In Serbia, leaving mainstream media and moving to online production is not being innovative but being a refugee
Since 1991, Olja Bećk-ović has been the author and the host of the most popular andmost influential political talk show in Serbia – “The Impression of the Week” (“Utisak Nedelje”). After several breaks – the last one lasted almost five years – she returned to TV screens in March this year. In the interview for Diplomacy&Commerce, she talks about the current situation in the Serbian media and behaviour of Serbian politicians.
It’s been a month since “The Im-pression of the Week” returned to TV screens after a four-and-a-half-year absence. Which of your shows was hardest for you, and which one was the best?
– Each show was difficult. I don’t have a favourite one because my mind does not recognize formats that start with “the best”. The show with the debate on amendments to the Criminal Code which stipulate life in prison without a possibility of parole, and in which Igor Jurić, Sanda Rašković and Judge Miodrag Majić took part, was very important. Unintentionally, this particular show became evidence of all violations of the freedom of speech and the media freedom I have been talking about for five years now. The brutal attack of an MP from the ruling coalition on Judge Majić, which happened the following morning after his appearance in “The Impression of the Week”, during the direct broadcast of the session of the Serbian Parliament, was a demonstration of the breakdown of every illusion that there is the right to freedom of thought. The judge of the Bel-grade Appellate Court, Miodrag Majić, was savagely declared “state enemy” in the Parliament. According to the Justice Minister, Nela Kuburović, the Speaker of the Serbian Parliament, Maja Gojković and the aforementioned MP from the ruling coalition, Judge Majić deserved this ‘title’ on the basis of at least two reasons. While they swore to protect the legacy of an independent judiciary, at the same time, they were surprised that a judge dared to criticize the draft law on life in prison without the possibility of parole. While they swore that they had nothing to do with abolishing media freedom and taking “The Impression of the Week” off the air, at the same time, they were aghast at Judge Majić for daring to accept our invitation to appear in ‘that show’ without asking for their permission first. For the whole two days, the Parliament dragged the name of Judge Majić through the mud just for daring to speak his opinion in the show which was banned from having any government officials, analysts, journalists, public figures, basically anybody ‘close’ to the regime, as guests. It was openly said – anybody related to the government is not only banned from appearing in “The Impression of the Week”, but even the mention of the show’s name was considered blasphemy. It is paradoxical that I am allowed to say “Maja Gojković said (so and so) in the Serbian Parliament”, and yet she needs to muster courage to say:” That judge over there, in that show.”
You expected that to happen, i.e. for the representatives of the ruling parties not to appear on your show. You don’t need to mention names, but could you give us the reasons they use to turn you down?
— For the most part, the reasons are pretty sad and it would be in bad taste for me to quote them. They basically boil down to elementary school-level pranks; you know when a child calls their teacher on the phone, pretending to be “a parent”, and trying to come up with a reason for their “child” not going to school today. “Oh, hello! This is Jovan Miloradović’s father. I just wanted to tell you that I won’t be able to attend school today.“ More honest and more mature people usually tell me: “Please don’t ask me to embarrass myself unless I have to.“ Or „I would be forgiven for appearing in your show only if I spoke things I didn’t mean such as – Djilas is a thief, Boško is a fascist, protests, blah, blah, blah. I rather wouldn’t.“ Or „They told me to decide myself but before that, they told me –„How is it possible that you even want to appear in THAT show and boost HER ratings?
There is a similar show broad-casting on another TV station in the same time slot. Are you bothered about ratings or potentially targeting the same guests?
— I can’t remember if there is still a fake BN BOSS store on Ibarska motorway. Probably there is and probably they are still doing well. I seriously doubt that someone called up the CEO of the real BN BOSS and asked him if he was bothered by this particular ‘competition’.
Before you launched “The Im-pression of the Week”, you did interviews for NIN magazine and wrote columns for the Blic daily. What does future hold for print media?
— I would recommend everyone to read the book called “This is Not the End of the Book”, written by Umberto Eco and Jean Claude Carriere. Print media are denounced by those people who, before that, had denounced books. What does the future hold for those who have denounced books? Some people commented that, considering that we live in the digital age and in the era of social media, having people call in the show by phone would look too retro in 2019. However, that did not happen.
Your shows receive much more comments than others – both on social media, in private conversations and in other media. What is your explanation for that?
— A lot of effort has been invested in the last few years into ‘proving’ that everybody is done with live shows. “So, when is the show being pre-taped?” is the question I am still asked, to this day. When I then ask them where they got the idea that I pre-tape my show and yet we have live phone-ins by the viewers, they get confused a little bit and usually say:” You see, that never crossed my mind.” Our world got so accustomed to the false reality that it is very hard to get through to them that there are places where nobody is faking phoning-in into a TV show in real time. Despite all the crackling noise on phone lines and the viewers fumbling to turn their TV down while talking on the phone with me, it is still precious to be reminded of the freedom of speech and assuming responsibility for what you say. Unlike modern-day Twitter, which is rife with heroes who use fake names, people who phone in my show give their full name and presumably a real phone number. The objections that the format where people assume responsibility for their statements is obsolete comes from the new Serbian intelligence which I cannot apply myself to.
Diplomacy&Commerce is mostly being read by foreigners – namely, diplomats and representatives of foreign companies in Serbia. What do you think is the main misconception that foreigners living in Belgrade have when it comes to our country, the political situation, the elite and so on?
— I have the impression that the readers you’ve mentioned do not have any “misconceptions”, rather they have an interest in pretending not to see things around them. The extent to which the Prime Minister of Serbia was amused by the Euro-pean Commission’s last report is the same extent to which the readers you mention had been ignoring or had been classifying as “entertainment” everything they had been seeing for years. I am deeply convinced that the Prime Minister and the “foreigners” you talk about don’t have any misconceptions. They’re having fun.
In order to select the week’s best impressions, you probably watch certain domestic TV shows. Are any of them good and innovative?
— Every show that I would like to single out as good is, by the same token, also sad. The best journalists and the most creative people work at TV stations that most Serbian citizens have no access to. In Serbia, leaving mainstream media and moving to online production is not being innovative but being a refugee. Back in the day, playing the violin in concentration camps during the worst of times was not considered innovative. Fighting for survival and preserving a sense of humour is not innovative, which does not mean that Mićko Ljubičić is not deserving of a Nobel or an Oscar.
Have you watched any of a myriad of TV series made by the RTS-United Media-Telekom tri-angle such as “Besa”, “Državni Službenik”, “Pet”, “Kralj Petar”, “Žigosani u Reketu”, “Ubice Moga Oca”, “Senke nad Balkanom” and others?
— Most people sing in the shower. Instead of doing that, I often say loudly: “Thank you to whoever invented showers!” As I watched “Senke nad Balkanom”, produced by Dragan Bjelogrlić, Balša Djo-go’s “Pet”, Miša Radivojević’s “Žmurke”, “Jutro će Promeniti Sve”, “Novine” (made by HRT), I joyfully shouted thanks to all these filmmakers – directors, actors, camera operators, screen-writers. It feels like my brain has had a nice, invigorating shower. How can we sum up six months of 1in5 Million protests?— It’s too early to sum up anything. During the last four and a half years, you had the opportunity to participate in various debates across Serbia. Sometimes, the debates were cancelled.
Do you think that, in the metropolized Serbia, Belgrade is not too concerned with the problems of the province, or that the entire country is in the same position in terms of the media freedom and the behaviour of the social elite?
— “The Rich Also Cry”. Remember that tacky TV series? Today’s Belgrade is the centre of provincial spirit. I think that claiming that“Belgrade is not too concerned with the problems of the province” is unfair. Belgrade has been shedding too many tears over its own woes. We have a musical fountain now. It’s only the matter of time when we start having “musical rubbish containers” that will broadcast the speeches of our leading politicians, telling us what a wonderful life we have and how well-fed we are. The people who participate in the debates in Bel-grade are much more hopeless than their counterparts in Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Niš, Šabac or Paraćin. The province is not too concerned about Belgrade’s problems.
Let’s pretend for a moment that President Vučić decides to appear in your show. What would be your opening line?
— Your question should be included in the European Commission’s report, i.e. in the chapter about media freedom. There is nothing more natural than presuming that Vučić’s appearance in a TV show depends solely on him, and not whether he was invited to participate by the show’s host. Unfortunately, you are right. He is the one who decides when and where he will appear. So, let’s presume that I do invite him and that he accepts my invitation… My opening line would be a very bold “Good Evening!”