Ljiljana Smajlović, Nedeljnik columnist and former President of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia: Government strong, press weak

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While the tabloids’ brutal vulgarity is disgusting, the hypocrisy of our self-proclaimed „quality press“ is unforgivable

Text: Žikica Milošević

Ljiljana Smajlović was for a long time Editor-in-Chief of the oldest newspaper in Serbia, Politika. After a long career, she does not hesitate to speak her mind openly and with clear attitude.

Assess Serbia’s political situation for us. Was Ana Brnabić’s appointment a case of Serbia adopting „European values“ or depicting a liberal façade?

Remember a year ago, when Aleksandar Vučić first appointed Ana Brnabić to a position in his government? That surprise move got him nothing but good publicity in the West, with no real downside in Serbia. Isn’t that exactly what they mean by a tour de force in politics? He is now going for a hat trick, and who can blame him? After all, Ms. Brnabić has no power base of her own, and she’s given us no reason to believe she can build one. President Vučić appears supremely confident in his ability to control his creation. His opponents are reduced to calling him a hypocrite, but people know they would gladly walk in his shoes. Serbia has  not changed overnight: Brnabić or no Brnabić, Serbs are not liberal like the Dutch. But putting Ana Brnabić in charge of the Government still marks a victory for progressive causes, regardless of the purity of Vučić’s motives. Was he cynical and calculated? Perhaps. But there is something irreversible about what he has done: he has created a watershed moment, and no one can take that away from him.

That does not mean it will be smooth sailing from now on. Vučić’s ratings are high but he will have to continue playing puppet master, and be seen as the puppet master, because Ms. Brnabić’s legitimacy will need constant reinforcement. He will need to fill the power vacuum he left behind, over and over. Just now he is filling it with the Kosovo dialogue. So far, the  strategy is working: he has back-footed his opponents. What can they say, that dialogue is not good for democracy?

For the time being, I’d say the omnipotent Serbian leader is having his cake and eating it, too.

How should Serbia position itself in the clash of forces around us: EU, USA, Russia, Turkey?

We should avoid being squashed like a bug. I fear war as much as the next person and I do not like it when powerful countries appear to be on a collision course in our neck of the woods. Wars start when mighty rivals decide they would benefit from a realignment of forces and  redistribution of power.

At the same time, Serbia has even less reason than our „frenemies“ or allies to like the status quo. I have no serious objection to the position Serbia has taken vis-à-vis regional powers. I am delighted we’re well positioned to be part of China’s new strategic initiative. I am bored by cries that „we have to choose a side“. No, we don’t „have“ to choose sides any more than we already have. It makes perfect sense to continue our balancing act and I see no reason to toss anyone overboard just yet.

How do you assess the quality and freedom of the press in Serbia?

Let me make an uneasy parallel. The opposition has been beaten so badly that the press needs to take upon itself some of the opposition’s traditional roles. I believe this applies to both the USA and Serbia. The parallel ends where the US has a vigorous press and we don’t. So the lack of a strong, independent press, able to scrutinise the government without fear or favour, is a very big problem in Serbia right now. The press was always strongest here when the government was weakest, as when communism started collapsing. The government is now strong and the press is weak. You hardly need censorship when journalists and editors know that they serve at the whim of owners who, for the most part, simply aim to please the government. There is self-censorship galore.

Is the ongoing tabloidisation of society and the media scene in progress?

Infotainment rules, here and elsewhere. I would not see too much harm in that, were it not for the fact that we lack viable alternatives to TV infotainment and tabloids. Our problem is that our quality press is not as good as it should be. I’m a faithful reader of political tabloids and I’ve little patience for the indignation of my colleagues, especially those who work for publications which offer little hard news and a lot of one-sided commentary. Why don’t they supplant the flow of information the tabloids provide? Why do they limit the range of political perspectives they offer? Do they not realize how tedious their political correctness can be? I’ll take a tabloid before I’ll take the political commissar. The brutal vulgarity of the tabloids disgusts me, the hypocrisy of our self-proclaimed „quality press“ annoys me.

Why is there a trend of illiberal democracy in all of Eastern Europe?

As opposed to where? I remember that, a decade ago, there were similar alarmist cries of Eastern Europe succumbing to the political right, but the right was on the rise everywhere: it was simply a case of taking this patient’s temperature more often than others’. Is Eastern Europe to blame for the rise of Donald Trump? The EU rejoiced when the Dutch Government was able to hang on to power, but little was said about the fact that it had quietly adopted its more extreme rivals’ policies in order to hang on to a weakened majority. I reject the notion that Eastern Europe is the sick man of the continent. Sometimes we do seem to be on the vanguard of bad things to come. But we are certainly not the disease, we are a symptom.

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