NIN is one of the bards of Serbian journalism. Along with Vreme and Nedeljnik, which emerged somewhat later, and the former Globus from Zagreb, NIN weekly has been asking questions that have been crucial for supporting critical thinking from the time of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until today. I interviewed the editor-in-chief of this uncompromising weekly, Milan Ćulibrk.
By Žikica Milošević
How did the situation in NIN evolve with every change of political regime?
During its 83-year-long history, NIN has had a lot of ups and downs, but, in spite of that, it has managed to preserve everythingg that the generations of journalists and editors had been building, namely the right to critical thinking and having a different point of view. In its first year, after only 26 published issues, NIN paid a dear price for such a stance. We were banned by the then state authorities. After the weekly was re-launched in January 1951, there were no more draconian measures despite government not being that benevolent towards the magazine all the time.
On several occasions, the staff replacements at NIN were a result of political decisions. One of the greatest legends of NIN, Frane Barbieri, who should be credited for NIN’s transformation into a modern news magazine, was a victim of political purges which happened after the Communist Party clashed with the Serbian liberals. NIN’s editorial board was entirely replaced after the Eight Session of the League of Communists of Serbia. Every ruckus on the political stage and in the country caused a ruckus among NIN’s editorial staff. Still, truth has no price! Every new generation of journalists at NIN is mindful of the words of the former magazine’s editors – „NIN is read by influencers, not by those subjected to influence“ and „almost every journalist at NIN can be a government minister, but many government ministers are not fit to be NIN journalists“. In the meantime, things have drastically changed, but we are always doing our best in maintaining the quality and edgy criticism of society’s anomalies. Unfortunately, in today’s Serbia, there are too many people willing to commend the government when the government did absolutely nothing to deserve it. On the other hand, these people cannot withstand any criticism even if they had a thousand reasons to be criticized. Apart from the government’s treatment, this is one of the reasons why NIN has positioned itself as a provocative, critical, blunt, no-nonsense magazine.
We are often labeled as belonging to the ‘political opposition’ which is not true because I am first to believe that our job is to criticize any government. Today, I am looking for flaws in the current government, yesterday, I did the same with the previous government, and tomorrow, I am going to continue doing so with the future government. I think that it is exceptionally important to mention that, despite being often critical of the people in power, NIN has not been penalized once in the last five years, i.e. since I have been the editor-in-chief. We did receive one warning from the Press Council though. This is the best proof that harsh criticism of bad and negative occurrences does not have to go against abiding by law and the norms of professional journalism.
How would you rate press freedom in Serbia and generally in Europe today? Do you think that interest groups, lobbies, tycoons, political parties and information ministries in ‘illiberal’ and ‘liberal’ democracies are now exerting more pressure than ever before?
Every day I hear from my fellow journalists that these are absolutely the worst times ever for journalism. I believe they are right. And I feel that, albeit indirectly. We are not only talking about political pressures here which I have to face sometimes too, but in a somewhat different form. These are not direct pressures, like someone phoning me and demanding from me to explain myself, or asking me for ‘a favour’ or ‘strongly advising’ me to keep mum or not to report about something. I think that NIN did manage to secure that kind of freedom for itself even before I became its editor-in-chief. Even if the magazine did not succeed in that, everybody who knows me will tell you that such pressures can only backfire and be counterproductive. Simply put, I would rather resign than make such a compromise. On the other hand, we can see that the media situation in other countries is not that much better either. Journalism has become a business and profit, rather than quality, has been the crucial criterion for publishers. As it turns out, only tabloid press can count on huge circulation figures in Serbia. And there lies the dilemma – should we offer to readers what they allegedly want to read and thus raise our circulation, or should we insist on covering serious topics, that our future depends on, and give in-depth analyses that are not that popular? We, in NIN, have decided to take a road less travelled while being aware that our readers would not forgive us if we caved in to tabloidization. Doing so would be hugely unfair to the older generations of NIN readers and our 83-year-long tradition.
I won’t even go into how that would in contradiction to NIN’s annual best novel award, which is the most prestigious literary award in the Balkans. Many of my fellow journalists complain about pressures they feel from advertisers which they claim can be worse than political pressures. It is only logical that huge advertisers do not appreciate bad publicity. However, I am not giving in to this false dilemma. The media can choose whether to publish something truthful or keep quiet in exchange for an advertisement. Speaking long-term, those media which pick the second option have signed their death penalty, and it is only a matter of time when they will realize that.
Serious advertisers need serious media that can be trusted. Many media outlets will go under by the time advertisers realize this. There is another, even greater problem called project financing. This was devised as a model of media assistance but it has evolved into something completely different. We often see that public funds for project financing are allocated to quazi-media which were founded only after a public call had been launched. In this way, the taxpayers’ money is being given to ‘your own people’, and this is how the government ‘buys’ silence. Let me corroborate this with an example. Last year, at a competition launched by the Serbian Ministry of Information and Culture, NIN was given just over 10,000 EUR for the project that lasted eight months. Lo and behold, we ended up on the front page of a tabloid which accused us of receiving money from the very government that we had been critical of. What we were supposed to do?! Keep mum because we got a small amount of money for a project?! Let’s not even go into how those media that had been constantly praising the goverment got ten, twenty, even thirty times more than we did, or that certain companies are afraid to advertise in NIN because they don’t want to be ostracized by the government which is very vocal about not liking what and how NIN reports.
Soros and Orban have been going against each other in Hungary, calling their conflict Darth Vader vs JEDIs. Are there actually forces of dark and light in the conflict between politics and media?
We don’t have to go over our state border to realize that there is the full-blown Star Wars going on right here, in Serbia. Back in the day, the media were so powerful, and yet today they are secondary. Even worse, in our version of Star Wars, there is no Yoda and JEDIs, but Darth Vader is getting stronger by the day, and his subordinates, as if instructed, are quick to label those media that they are not happy with as being under the influence of Miskovic or tycoons or Djilas or whomever. And would you believe it that none of these subordinates are bothered with corroborating their claims?! If substantiated, such accusations would be very easy to prove. All you need to do is to check the publicly available financial reports of the media. Of course, they couldn’t be bothered with that because it would prove that they were lying so, in this way, they are free to continue deceiving the public.
As if accusing NIN of being run by tycoons is going to change the fact that, in the last six years, the Serbian GDP grew only 5.3% while the GDP of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, was twice higher. The growth of the Macedonian GDP was three times higher than the Serbian, while the Romanian GDP grew four times more. Just like the media look for proof before they report about something, the government should do the same before it accuses the media. Since they fail to do so, we are under the impression that the only aim of their increasingly louder criticism and objections is to discipline the very few media that are left which are spoiling their perfect image and question claims that Serbia is the regional leader when all the country is actually the champion in slow growth.
How does Serbia fare in these tumultuous times when strong winds blow from every side? Do you think that the pressures from superpowers could result in the so-called ‘Ukrainian Scenario’, i.e. the division of Serbia? We can see that Macedonia has become rather unstable for this reason.
These tumultuous times, as you call them, have been going on for three decades now, with an odd break here and there. It seems that most people in Serbia have made their peace with the fact that we are not going to live in a normal country, like others, for a very long time. While people in other countries care about the quality of their lives, in Serbia, we are still preoccupied with national interests which, by the way, nobody has ever completely formulated. This is the reason why politicians can hide very easily behind these national interests. The Ukrainian Scenario will not happen here, and even if the superpowers (Russia, EU, the US) stopped meddling, the situation in this part of the world would not be normal for a very long time. This is not surprising because we still don’t know what are Serbia’s exact borders. Our Constitution says that Kosovo and Metohija are an integral part of Serbia, and yet Serbian authorities are not allowed to participate in the investigation of Oliver Ivanović’s murder. Even if they were allowed to, things would be the same because in the two years since the demolition in Savamala, the public still doesn’t know who exactly used bulldozers to destroy a part of Belgrade on that fated night.
Some people say that you were not that critical of Vučić when you debated him in a TV programme, compared how harshly you criticized him in your column. The same was said for Jakša Šćekić, Boško Jakšić and other experienced journalists. How does Aleksandar Vučić always manage to paralize his interlocutors?
If I had the opportunity, I would have asked president Vučić about his views of numerous problems that I had been talking about in my column in NIN. But I was not given that opportunity. I came to this TV programme not to argue, but to ask the President the questions that most citizens would ask him. Like… Why was the average wage in Serbia in 2017 under 400 EUR when he had promised it would be 500 EUR? What is his basis for claiming that pensions are now higher than ever although, according to the official data from the Ministry of Finance, the average pension today is 15% lower than in 2012? Unlike other interlocutors, whenever I dared to ask him something, Vučić got angry at me for allegedly interjecting while Milomir Marić, the programme’s host, constantly tried to divert the debate. Have a look at the recording of that programme, and you can see for yourself how many times I allegedly interjected him, and how many times did he (Vučić) respond to Marić’s questions. I really don’t know what Vučić uses to paralyze his interlocutors, but, truth be told, I was not even allowed to ask questions. If you think that this is because I was scared, let’s wait and see if Vučić will ever agree to be interviewed for NIN. After the programme, I told him that I hoped I would never have to go to Marić’s show again and sit there for three and a half hours in order to ask him just a handful of questions.
NO FUTURE? IS SERBIA IN A DREAM STATE?
What does future hold for the press in Serbia and the rest of the world?
The future can be bright, but the press will have to adjust. They will go under if they don’t realize that they are no competition to web-portals and websites which publish news the moment it happens. Hence, the print media have to take a step further and analyze why did something happen and what kind of consequences it will have.