'Politika', once the mouthpiece of the old order, is suddenly essential

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The Independent Online

Of all the newspapers to get hold of in Belgrade yesterday, Politika, once the ultimate Milosevic mouthpiece, was the absolute must-have item. As one speaker told a cheering rally on the square in front of the parliament: "For years, I haven't bought Politikaat all. Let me confess: today, I bought two copies." It was the same story across the city.

Of all the newspapers to get hold of in Belgrade yesterday, Politika, once the ultimate Milosevic mouthpiece, was the absolute must-have item. As one speaker told a cheering rally on the square in front of the parliament: "For years, I haven't bought Politikaat all. Let me confess: today, I bought two copies." It was the same story across the city.

One newspaper kiosk owner gazed in astonishment at the fast diminishing pile of copies of the newspaper, until yesterday filled with pro-Milosevic lies. "Normally I get 10 copies and only sell three. This morning I got 50 copies, which were sold out within half an hour from the time I opened. Now I've got another 100 - and they are almost all gone, too."

During the past decade, Politika has poured poison against everybody from Bosnian Muslims to Kosovo Albanians to Serb opposition politicians and independent journalists. In recent weeks, it has managed to ignore the fact that Serbia was in the middle of a revolution, reporting instead on its front page that the Chinese media or the Ukrainian Communist Party were very happy with the way the Yugoslav elections had proceeded and very unhappy about outrageous foreign meddling. Then, suddenly, Belgraders woke up to a Politika that believed truth to be OK.

On its front page, the paper proclaimed "Serbia on the road to democracy". At the bottom of the page, there was a little panel in which the paper dissociated itself from its past crimes. The entire paper was given over to hymns of praise for the fact that Mr Milosevic was now finally on his way out.

Until 6pm on Thursday, it would have looked very different. An entire paper had been planned and sent to the printers, containing the usual vituperative attacks on the opposition. Politika journalists, many of whom had worked for the oncerespected daily before it was overcome by Milosevic lunacy, then finally plucked courage to protest about distorted coverage and were promptly locked out of the building.

By the time they returned at 7pm, they found that the building had been abandoned by the Milosevic loyalists. They promptly rolled up their sleeves and produced the celebratory edition instead. Yesterday, a notice outside the offices proclaimed that this was the editorial building of Free Politika. One journalist who has worked there for 30 years said: "Now I have outlasted him. We have been drinking whisky in celebration all morning."

At the powerful Serb state television, the change has been equally extraordinary. From broadcasting non-stop pro-Milosevic interviews, it suddenly carried an interview with Vojislav Kostunica, thepresident-elect, which it repeated again and again. The pro-Milosevic news presenters slunk away. Several were almost lynched as they left the building.

Perhaps the most surreal backflip of all has been Vecherne Novosti, the evening paper which has for so long been slavishly loyal to Mr Milosevic. Suddenly yesterday, the paper proclaimed, in a banner headline: "The will of the people has triumphed". The paper noted its own change of heart under the headline "Return of truth".

That may be regarded as Serbia's greatest hope. Before Mr Milosevic, Yugoslavia had a tradition of tolerant and accurate reporting. This may well be revived.

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