Under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the once vibrant news media in Serbia was hobbled by government restrictions, intimidation, and worse. Now, fifteen months since the revolution that ended 12 years of Milosevic rule, the news media is again free and, to many observers, has reclaimed its vitality. But journalists and media analysts say western standards of professionalism have not yet been reached.
People in Belgrade can choose among seven daily newspapers and watch eight different television news programs. But media observers say that within that wide range of choices, the content is less varied.
Belgrade's Strategic Marketing and Media Research Institute finds that during the month of December the news media gave far more attention to disagreements within the ruling government coalition than any other topic. By contrast says the Institute, television news programs devoted only eight percent of air time to economic issues, a matter of vital interest in Serbia.
Institute researcher Dejan Vujovic believes national political stories are covered more or less objectively, not at all like they were under Mr. Milosevic. "However, today we don't have biased comments," he says. "We don't have comments by journalists on the T-V news that are explicitly in favor of certain politicians or a certain political party."
While that view is shared by other analysts, reporter Milica Bielic of Belgrade's daily Glas (Voice) believes journalists and editors are generally uncritical of the democratic reformers now in power. "They're always used to respecting the government in that time of Milosevic and in this time," she says. "The freedom of media is more now. The freedom of the people now is more. But opinions change very slowly."
Outside media analysts say that the news media is too quick to accept the views of the ruling DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia) coalition.
Seshka Stanojlovic of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights dismisses the view that the current government is reformist. She sees it as only a modest improvement over Mr. Milosevic. She warns that the so-called reformers could soon turn on the independent media. "They are eager to control the media," she says. "And they are especially interested to control the most influential media like state TV. And like Politika, the daily newspaper, which is traditionally very influential in Serbia."
While Ms. Stanojlovic's views are dismissed by many journalists, media analyst Vujovic agrees with her assertion that the news media has done little to examine Serbia's alleged complicity in war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. "Most of the journalists come to this topic (war crimes) somewhat hesitantly," he says. "But sooner or later both journalists and this community will have to deal with war crimes. And we shall see what is going to be in that area in the future."
One thing upon which all the media observers agree: the news media is freer in Serbia than it has been in 50 years. They say events of the day, good or bad, are generally being reported - and reported accurately.