BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In the decade of Slobodan Milosevic's bloody reign over Yugoslavia, the most penetrating voice of democracy in Serbia was not that of western governments nor of Milosevic's domestic opposition, but of a youth radio station called B92. For 10 years the fearless group of young journalists defied government harassment, confiscation and the very real threat of violence to broadcast, and when its transmitter was shut down, webcast news about genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo and criminal tyranny at home. Now in its 13th year, B92 faces a very different landscape. The student radio station has evolved into a multimedia enterprise including a soon to be national TV channel and perhaps feature films. [MUSIC] [BRIEF CLIP FROM B92 PLAYS]
BOB GARFIELD:It is the convergence of journalism, activism, commercialism and no less than ever, paternalism. For instance, with Milosevic in The Hague on trial for war crimes, other Serbian stations stopped live coverage when they discovered it was making Milosevic a sympathetic figure. B92 alone runs the tribunal proceedings, which it regards as essential to the society's coming to grips with Serbian crimes. At the moment, Serbs are in the midst of choosing a president -- either Miroljub Labus, closely tied to Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, or sitting President Vojislav Kostunica whose nationalist stripes are ever more evident. In covering this election too, B92 has demonstrated its unique and journalistically unorthodox role in the reconstruction of the society. Last week I visited B92's headquarters in central Belgrade and sat down with founder Veran Matic.
BOB GARFIELD: Veran, welcome to On the Media! VERAN MATIC: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD:It's well documented what kind of force you were for journalistic freedom and for democracy up until this point. What's your vision for B92 moving forward. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: During Milosevic maybe it was easier, because we only needed courage and imagination to overcome the obstacles, and now it's more complex situation because we have to be competitive. We have to develop entertainment programs; we have to become financially independent because we cannot count any more on funding from the West.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you about your progressive identity. Are you so associated with the democrats -- with Djindjic, for example, and now in the presidential race with Labus --that your journalistic distance is suspect? What do you have to do to make sure that you are not perceived for Djindjic and Labus as the equivalent of, for example, Radio Television Serbia for Milosevic? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: During the last 10 years, during the Milosevic regime, we were heavily and very seriously criticized by the opposition parties -- why don't we behave like RTS behaves with Milosevic? We should be like that with the opposition. We should serve the opposition. But we succeeded in keeping our independent profile.
BOB GARFIELD:I hear a lot of whispers -- sometimes more than whispers -- that Djindjic has surrounded himself with his political cronies and they are lining their pockets in the same way that Milosevic lined his pockets and taking care of themselves and enriching themselves now that they've attained power. Is there any evidence that that's true and what is B92 doing to expose corruption within the current regime? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: We have a, a series of shows coming up about the corruption, but the thing is that this society doesn't recognize corruption. It's so embedded in everyday life, it's normal to go to the doctor with a pocket full of money or in the countryside with a pig so when you make a good story about corruption, they don't get it.
BOB GARFIELD: How often doesn't someone come to you carrying a pig? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC:We gave clear signals that's impossible to do that. So no one tried to influence. They put us in jail. They banned us. They threaten, but no one tried to corrupt us, because they knew that if they tried, it would immediately appear in our broadcast.
BOB GARFIELD:I want to ask you about Seselj. Vojislav Seselj as you know only too well is a extreme right wing, extreme nationalist and a candidate for the presidency among 7 or 8 others. I have seen coverage on B92 of President Kostunica, of Labus and the other candidates but I haven't seen a word about Seselj. Why? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: First we think Seselj is a Fascist, and we don't want to use our station for Fascist or racist ideas. Second, he doesn't have a real presence in political life. But if you put him in the media, then he gets a way to address people; he can gain some popularity. Our audience is still not politically educated enough to really judge by themselves or to differentiate Fascist ideas from other ideas. That's one reason. The other reason is because three years ago we decided together with our other independent media to boycott Seselj because he made a very severe accusation that we were responsible for the assassination of the minister of defense.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't the suppression of any political voice, no matter how repugnant, itself an abrogation of journalistic principles? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC:We are in quite a complicated situation. We can decide to promote violent ideas who brought terrible horror to our country, or we can decide very consciously to restrict the ideas that have done so much harm. This country, its policy, even international community is not ready to deal with a lot of factors in this drama happening here that haven't been punished. Maybe it's not the role of a little station like B92 to educate people in these things; but since nobody else is doing it, we are.
BOB GARFIELD:I must tell you, I got a chill a moment ago, because whenever I hear a Serb say you don't understand - the situation is very complicated - I have to hold my breath for fear of what I'm going to hear next. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: There are many things in this society that can give you a chill.
BOB GARFIELD: In this building, almost everybody will vote for Labus. Two years ago almost everybody in this building voted for Kostunica, because he was for a variety of complicated reasons the right political figure at a certain moment in time. Is it possible that in the same way that Kostunica has outlived his democratic usefulness, that B92 has also outlived its democratic usefulness or that that will happen some time in the near future? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: I'm absolutely sure that it won't happen. The progressive role of B92 will not be over because that's our identity. And if that goes, we won't be B92 any more. We will still have an important social and cultural role. In the future many people will try to misuse the media as an instrument of manipulation. This is happening right now in these elections, and we must not permit that. We are trying to use the model of-- Channel 4 of Britain which is like a public station but with commercial role. Like commercial PBS.
BOB GARFIELD:Which leads me to one final question. I notice I'm watching your evening news broadcast every night, and the young woman who is the anchor of the news never smiles. Why doesn't she smile? [FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN]
INTERPRETER FOR VERAN MATIC: I have to admit I don't like it -- I've noticed it but I don't like it either. Though you have to understand under which kind of circumstances we work, and in this country there are not too many things to smile about.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Veran Matic, thank you very much. VERAN MATIC: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Veran Matic is founder of radio and now television B92. I spoke with him in his offices in Belgrade.
by Ognjen I. Prijatelji