Article by Peter Maass

Radio Wars

Brill's Content  |  March 2001
Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic understood the power of propaganda and did his best to control the media. But his failure to silence the U.S.-supported radio station B-92 was emblematic of the war he lost to control the country.

In Belgrade, you don’t need to be paranoid, but it helps. It’s late October, and I’m sipping an espresso at the Window Café, along Knez Mihailova, the city’s main shopping street, with Sasha Mirkovic, the general manager of B-92, an independent radio station that had the annoying habit of exposing the lies of Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Outside the café, the city is laced with remnants of the euphoria that greeted the downfall of Milosevic’s regime just a few weeks earlier. The government was washed away by a wave of protesters, many of whom found their way to the city center on October 5 by following a bulldozer as it cleared a path through police roadblocks. A few yards from where Mirkovic and I sit, street vendors are selling postcards of the famous bulldozer—now a political icon with treads—and they are selling copies of a CD of popular protest songs with a torn campaign poster of Milosevic on the cover, under the title “He’s Finished.”

Mirkovic is telling me about B-92, checking his watch, running his hand through his dark hair (which is not far from a crew cut), and asking the waiter to turn down the music. He suddenly stops and points to his cell phone, which he has placed on the table between us. Whenever Mirkovic had face-to-face conversations with sources or friends during the Milosevic era, he tells me, he not only turned off his cell phone but removed its battery. “It’s not paranoia,” says the stocky 33-year-old in the weary, know-it-all tone of a mechanic describing what’s wrong with a car. “If you don’t take out the battery, even though the phone is turned off, your conversation can be listened to.” Detaching the battery to illustrate, he adds: “People are still doing this, even though Milosevic is gone.”

I thought this was strange—another example of the suspicion that fills the Balkans with enough conspiracy theories to keep Oliver Stone busy for years—but other Serb journalists were telling me the same thing, assuring me, usually at the outset of our conversations, that they are not being paranoid. But none of them could explain how a switched-off cell phone could transmit their conversations to government snoops.

When I return to New York, I call Jeff Schlanger, chief operating officer of the security-services group at Kroll Associates, the global investigative company. Schlanger begins the conversation by reminding me of a simple fact: “A cell phone is a listening device.” He explains that technicians can reconfigure a phone to transmit a conversation even though its owner has turned it off. The trick, he explains, is to make the phone appear as though it’s been turned off when it is actually on. When I ask Schlanger what could be done to thwart this mischief, he suggests detaching the cell phone’s battery.

For quite some time, being an independent journalist in Serbia required a range of skills that edged into the realms of spycraft and diplomacy. That’s because the struggle for power in Serbia centered on information, not politics, and Mirkovic’s station was at the center of this war. B-92—which stands for Belgrade 92, its original frequency—began operating in 1989 as a low-wattage radio station for young people, but it quickly evolved, under Mirkovic’s boss, editor in chief Veran Matic, into the Serbian capital’s most influential source of honest and live news about the wars that were tearing apart the former Yugoslavia and about the government lies that were fueling the nationalist madness.

Milosevic made sure that the state-owned media, especially Radio Television Serbia (RTS), broadcast his nationalist propaganda at all times; the station was staffed by loyalists who heaped praise upon the politicians, including Milosevic, who was later indicted for war crimes by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. While leaders of the police and army were making deals with the opposition in the weeks before Milosevic was ousted, the ever loyal men and women of RTS pumped out increasingly strident propaganda, and they didn’t stop until a mob stormed their headquarters on October 5 and set it on fire.

Milosevic understood that if you can brainwash your people, you don’t need to arrest them. He understood a corollary lesson, too—a regime that draws its power from propaganda rather than terror faces its greatest threat from independent journalists who have the desire and the means to expose its lies. Milosevic never banned any opposition party and rarely arrested politicians who opposed him; he did, however, force the closure of radio and television stations he didn’t like, and he didn’t hesitate to throw journalists into jail. They were the enemy, and 18 months before he was removed from power, Milosevic showed how much he feared B-92, the pillar of Serbia’s independent media, by trying to shut it down.

His failure to fully silence B-92 was emblematic of the war he fought—and, ultimately, lost—to control the hearts and minds of ordinary Serbs. B-92 outmaneuvered and outlasted Milosevic because it had truth on its side and a clever, dedicated staff, but it also had another asset—financial assistance from the United States government, which realized that in today’s world, an undesirable dictator can be undermined with accurate information as well as smart bombs.

It was April 2, 1999, and Sasha Mirkovic knew it was going to be a bad day at the office when he saw the police cars parked outside the Dom Omladine building. Dom Omladine is Belgrade’s center for young people, who like to drink coffee in the ground-floor café, surf the Internet on the first floor, or shoot pool in the basement. The building is also the headquarters for B-92, and when Mirkovic, one of its founders, walked past the news kiosk outside the building on that day, he prepared himself for the worst. The NATO alliance had recently launched the first wave of air strikes in its 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia, and Milosevic was cracking down on dissent. Mirkovic had already taken the precaution of deleting sensitive e-mail messages from his computer and slipping out of B-92’s office with documents that detailed the financial assistance the station received from foreign donors. Although B-92 acknowledged having accepted assistance from nonprofit groups outside the country, it never disclosed the dollar amounts—which appear to have been in the millions—or the donors themselves. And in the hands of Milosevic’s propaganda machine, those details could easily be used to tie B-92 to the NATO governments that were preparing to turn the country into rubble.

Mirkovic took the elevator to his sixth-floor office; it was 8:30 in the morning, and he had arrived early to conduct a phone interview with a foreign television network. Before the interview could begin, a security guard told him there were visitors outside. He stepped into the corridor and faced two plainclothes law-enforcement officials who flashed their IDs and said they were taking over the station. Behind them were four uniformed policemen, and behind them were half a dozen men in black leather jackets who looked as though they had seen too many Terminator movies.

The only B-92 staff on the sixth floor apart from Mirkovic were a security guard and a cleaning woman. It was not much of a match, especially since Mirkovic’s backpack was stuffed with some of the financial documents the police probably wanted. Stalling for time, Mirkovic asked the security guard to summon the cleaning lady, because, he said, he had her bag. When she appeared a minute later, squeezing through the leather jackets, Mirkovic casually handed her his backpack, and without missing a beat, she carried it to safety.

“When I went back into my office, a guy was already sitting in my chair,” Mirkovic tells me, smiling. “The guy was asking, ‘Where are the documents? Where are the folders?’”

Mirkovic refused to tell him and was tossed out of the office. He went downstairs and met with B-92 staffers who had gathered at the café on the ground floor. They decided that if they couldn’t have the station, they wouldn’t let the government have it, either.

The station’s engineers logged on to the computer terminals in the lobby of Dom Omladine and hacked their way into the B-92 computer system. They deleted whatever they could find—not just financial information but even audio files that contained the jingles that identified the station to its listeners. When the government reopened B-92, the following Monday, most of the staff showed up ostensibly to interview for their old jobs and pledge their loyalty to a new management. But they were in fact there to cause as much havoc as possible. Disc jockeys filched as many CDs as they could lay their hands on. Technicians, asked to show their skills or just show how the systems worked, logged on to the computers and deleted files. The station’s music director managed covertly to stick a screwdriver into an electrical outlet, shorting the station’s wiring and causing everything to crash.

Regardless, the state-run B-92 went back on the air several days later, with a new staff that hadn’t a clue about the alternative music the station used to play. They thought Radiohead was a tape cleaner of some sort. More important, their news broadcasts were the usual Milosevic drivel. The station was a fake, and listeners knew it; few tuned in. That was a victory of sorts for the station’s former staff, but they still confronted a basic question: What do we do now to get the truth onto the airwaves?

Sasha Mirkovic has the crisp, let’s-not-waste-a-second demeanor of a young dotcom executive, which is unusual in Belgrade. His mind even operates in a digital way, clicking from one subject to another so quickly that I find it necessary, on occasion, to ask him to slow down and explain something before clicking to another subject. He got his start in broadcasting as a disc jockey, which seems to have trained him to dread silence. Our encounter at the Window Café is a classic illustration of Mirkovic’s manic lifestyle, as he talks on his cell phone (he quickly reattached the battery after his demonstration) and jots reminders in his leatherbound datebook, which tracks his multiple appointments with diplomats, politicians, and journalists. A natural-born organizer, Mirkovic even keeps a list of every movie he has seen (he’s a film buff; there are several thousand titles on the list). I suggest that his life seems a bit frenetic. “It would be worse if I had a normal life and didn’t do anything against this regime,” he replies. “One of the main reasons I was doing this job at B-92 was because I could not live in this country without acting against this regime. That was the meaning of my life. But I was also thinking, of the people who left the country, One of us is making a mistake, them or me.”

In the early 1990s, B-92 occupied the same cultural ground in Serbia as Rolling Stone did in America in the 1960s; one of B-92’s slogans was “Trust no one, not even us.” Under the guidance of Veran Matic, its editor in chief, B-92 soon evolved beyond the alternative realm and organized get-out-the-vote campaigns while disseminating news not only about the wars that were taking place in Croatia and Bosnia but also about Serbia’s economic free fall. As Milosevic’s grip on Serbia’s media tightened through the 1990s, B-92 became the most influential antidote to government propaganda.

In late 1996, Milosevic’s Socialist Party stumbled in municipal elections but refused to cede control of the city halls it lost; nightly demonstrations ensued, and one of the first things the government did, hoping to short-circuit the protests, was ban B-92’s broadcasts, which had spread the word about the growing agitation. But the station’s journalists began broadcasting on the Internet, and their reports were bounced back into Serbia on shortwave broadcasts of the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Milosevic, who still cared about his international reputation, relented, letting the station resume its broadcasts and eventually letting the opposition take control of the city halls it had won.

This was the beginning of the end for Milosevic because it led to a blossoming of independent media outside Belgrade, where city councils ran their own radio and television stations and controlled licensing for new ones. These city-run stations parroted the government’s line while Milosevic’s Socialist Party was in charge, but that changed once the opposition took over. Mirkovic and Matic used this opening to establish a network of independent stations outside Belgrade that broadcast reports by the team at B-92. It was called the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM is the acronym for the Serbian name for the group).

The members of ANEM—eventually 33 radio stations and 17 television stations—were shoestring operations; many used homemade transmitters. But even shoestring outfits need money, and this posed a problem for ANEM. Businesses were reluctant to advertise on antigovernment stations, and the country’s economy was in ruins, so there was no way that even a pro-Milosevic station could survive on advertising revenue alone.

This is where the U.S. government stepped in. Since the early 1990s, the independent media in Serbia had received modest support from a handful of private donors, including the Open Society Institute, funded by financier George Soros to promote democracy in places such as Serbia. After the 1996 municipal elections, the U.S. and its European allies became aware of two facts—that Milosevic was not an unstoppable force of nature and that his control over voters could be weakened by the work of the independent media. So the White House and its allies in Europe decided to funnel financial support not only to prodemocracy forces in Serbia—including opposition parties and student groups—but also to the media. This was a new approach: In the days of the cold war, programs that were designed to bring down foreign governments tended to involve covert support for coup makers or rebel factions. Serbia, however, had opposition parties and independent media, and they could topple the regime democratically if given the means.

“Support for the independent media and the democratic forces was crucial,” notes Jim Hooper, a former U.S. State Department expert on Yugoslavia and, until recently, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, a think tank that often criticized U.S. policy. “It was one of the elements without which Milosevic wouldn’t have been overthrown.” Some of the other key factors, Hooper believes, were the bombing of Yugoslavia, which weakened popular support for Milosevic, and international sanctions, which isolated the country.

By 2000, the U.S. was budgeting more than $25 million for democracy-building programs in Serbia, and nearly half of that was devoted to civil-society development, which included media-related projects, says Don Pressley, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Pressley tells me that a “substantial portion” of the media funding went to ANEM, though the exact amount is not forthcoming from Washington or Belgrade. U.S. officials say the problem is that their “partners” in Serbia do not wish to have the amounts publicized even now, because this could provide fodder for Serb nationalists who want to portray the anti-Milosevic uprising as having been made in the United States. “For a country in which 50 deutsche marks [about $25] is a lot of money, people would not understand these figures,” Mirkovic tells me.

Whatever the amount, the money was not wasted on expensive consultants or salaries for American expatriates, which often happens with U.S.-government-run foreign programs. This time, the funding went directly to local journalists, providing them with the resources to continue broadcasting.

“This can be done everywhere, and should be,” says John Fox, director of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute. “This can be done in all places, in Africa, in Asia, wherever there are independent journalists who are already taking risks, who are already showing the enterprise, and who already have credibility.”

In Serbia, it was the information age’s equivalent of a guerrilla war. Journalists who exchanged e-mail with foreign donors (and one another) used PGP, an encryption program, and instructed their foreign contacts not to fax sensitive documents because faxes are easy to intercept. Even nonsensitive faxes could cause trouble. The head of the Belgrade office of Norwegian People’s Aid, a nonprofit organization that quietly provided independent journalists with money and equipment—everything from transmitters and laptops to air conditioners—tells me of his horror at receiving a faxed invitation from the State Department to speak at a seminar it was organizing. The next day, the fax was leaked to the Serbian minister of information, who used it to portray the Norwegian group as an instrument of U.S. policy.

One of the point men in Belgrade for distributing U.S. aid is Dusan Masic, a former news editor at B-92 who has worked, since April, for the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based nonprofit that is one of the principal channels for U.S. funding to independent media. When I meet with Masic in Belgrade, he is still operating in a quasi-fugitive manner, with no office or business cards. We get together at a café in downtown Belgrade, and he begins by asking wary questions about my background and this magazine.

His caution eases somewhat, but when I bring up the issue of U.S. financial aid, he smiles and says, “I can’t talk about that.” Still, I ask him which media outlets receive funding from IREX. He won’t say. How did he transfer the money into the country? He won’t say. He agrees, however, to disclose a trick of his unusual trade: Whenever he has a confidential, face-to-face talk with someone, he detaches the battery from his cell phone.

By the time B-92 was taken over by the Milosevic regime, in April 1999, the flow of foreign assistance was well under way, so resources were available to bring the station to life on the Internet and to allow its journalists to produce radio and television programs that could be shown on ANEM stations elsewhere in the country. B-92 was renamed B2-92 to differentiate it from the government-hijacked station on the FM dial, and it broadcast on a new website, freeb92.net.

It was not by chance that an English name was used for the site and that its content was translated into English. The site’s domestic impact was limited because few Serbs have the high-speed modems needed for real-time broadcasts, but with texts and programs in both English and Serbian, the site was a useful resource for journalists and diplomats outside Serbia, as well as an important PR tool for the station’s editorial team, which wanted to demonstrate to the outside world that they were still at work.

Security was a critical issue as the station went into its guerrilla mode; the NATO bombing in the spring of 1999 prompted Milosevic to declare martial law, giving his regime sweeping powers. Just a few days after the takeover, Slavko Curuvija, an independent publisher who was critical of Milosevic, was gunned down on a Belgrade street. The assassination was widely blamed on thugs working for the government, and independent journalists like Mirkovic took the warning to heart. Mirkovic attended Curuvija’s funeral and recalls, “Everybody was saying, ‘Take care; take care.’” Mirkovic went semiunderground, often staying with friends, and on the 50th day of the bombing, his boss Matic fled to Montenegro because of rumors he would be murdered. Mirkovic stayed behind, in sole control of the B2-92 team.

Once the bombing ended, in June 1999, the political atmosphere relaxed and the B2-92 team was able, from August, to broadcast on a Belgrade frequency controlled by a sympathetic opposition party. But in May 2000, when Milosevic initiated another media crackdown, B2-92 was yanked off the air again and returned to the Internet. It was not heard on the FM dial until Milosevic was deposed in October.

During the crackdowns in April 1999 and May 2000, B-92’s role as the principal outlet for honest and current news was assumed by a scrappy station, Radio Index, which was founded by Nenad Cekic, who had broken away from B-92 in a murky dispute in the early 1990s. Depending on whom you believe, Cekic was either fired or asked to resign for stealing equipment or cutting a deal with the government or opposing alleged corruption at the station—or for other reasons that neither he nor his detractors wish to mention. In any event, Index played second fiddle to B-92 throughout most of the 1990s until B-92 was forced off the air. Cekic kept his station on the air by, among other things, hiding one of its transmitters in an unfinished home on a hilltop above Belgrade. It seems that some of the independent media’s most bitter feuds are conducted between people who should be allies, and the Index and B-92 teams are no exception: They despise each other more than they appear to despise Milosevic.

“B-92 became popular in the West because of their self-promotion,” Cekic tells me in his smoke-filled office on the 17th floor of Belgrade’s tallest building. While we talk, he waves a pair of scissors in the air, saying, “I have a strong impression that your government wasted your money.”

Cekic notes that when Milosevic lost the first round of the presidential election on September 24, Index spread the word about the results and about Milosevic’s attempt to tilt the ballot-counting in his favor. In the subsequent ten days, which decided the future of Serbia, everyone relied on Index for up-to-date information. Cekic is acid in his assessment of B-92: “They were not around when the revolution happened. Oops.”

The two stations represent different cultural styles. B-92 was always cool and trendy, though perhaps a bit too highbrow for the working class. Index was downmarket, the New York Post of the Serbian radio world, playing top-40 hits and featuring, on its advertising posters, a woman’s scantily clad torso. Foreign donors were well aware of the differences, both cultural and political, between the two stations and brokered a truce after the local elections in 1996, persuading the B-92 team to bring Index into the ANEM network. But Cekic, arguing among other things that his station was a major player in the media world, demanded greater say within ANEM than Matic and Mirkovic wanted to give.

“We were not so happy because we knew Cekic,” Mirkovic tells me one day. “He really started to be destructive. He is telling these stories that we didn’t want to show him the books. But he is not the person who I am going to show books to. I show ANEM’s books to donors, and he can ask donors if he has questions. So we expelled him.”

Cekic’s bitterness is extreme, though it’s certainly true that his station was more influential than B-92 in the final months, perhaps even the final year or two, of Milosevic’s regime, thanks to Index’s ability to continue broadcasting. Despite this, ANEM received the bulk of foreign aid for the independent media, and little of it reached the coffers of Index, much to the dismay and rage of Cekic, who now faces the possible demise of his station due to lack of funds.

“They are not a news organization,” Cekic says of his nemesis. “They are a private group for collecting money. That must be recognized in the West. They are interested in money, not journalism.”

When I ask Mirkovic about these accusations, he initially says he doesn’t want to exchange insults—then proceeds, as we walk through town toward his office, to do precisely that. He accuses Cekic of collaborating with a fascist party that was part of Milosevic’s coalition government. “They were in a kind of deal with the Radical Party, especially with the minister of information, who protected them,” Mirkovic says. (Cekic denies it.)

We soon arrive at Mirkovic’s new office in a dull building above a pharmacy and grocery store in the center of town. There are a couple of desks and chairs, a poster for a Moby CD, several new computers, and, of course, a haze of cigarette smoke. “Do I look like a person who has a lot of money?” Mirkovic asks. “This is stupid, you know.”

It is a Monday evening three weeks after Milosevic was overthrown, and Sasha Mirkovic is heading from his office to a reception at the Turkish Embassy. This is a big part of his life now: schmoozing with diplomats and politicians and businessmen. The corridors of power are wide-open, and they are crowded with friends, not enemies. Mirkovic walks up Kneza Milosha, a boulevard that is a visual reminder of Serbia’s recent history. At its lower stretch lie the ruins of the Defense Ministry and Army Headquarters, bombed by NATO in 1999. Farther along the boulevard is a looted office of the political party controlled by Milosevic’s much-despised wife; the office was attacked and destroyed in the uprising in October, and the graffiti on its walls reads, in English, “Freedom! Revolution!”

As Mirkovic walks by, he passes the head of the U.N. office in Belgrade; they exchange warm greetings. The city remains in a celebratory mood. Inside the embassy, several waiters recognize Mirkovic—who, amid the suited diplomats and politicians, is wearing a T-shirt under a frayed sweater—and they congratulate him on regaining control of B-92 after the long blackout that began in April 1999…a lifetime ago, it seems. Mirkovic scans the room and notices two ministers of the new government; they are friends of his from the University of Belgrade.

An acquaintance approaches him and mentions that a businessman is coming to Belgrade to find a publishing partner for Serbian editions of Playboy and Cosmopolitan. Would B-92, which published several political books in recent years, be interested?

The long-range plan is to turn B-92 and ANEM into self-supporting media companies producing provocative programs that the state-controlled media, now slavishly loyal to the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, will shy away from and that most commercial stations will shun in favor of sitcoms and soap operas. In November, B-92 broadcast a 30-minute NPR documentary about war crimes committed by Serb soldiers in Kosovo—precisely the sort of program that other media outlets even now wouldn’t touch. Mirkovic hopes that B-92’s hallmark radio program, Catharsis, which delved into issues of war and guilt, will be expanded into a television program, and he’s hard at work putting together a new television studio for a nightly news broadcast.

Matic and Mirkovic do not expect foreign donors to remain generous for much longer now that Milosevic is a private citizen living in a villa surrounded by high walls in a posh suburb of Belgrade. Although their foreign donors may not realize that the removal of Milosevic does not mean the full advent of democracy and openness, Serbia is no longer as crisis-ridden as it used to be, and the kindness of strangers is unlikely to linger.

ANEM and B-92 need to stand on their own commercial feet, and already ANEM—with Mirkovic as vice-president—has acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games. ANEM is also negotiating with MTV to broadcast its music programs.

Mirkovic does not bother to detach the battery from his cell phone before replying to his acquaintance’s query.

“Playboy? Cosmopolitan?” he says. “Sure, I’ll meet with the guy.”