One way or the other, even if it wanted to, Politika cannot escape its destiny. It is again an object of inter-partisan dealing and trading, which after everything that happened on the turbulent Serbian political scene is not really surprising.
Just as the Democratic Party had decided with an extraordinarily long delay to fill out its quota of representatives in Politika AD’s Management Board by outvoting, the newspaper’s editor in chief Ljiljana Smajlovic spoke with a whine of how after all she has done for this daily, they are tying a noose around her neck, getting ready to replace her (to avoid any confusion), because she had, as she said, she confronted the head of state and of the DS Boris Tadic, and his media consultant Nebojsa Krstic.
Tough on words, “uncompromising” in media clashes, the editor in chief of the oldest Balkan daily has quickly identified “the real reasons” why she, by all accounts, will not be given the opportunity to finish her term as editor and the first woman ever to head Politika, just like the German partners proudly introduced her roughly two and a half years ago. She recognizes those reasons, maybe justifiably, in personal dislikes of her by the president’s camp, preparing the public and the rest of Politika’s readers to view the possible moment of her replacement as an “incomprehensible attack on freedom of the media”. It is not a coincidence that it is all taking place during the world media congress in Belgrade, just so foreigners can see “how things are done in Serbia”.
What is it actually all about? Her currently unsuccessful attempt to push under the rug the basic fact that Politika under the guidance of her and her political (quasi-governmental) mentors and sponsors had gone through, to put it mildly, a professional and moral shipwrecking, sooner than it was expected. Truth be told, the shipwrecking is neither the first nor the most tragical one, and it is probably not the last, for it is obvious that the state, despite its democratic vows does not easily part with the control of “its” media. Above all RTS, Plitika, Tanjug, Vecernje novosti, not to mention the local media.
Ljiljana Smajlovic’s enthroning (she came from the already “processed” weekly NIN) as the editor in chief in late 2005 and her soon-to-come departure from the fifth-floor cabinet of Politika’s tower are a real illustration of the political technology of winning but also of losing power. After a decade and a half long moral and professional agony under Zivorad Miniovic, and then the “more famous” Dragan Hadzi-Antic, when Politika played an indecent part in promoting Milosevic’s warmongering, nationalist and absolutist rule, after October 5, after an unsuccessful attempt at takeover by Aleksandar Tijanic, Zoran Djindjic’s government offered the company a chance to transform and work for its rehabilitation by setting some new democratic and professional standards.
The merger with the German WAC (50/50 percent) should have been a suggestion that something of that sort is possible and that the foreigners will not allow Politika to go back to its old ways, at least for the sake of protecting their own capital and reputation. There was, truth be told, some progress – the daily had eased up on its “national” zeal, tried to get out of the grips of Milosevic’s ideological legacy, but it was obviously too hard for the potentials it possessed. Just as the squandered trust, with much effort and great resistance, started coming back, the prime minister’s assassination and Kostunica’s (patriotic) victory in the following elections discourage even the most persistent. It was only a question of time when the impending “new democratic nationalist” wave will again grab hold of Politika.
Secret briefings in Kostunica’s cabinet, at which he personally, his people and loyal journalist “greats” which changed sides in time, had discussed at length of an “anational” and an “anti-governmental” orientation of Politika’s editorial board and certain commentators, were in effect, a prelude to what was surely to follow. What started in Belgrade’s nationalist salons, helped by a very agile involvement of the Bosnian intellectual and media lobby, had continued in formal and informal pressures on the editorial team, in ultimate demands for “disciplining and converting” certain authors.
In fact, a coup was foreshadowed, which was to intensify throughout 2005. In the summer of that year the Management Boards of Politika AD and PNM were replaced, Politica AD’s manager Mirko Djekic was replaced while he was seriously ill, the PNM manager Darko Ribnikar while he was on vacation abroad, the noose was being tightened around editor in chief Milan Misic, until the minority government found a fitting individual in Ljiljana Smajlovic, a person to replace him and to “nationally and patriotically transform” the paper. Misic was replaced at the moment when the ideological-nationalistic-partisan-nepotistic brotherhood of the Democratic Party of Serbia and its ideological sponsors was completed and took over complete control of the company.
The names of the Management Board members such as Emir Kusturica, Aleksandar Simic, Djordje Vukadinovic, Slobodan Antonic and Matija Beckovic and the new PNM manager Srdjan Janicijevic, Beckovic’s son-in-law, were meant to imply how Politika is coming back to its “traditional national roots”.
And indeed it went back. By appointing Smajlovic, step by step Politika became a symbol of Kostunica’s political and ideological matrix, the “unfitting” were pushed to the margins by skilful maneuvers by the staff office and the editors, they were given a choice to either adjust to the new circumstances or to leave “voluntarily”. In a short time a somewhat large group of “distinguished” journalists was brought on from other newspapers, and they set a new balance of forces in the staff, but they also created an atmosphere for inner confrontation between the “old” and the “new”, which became apparent during the last unsuccessful strike of the “indigenous” journalists.
The new people made easy the paper’s crossing over to a concept of a more or less open party bulletin of the Democratic Party of Serbia. By the accompanying positioning of Aleksandar TIjanic as head of RTS, the two leading media companies in Serbia became showcases of Kostunica’s “vision” of unity (whose “fatal attraction” could unfortunately not be resisted by many independent media and journalists), the so called democratic nationalism in which according to the principle of “national unity” conducted from one center, there is also room for the pieces that somewhat stand out from the official stand of the newsroom and the nationalist style of the government.
The paper drew nearer to the most conservative camps and the heads of the church, and moved further away from the institutions of civil society. Ljiljana Smajlovic tended to round up outside commentators of different profiles, from the extreme right to the liberal centrist, which in fact was an obvious game – to present Politika on one hand as an “open, pluralist paper” and on the other, more important hand to strengthen the general editorial strategy – to make Politika, through official commentaries, “investigative” subjects and hiring “special” columnists, as someone posted on its website in the readers’ comments, “a bullhorn for Kostunica’s ideas of what is “democratic”, “national” and “patriotic”.
The columnists (also the Management Board members) Djordje Vukadinovic and Slobodan Antonic left their mark on this course. By their engagement, Politika actually became a mighty instrument, so to say – a component of and ideological-national-conservative mission of the periodical “Nova srpska politicka misao” (New Serbian Political Thought), where the ideas and actions which marked Politika’s editorial profile were taken from. By synchronized editorial moves the oldest Serbian daily soon became an instrument for promoting anti-globalism, anti-Americanism, the EU was being turned into an ogre, and The Hague war crimes tribunal into a mere “political, anti-Serbian institution”.
What dominated Politika’s pages were subjects against the Montenegrin independence, the mobster nature of Milo Djukanovic and his buddies”, promotion of the distancing of the Republic of Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The absolute domination of the subject of Kosovo, in form and matter which did not differ from Kostunica’s messianic role to defend it at the price of “the rest of Serbia’s” ruination, was an excellent cause and alibi for firing nationalist feelings.
All this finally led Politika astray, turned it into a means for demonizing the European and American diplomacy and The Hague tribunal, at the level of foreign affairs, and for the confrontation with the political opponents and the non-governmental sector at the inner level. The proclaimed media professionalism had turned into an another recognizable moral and professional downfall, the editorial concept which tended to pacify and legalize radical extremism as an acceptable “democratic value” and to mark its opponents as “destructive extremists”. That mannerism perfectly fitted into Kostunica’s formula of a “national unity government”, which would be manifested in electing Tomislav Nikolic as disposable Parliament Speaker, but also today, in the attempt to form a “pro-Serbian patriotic government” with the Radicals and the Socialists.
What graced Politika in better and more professional times – seriousness and analyticity – in the editorial version of Ljiljana Smajlovic attained the features of tabloid-like plunking, demonizing the regime’s opponents and irresponsible name calling, which ended in the drastic drop-off in circulation and in a new decline of this company’s reputation. The new, seemingly more modern graphic design was only a mask to hide a concept of an almost total loyalty to a political party and its nationalistic, xenophobic and deceitful anti-democratic option.
It is almost as if the ghost of “Vojko and Savle”, the VIII Session, and “Echoes and reactions” had re-emerged from the bottle. That could be seen in many cases: the benevolent approach toward the extremists of national and racist character (the attack on the participants of Pescanik’s public discussion in Arandjelovac), battling Kostunica’s rivals on a daily basis since the moment the “cohabitating and coalition” love with the DS ended, the argument and the “correspondence” with the head of state and of the DS Tadic concerning the Bogdanovic “affair” (taken over from the tabloids), the latest attempt to provide Kostunica with satisfaction if he fails to form a government with the Socialists and the Radicals, by “taking apart the mysteries of the lunch at Miskovic’s”. A style that suits the tabloids like Kurir, Pravda or Press was used, but it is not appropriate for a daily with a century-old history, which is at one moment glorious and at the other disreputable.
All those things come with a price. In Politika’s case it is the drop-off in circulation, financial crisis, life under mortgages, and the tastiest of all is the incredible indolence of the German WAC, which allowed itself, despite the warnings from two and a half years ago, to be turned into a financial sponsor of Serbian “enlightened” nationalism.
The hints of replacements in the top positions of Politika and according to all the RTS, Tanjug and maybe Vecernje novosti, are a chance given to the state or to the DS and its future coalition partners if they form a government to seriously inspect the situation in the (semi)state-owned media. Serbia is in a great need of professional media, not the maids of daily politics and powerful tycoons. Politika’s example is telling enough. Unfortunately, not for the first time either.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic