A Free Serbian Press?

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Velickovic was one of the last people to see Curuvija alive, which put him at the center of a controversy in Belgrade last week over a surveillance report leaked to the press from the state security service. According to the document, secret police agents followed Curuvija on the afternoon that he was killed, almost up to the very minute that he was gunned down. Since Velickovic ran into Curuvija not once but twice that same afternoon, they put a tail on him as well, following Velickovic right up to the front door of his apartment.

Velickovic wrote about that afternoon in his self-published book of observations on the NATO bombings in Belgrade, Amor Mundi, which came out last year. He says that he can't vouch for the absolute authenticity of the leaked document, but he is emphatic in saying that the report's account of his encounters with Curuvija that afternoon is entirely accurate. "Whoever wrote the report," says Velickovic on the telephone from Belgrade, "put in things that I had forgotten."

Amor Mundi captures Belgrade's paranoia during the NATO bombings succinctly and pungently. For instance, Velickovic writes that at the commencement of the bombing in March 1999, "The nearby 'New York' restaurant is still open, but the owner has erased the old name and written the new one on a piece of paper?'The Baghdad Cafe.'"

Logic would suggest that Velickovic would be an optimist about the revolution that has swept Milosevic from power at last and installed a fragile democratic government under Vojislav Kostunica. Though he is optimistic about the future of Serbia's politics, he's less sanguine about its consequences for his magazine and for Serbia's independent press in general.

"We will be able to work freely," Velickovic tells me by telephone, "but I doubt it is an end to our troubles. It will now be a matter of how to survive in a free market. The problems will now be less political and more economic." He adds darkly that Alexandria Biblioteka might not survive the postrevolutionary transition and quotes to me the observation of a prominent Hungarian journalist about his travails after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of Eastern Europe's communist infrastructure. That journalist, says Velickovic, "told me that 'it was better for me to be a dissident than [it is] now in a market economy.'"

Velickovic is a Serbian independent media veteran. I met him a few years ago when the weekly that I worked for in St. Louis hosted him as a visiting journalist. Ostensibly, I was to impart the wisdom of American journalistic practice to him. Since Velickovic was at that time the editor-in-chief of NIN (Serbia's equivalent to Time), that was a simply ridiculous notion. Not only had Velickovic guided NIN to independent financial status during his tenure, he was busily restoring the magazine's journalistic credibility as well?a tall order in the hyper-nationalistic and paranoid Belgrade of those years. There wasn't much the vapid alt-weekly press in the U.S. was going to teach him. So I asked him what he wanted to do (among other things, meet writer William Gass) and we did that instead.

On Nov. 3, 1996, elections were held in Serbia. Opposition parties united under the "Zajedno" (or "Together") banner were defeated at the national level, but they won municipal elections in a number of major Serbian cities, including Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad. When the regime of Slobodan Milosevic started annulling these elections, it kicked off a three-month wave of protests that nearly swept Milosevic from power and forced him to recognize Zajedno's November election victories.

"Nearly" is the operative word here, especially as far as Velickovic was concerned. Zajedno quickly fell apart in a spat of internal politicking exploited by Milosevic, and Velickovic was among the first media victims that Milosevic targeted. The management of NIN kicked him out of the editor's chair that spring, precipitating a six-week strike by the staff.

"Certainly," Velickovic says of his firing, "it was Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic who were behind it. He did it in his own way, which was to make difficulties and problems for me through the management of NIN."

It wasn't the first time that Milosevic and other politicians had threatened Velickovic. In a chapter of Amor Mundi titled "A Short and Very Personal History of Threats," he mentions threats communicated to him from Bosnian Serb general and indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic and murdered Serb paramilitary leader Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic.

Velickovic resurfaced in 1998 as the editor of Alexandria Biblioteka. He started it in an even chillier environment for independent media with the support of the independent weekly Vreme and help from the Open Society Institute and the Fund for Central and East European Book Projects. "It was obvious that we missed a magazine of its type in Serbia," Velickovic observes. "Serious but popular. It was a challenge, too, to start a magazine about international political and cultural matters in a country where xenophobia and isolation were at their highest levels."

Those conditions were heightened by two factors. The first was a draconian "Information Law" passed by the Milosevic regime. Its most cunning and devastating provision allowed those who merely felt wronged by an article to sue the media outlet that published or broadcast the material. This wasn't a libel law, but merely a means by which offended Milosevic cronies could sue media outlets in courts rigged by the regime. The whopping "fines" that resulted from such "trials" stifled most independent media and put a few out of business. The second factor, of course, was the NATO bombing and the martial law that accompanied it.

In this poisonous atmosphere, Velickovic made some gutsy choices for Alexandria, including the publication of portions of Tim Judah's often unflattering study, The Serbs, and Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History. He also chose to publish translations of essays by economist Jeffrey Sachs and philanthropist George Soros. A Serbian translation of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism was published on- and offline. "It was especially a challenge during bombing and martial law," Velickovic says. "But I do think that we had a very important role as a small light in dark times."

Alexandria ran into continued difficulties right up to the revolution. This past summer issue of Alexandria, in fact, was kept off the newsstands by continuing harassment of the magazine's distribution network. "That group was chased off the streets by Milosevic's police," Velickovic observes. "They were not able to sell many issues."

The Oct. 5 storming of the Yugoslav Parliament building was the defining moment of the Serbian revolution, but those who know the Balkans well might point to the seizure of state media outlets that day as even more important. State media in Serbia had a large part in bringing Milosevic to power and it fanned the flames of nationalist hatred that resulted in four wars in a decade. On Oct. 5, the lockstep state media changed its stripes overnight. The daily newspaper Politika, for instance, was a primary mouthpiece for Milosevic's regime; it was "independent" by Oct. 7. State television and radio were equally and instantly "flexible."

At the end of our phone conversation, I ask Velickovic about this sudden 180-degree change in the state media and the public's reaction to it. He argues that "a great number of people knew that we lived in lies. So there is a skepticism. I am a big skeptic about Politika and state television. I doubt that they can be easily transformed. They must be changed completely. You can keep the hardware, but you must change all the software." He says the "new software" is already available in independent broadcast media like Radio B92 and weeklies like Vreme.

Independents like Alexandria will soon fight it out in a nascent capitalist economy where the major media outlets that supported Milosevic have suddenly ditched him for a new look. "It will be a struggle for the market," Velickovic says dryly. On the upside, he notes that Vreme had healthy gains in circulation over the last month or so. "But will that continue?" asks Velickovic. "Or will people turn to more conservative and softer papers that are not so critical?"

The answer to Velickovic's question may decide whether Serbs have traded in the harsh isolation and misery under which they languished for more than a decade for a milder form of the same thing.

Richard Byrne is a writer based in Washington, DC, who has freelanced extensively in Central Europe.

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