to see me at first, but then we soon ended up in a serious disagreement.

I ran away. I took a taxi back home, and I cried the whole way home. It was just a two-year absence, but things had become dramatically different. The people dressed in black were refugees from different parts of Yugoslavia who were, I suppose, of Serbian origin. There were lots of refugee centers in that area, and that’s how they ended up standing there drinking tea and coffee and smoking.

 

Did you find someplace that you could work in Belgrade?

 

I started something call Art TV with a group of colleagues from before. At the time I thought naively that we were lucky to escape political monitoring since this TV frequency was only for part of Belgrade. Because this was Art TV, and the authorities were not interested in art, I was convinced that this was a politically free space, a space where we could communicate in a new way. I brought everyone I knew into this. They were fantastic people who were ready to work for very little money. They were committed and brought energy and creativity, hoping that this was a free space.

Then, six or seven months later, the person whom I believed was the owner of the frequency and the partial owner of the television station brought in his father-in-law, who was one of Milosevic’s close collaborators. I walked out that very day, immediately. It was heartbreaking.

It was also a very lucky moment. I got back home very late that evening. I was staying with my parents. I found in my room a note from my mother that someone from the Soros Foundation wanted me to go in for some interview. I’d applied for the job months before, and that was the day when they chose me for an interview. So it was a very lucky moment. I started working for the foundation almost immediately after that.

 

How long did your work at the Foundation in Belgrade?

 

I started in October 1992. Three years later, they asked me to create a regional program that would work in former Soviet Union and in Central and Southeast Europe. That was the time when the Foundation in Belgrade was about to be closed. I spoke to my boss at that time, Sonja Licht, and we agreed that I should take this position and stay open to the initiatives we had started in Serbia from outside. I left in October 1995 and moved to Prague, and the Foundation in Belgrade was closed in March 1996.

 

I interviewed Sonja in Belgrade, and I asked her what she thought the Foundation’s most important contribution was. She said: preserving the ability for people to travel at a time when it was difficult to travel and also bringing information to Serbia at a time when it was difficult to bring in information. What do you think was most important contribution made in those years?

 

I would agree with Sonja. Not just the exchange of information, but also the interpretation of the events. Also important was helping to structure civil society. My contribution to the work of the Foundation was working with media to create a different reality and linking them with international partners. We also put lots of effort into building links between media within former Yugoslavia and recreating links when needed between civil society structures as well. Regardless of all the brutalities of the war, people continued talking. Lots of things have had to be rebuilt. But when I see other conflict areas where we work, there was a basic sharing of values on the level of some parts of society in former Yugoslavia. This was our contribution at the Foundation: to help keep that sector alive and vibrant and networked.

 

When you look at the media environment today in Serbia, do you see the continued impact of the work you did in the 1990s?

 

To a certain extent. I know that everyone complains about media. Whenever you’re talking about democratic development, people say, “The media is impossible!” It’s true. The media represents social developments, and the thinking in the media reflects societal thinking.

I don’t go home that frequently, but every time I do I try to see what’s out there. Now there’s much better quality journalism, but it’s promoting a similar set of ideas. The media cannot grow more quickly in terms of democracy than the society at large. If the society is ready to vote for Tomislav Nikolic in Serbia, you can’t expect that the media won’t accept that. When you read the newspapers today and listen to the current political messaging, it’s the same debate: national priorities versus integration into Europe. European values are more accepted now than ever before, which is bizarre when the EU is facing its own crisis. The EU remains the only carrot left in Serbia.

Also present in the media are messages about Russia, but in a different way than interpreted in the West. There are some businesses benefitting from links with Russian businesses. But it’s only this: links between specific businesses. There’s no ideological link.

 

When you say ideology, do you mean Putinism or pan-Slavism?

 

Both. The West tends to misinterpret the link because of the fear. When you’re afraid of Putinism, you see any link as terribly scary. But I don’t think it’s present in any way. There’s some rhetoric, but only with a particular segment of the population, particularly business and mafia links. What’s encouraging is that there are still links with the West. The youth has a different orientation. There are radical nationalist groups, and there are people who want to leave the country. They don’t want to go to Russia. They want to go to the United States or Western European countries. They dream of leaving the mess behind. But you actually never leave the mess behind. It stays within you.

 

And the work you’re doing now?

 

I’m running a media program. It’s a global program. We’ve stayed engaged in supporting people similar to the people in my part of the world but now in other parts of the world. We’re working with complicated countries supporting people who are willing to provide information and public space for debate. We’re trying to open up closed countries, building links, building bridges, providing people from less developed countries with opportunities to shape their knowledge.

Obviously I was shaped by my life, and I changed my orientation. I stayed with development work and media and building democracy much longer than I envisaged. I was very much hoping to go back to the theater. I had offers when the situation changed. Even here in London, I worked in theater to a certain extent. No, I stayed with this area thinking that this is the way I can contribute to other people’s needs and help build their lives differently.

 

When you returned to Belgrade you were surprised by the Serbian refugees and the transformation of some of your friends. Before, when you were in Belgrade, working in theater and in the media, did you have any sense that this nationalism was bubbling up?

 

Yes. It was bubbling up for a few years, and it was both stimulated and organized. When I was in the current affairs department at Radio Television Belgrade, there were “demonstrations” in front of the federal assembly. The station needed more staff to cover the demonstrations, so I worked as a producer on a couple of the daily programs. The coverage of those demonstrations was a joke. We all knew that they were set up. The protestors were driven there by busses, and the demonstrations were promoted by politically influential people. The demonstrators were there to send a message. That’s not to say that there were no problems. There were huge problems. A bubbling up of nationalism on all sides was happening. But the coverage that the media provided was fake. It was politically directed. That was a good reason to leave at that point.

 

You were still in Serbia in 1989 around the demonstrations in Kosovo?

 

Yes, that was the year that I left. When I saw Dusan Mitevic walking into the newsroom, that was the end for me. I couldn’t stay any longer. He was a political appointee. Before that we had people close to politics of course, but we maintained some sort of independence and some element of public service. Some of the people I knew, my professors or mentors, were independent thinkers. They were gone the moment Milosevic took over the political structures. They were the first to be kicked out. When Mitevic walked in, the situation on the newsroom changed.

 

Do you remember any of your fellow journalists making that turn toward nationalism?

 

Yes, some of them participated in those demonstrations. All the stories that had remained hidden – about how their families suffered during World War II – came out from under many duvets.

I still have that telephone book with many names crossed out.

 

You stopped communicating with them.

 

I never stopped being open. But I didn’t communicate with certain people. In order to get through this period, you had to make hard choices. You really didn’t know who was working for whom.

You had to make decisions about whether it was worth going through with the debate. It’s much easier to orient yourself toward people who are willing to think through the processes and be creative about ways to address it. It’s very difficult to swim through the exclusivity. I was very lucky to be supported by my family. We had horrible situations at home when we were followed, but my family all went through the process with me. When I was interrogated, they were behind me all the time.

 

They went through the process because of you?

 

Yes.

 

And you were interrogated before you left?

 

It was while I was doing the work with media. I was also bringing the first computers for our office in Pristina. I was stopped by the police and interrogated. I learned much later of course that they were following my family even to the extent that they’d installed a secret service person across the road from our place. He came to introduce himself after Kostunica took over. We were stunned. My sister had a baby boy at the same time that his wife had their baby boy. They both grew up together as little boys, and she was in our house all the time. And then to meet this guy three years later telling us that they moved into our neighborhood because of our family? It was pretty sad.

 

Did he apologize?

 

He never said “sorry.” The fact that he came, and he came on the day of Kostunica’s election, well, it was not easy for them either. I understood that his thinking was not necessarily in line with his actions. There were various reasons why people had to pursue certain things. But I also don’t want to give them a free pass.

 

Do you remember any particular story that you were working on in those days that created the most problems?

 

There was one story in Serbia I sometimes talk about. The way that media was created, it was really from scratch.

One of my research projects in 1980 was about the cultural life of villages in Serbia. I had the chance to look at the cultural developments in the some villages in eastern Serbia. We were observing how weddings were organized, so I met a lot of people with cameras there. We went to a house to look at pictures from an earlier wedding. I was sitting there like forever with the people. They really wanted to tell me everything, all the details. I encouraged them to put on the tape of the wedding so that we could finish as soon as possible. And they said, “But the tape is already on!”

On the TV was a picture of someone’s huge stomach. I realized that this 20-minute-long shot was actually moving. “Why do you have a picture of that stomach?” I asked.

“But you see those people in the background just behind there?” they said. And it was true: you could see some dots in the background that were people.

“Yes, but why the stomach?”

“That’s what the camera took,” they said.

You see, there were 15 or 16 video cameras placed throughout the village. We couldn’t buy these cameras in Belgrade; our theater didn’t have a camera. But the people in this village would buy these cameras in Germany or Austria – where they’d been working – and install them in various places around the village. Then, whatever was taken by the cameras was watched during the winter season when no agricultural work was going on.

Many years later, I get a request from eastern Serbia to provide some support in building a TV station. And I found the same people, the ones who had been the camera owners. They started providing space for opposition leaders and using those same cameras to report on local events. I watched some of those reports. Everything was live. They covered a football match with three cameras: zoom, zoom, zoom, following the match. We were able to help them build their television station at a critical time. Along with B92, we helped them create a network of stations ANIM, which was so important in the changes in the country.

There was also the time when we tried to help create an association of local media. I worked with some people one on one. It took me a while to prepare the terrain. I asked one of the local newspapers that had progressive management — in Kragujevac, of all places, which was an economically weak industrial center during the Milosevic period – and they took it on themselves to host the meeting. I identified media that had different approaches and people who wanted a different kind of journalism. I got Stuart Auerbach to speak. At that time, he was a journalist with the Washington Post, and he was very busy covering political events around the world. He was an inspiration for the gathering. He spoke of the Washington Post being a local newspaper and the way he felt when he met people who provided feedback. The people in the local media understood what he was tailing about.

But the participants were hesitant about creating the association. “Maybe we can try,” they said. “I have family,” they said, “so I don’t know.” They said, “I’m being watched.”

When I got back to Belgrade, I had a phone call from a very upset editor in Bor in eastern Serbia, which is a mining town with a politically negative atmosphere with lots of angry, hungry people. The editor’s family was arrested. They managed to leave the kids with the neighbors. But the editor was also arrested the moment he showed up. Why? Because his paper published a caricature of Milosevic on the front page. I was able to send one of the best criminal lawyers to Bor. He was fantastic. I informed all the people in the network. The next day, everybody published the same caricature. That was the way to create a proper association. And since that day they haven’t stopped fighting for each other.

There’s another interesting story from that period. I was coming back home from Budapest, after the change in 2000 and when Zoran Dzindzic was still alive. I opened Vreme and saw the picture of someone I knew in a very negative emotional state. But I couldn’t remember who it was. When I started reading, I recognized who it was. It was my interrogator. He became Dzindzic’s minster of the interior. He resigned soon after. I was lucky: the interrogations were very very tough. So obviously they were not too tough since my interrogator sympathized with the opposition.

The major focus of the interrogation was why we were building new media systems in Kosovo. The media in the Albanian language were state media translating the same information that was available in Serbia. It was horrible, nationalist information presented to the Albanian population. So we assisted in creating a new Albanian media sector, and this was unbelievably disturbing for the Serbian government at that time.

 

You mentioned two stories of people you had interactions with early on that turned out to be different than you expected: your interrogator who showed up in the opposition and then the person across the street who turned out to your monitor. I’m wondering whether there were people that you drew a line through in your telephone book who also changed, who came back to you and confessed that they’d been mistaken?

 

Yes, there were those stories. Some people were forced into the war, forced into doing some horrible things. And horrible things happened on all sides. Some people were the victims of horrible things done by the other side while some people participated in horrible things in the name of Serbia. Some people killed themselves. This was a civil war type of conflict, and there were families and friends on both sides. On all sides. After a while, you didn’t even know what the sides were any more. Lots of people went through hell. I was lucky in a way: no one in my immediate family went through hell. But for some of my very close childhood friends, who were of a different ethnicity, it was a nightmare.

 

Have you yourself had second thoughts about beliefs that you held back then?

 

I’m sure. Anyone who claims to be open-minded and wants to judge the situation has to have a change of mind. I believe that what I’ve done in this process was the best that I could in the given moment. I regret some choices, but not much. But I’ve carried around a lot of guilt for a very long time. I’m still struggling with this. I shouldn’t have this guilt, because I was doing what I was doing in the best possible way.

 

London, January 24, 2013


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