MEDIA: The Smell of Fear


“On circumstantial evidence alone, media freedom seems to have packed up and caught the last train out of Serbia.”

We are suspWorld-press-freedom-day-index-covericious of good news.

I have been involved in and surrounded by news-gathering in Serbia since 2002, since almost the day I arrived. At that time, there was a feeling of cautious permission to write about almost anything – government scandals, ministerial misdeeds, and even satires. The feeling was that the free press had been restored, at least to a certain extent.

I started writing a column in a (now defunct) English news magazine and, at first, wrote it under a pseudonym – warned as I had been that the “authorities” could make trouble for me if they did not like my often critical satire or sarcasm. But that lasted only a short time and I resumed under my own flag within a few weeks.

The dread “authorities” either did not care or were not paying attention to my scribbling. I became more daring – I launched the occasional attack on governmental foolishness. I likened politicians to animals and arch-criminals. During that time, which spanned through recent years, I was only castigated a few times for one or another politician’s disgruntlement. But the reprimands were toothless. Uninspiring of fear.

As I go through the news and headlines and articles in the Serbian press these days, however, there is something which I have not experienced before. There is a smell of fear. This is not universal – some daring journalists and editors seem to ignore the scent – but it is there nevertheless.

Each day I see more and more “good news” pieces about Serbia and the Serbian government. Great tidings and glad announcements and upbeat observations are interlaced with broadly positive promises and proclamations. And while all of this news may be true to some extent, I find it suspect. I am not on the lookout for the bad news, but I would find the daily regime of sugar-coating a little more delectable if there were a dash of salt here and there. Maybe a slightly bitter after-taste would offset the disequilibrium and make the whole thing more palatable.

We have read today of the editor of Vecernje Novosti’s getting the steel toe, allegedly because of an openly critical stance to the government. We have also read about the home-invasion of a foreign journalist and publisher who was not known to pull her punches.

I have noticed the word “traitor” bandied around more in the media since the elections than I have heard since grade-school history. Loyal. Disloyal. Traitors. These words should strike fear into the heart of anyone who may be on the verge of expressing an opinion. They are not the words of enlightened debate and constructive opposition – these words lay down the line which must never be crossed.

I have also watched as a faithful member of the ruling party refused flatly and repeatedly to give his opinion on the Belgrade mayoral situation. “It’s not for me to say,” he repeated over and over again. The climate a fear in political circles must certainly be much more chilling than in the media, and thankfully I am unlikely to experience it.

On circumstantial evidence alone, media freedom seems to have packed up and caught the last train out of Serbia. This will not be upheld by the statutes – there is no official censorship here. This will not be upheld by official proclamations – all voices sing the praises of a free press. But the pervasive smell of fear cannot be denied.

Apparently there is much to fear from objectivity.


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