Reviving Local Media in Serbia

10/30/2013 10:12 am ET | Updated Dec 30, 2013

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

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.