War In The Balkans: Propaganda - I watched as `TV Slobbo' turned into voice of hate

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The Independent Online
TO MANY SERBS, especially in the deep countryside, it is the voice of absolute truth and the means by which "Slobo" communicates his struggle against fascism and the New World Order to his embattled but adoring compatriots. To a small, probably shrinking minority, it is the Bastille - a fortress imprisoning the mind of Serbia from the world.

When I first worked in Serbian TV's English-language section in 1988, the Milosevic revolution was a work in progress. Radio Televisija Serbija had scarcely got into its stride. True, the Kosovo Albanians were already called "nationalists and separatists", and even "counter-revolutionaries", but the gloves were still on.

Within two years, the vocabulary of socialism had slipped away to reveal the savage racial hatred which for at least eight years has been RTS's stock in trade.

Since then RTS has turned into a vehicle that whips up genocidal passions, a vital cog in the business of psychologically preparing the entire Serbian nation for the necessity of exterminating its enemies. The paramilitaries now killing Albanian civilians in Kosovo were reared on a diet of ethnic hatred that poured out of the station. In that sense it is a crucial weapon in Milosevic's war against the Kosovars.

No one who ever sat through those 7.30pm vesti (news) programmes would forget the hate-filled propaganda that spilt out over the airwaves every night for up to an hour and a half. Nor could they forget the breathless, babbling tone of the presenters, the glee with which they referred to the "liquidation of enemy units"; nor could they forget the presenters' reliance on the limited lexicon of state Serbian nationalism, whose terms dictated that every Croat was an "Ustashe Fascist", every Bosnian a "mujahadeen", every Albanian a "Shiptar" - a word which has the same connotations when used by outsiders as "nigger" does to black people.

The world has RTS to thank for adding a new phrase to the English language - "ethnic cleansing" - although the phrase has been corrupted; what the RTS broadcasts used to say was that the Yugoslav army was "cleansing the terrain".

Until the mid-1980s, Radio Televisija Beograd (as it was then) was a dozy Communist news network, whose widely ignored broadcasts were loaded with the impenetrable language of "self-managing socialism". Differences between the Yugoslav republics were concealed in a fog of socialist rhetoric (usually about "the urgent need for cadre differentiation") so that only ideological experts could tell what they were about.

RTS did not mutate into a monster on its own. The man who transformed it was Slobodan Milosevic. More far-sighted than any other Communist leader in Eastern Europe, Milosevic realised the massive popular power that could be harnessed to Serbia's faltering Communist system by playing on deep- seated racial fears. And Milosevic alone understood the role that television could play.

So it was that while the Berlin Wall was coming down and Communist parties were collapsing in the face of democratic challenges everywhere from the Baltic to Macedonia, in Serbia alone it survived, transformed beyond recognition by nationalism.

Milosevic's takeover of the Serbian League of Communists in 1987, displacing his moderate former ally and patron Ivan Stambolic, was the result of his prior takeover of RTS, and the success with which he installed his allies into the institution. It was their strident anti-Albanian propaganda in the summer and autumn of 1987 that rallied Serbs behind Milosevic, toppled Stambolic, and set Serbia on its present course.

But it was during the wars with Croatia and Bosnia from 1991 to 1995 that RTS really came into its own. The commentaries after the 7.30 evening news became longer and increasingly intimidating, not only towards "fascist" Croatia and "fundamentalist" Bosnia but towards Milosevic's domestic opponents. It also started labelling political opponents as traitors,virtually inviting their assassination.

Serbia's opposition parties always recognised RTS was their real foe, more important even than the army. It was Vuk Draskovic - now Milosevic's deputy prime minister but in 1991 his bitter opponent - who labelled the heavily-guarded fortress in Belgrade the "Bastille" and who struggled, without success, to force Milosevic to relinquish his grip on this mighty institution.

Milosevic resisted. He would happily distribute ministerial portfolios to several one-time enemies but RTS remains sacrosanct.

In the last few years, challengers emerged. Using the privatisation process - an unwelcome but inevitable process for a government a bankrupt as Milosevic's - a handful of private television and radio stations such as Studio B emerged to provide an alternative world view to RTS's diet of anti-Serbian "plots". But they were never a serious challenge, as the authorities limited their range to the vicinity of Belgrade, leaving the vast bulk of Serbia to RTS.

Serbia's worsening confrontation with the West over the last year saw that threat extinguished. New laws, coupled with less official pressures, such as the assassination of the newspaper editor Slavko Curuvija, have silenced Serbia's independent media. Once again - unless Nato succeeds completely in taking RTS off the air - Milosevic rules the airwaves.