Independent journalists who enjoy public trust are few and far between, and they pay a huge personal price for their work
Has the world run out of ideology, why does the public not react by raising a revolution, and what is the position of the opposition parties and independent media in Serbia’s modern and broken society? We sought answers to these and many other questions in a conversation with Filip Švarm, editor-in-chief of Vreme weekly.
You recently stated that education is lost on Serbia and that being a member of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is all one needs to succeed. Is this the only way now, or was it like that before too, when other political parties were in power?
I think that pattern that it is important to join the party has existed for a very long time. It’s no secret. Serbia has been a partocratic society for decades, since the 1990s. It is easier if you gain affirmation through a political party than through your own profession. But what does this SNS-led government consider the essence? If we look at the average SNS official, you’ll notice that they either bought a diploma somewhere, from an obscure university or that they plagiarized it. We see, for instance, the stubbornness of Siniša Mali, who, every now and then, wants to elevate himself above the academic community and show, while quoting certain court rulings, that he is not a plagiarist, even though the same academic community had proven that he is. Looking at the current government, we realize that social affirmation in Serbia in the last ten years has been done exclusively through a political party.
And to make matters worse, we see the same attitude towards knowledge and education. A professor or a teacher is far from being a desirable occupation, and this is not only due to terrible salaries, but it’s also a question of a society that treats education with disdain. Where all of this is going to take us is clearly visible from (Aleksandar) Vučić and the rest tirelessly promoting dual education. Is it in the best interest of this country for young people to learn how to screw in a screw and be the pillar of that “screwdriver” economy based on cheap labour, or is it in the best interest of this country to educate the population as much as possible and for that population to be the driving force behind Serbia’s development? I think that this government demonstrates exactly the opposite. If you advertise a country as having a cheap workforce, then surely there are not enough educated people in that country.
You can’t be a journalist if you can’t put up with certain things
The general dumbing down of society is a global problem. The whole planet is facing it. It is one of the side effects of digitization that has caused it. Today you can advocate on social networks that the Earth is flat and that people are lizards and politicians pander to this general dumbing down.
Why did the polarization in society spill over to journalists so that today we only have two types of journalists – pro- and against the regime?
Journalists in Serbia are not divided into pro- and against the regime. That division does not exist. We have people who work directly for the regime and we have independent journalists who are trying to do their job. Vučić is omnipresent in the media and the entire media image revolves around him. If you do your job professionally you are expected to tell the truth. We are faced with the propaganda of one party and the creation of a cult of personality of one man, so whenever you criticize it, you are accused of being an opposition journalist, a traitor or even a foreign mercenary. On the other hand, we have a devastated public. There is de facto no opposition in Serbia. Instead, there are some groups of people who claim to be the opposition, but they are very small and not very influential. The division that exists is not a division between opposition and pro-government journalists, but between people who are part of a propaganda machine of the ruling party, on the one hand, and on the other, there is this tiny handful of independent and professional media whose influence on the market is perhaps five or ten percent, and the market is anything but regulated, fair and honest.
How can we then be objective and independent in the era of cancel culture? As a journalist, you can choose whether you want to be cancelled by the government or the opposition. Or you can be totally excluded. And then what?
The ruling clique shapes the market. Practically speaking, there are the privileged media and the media that are forced into the mouse hole. Relating those two groups of journalists is wrong because there is only one truth. If you speak and write the truth, then I believe you will reach some segments of the audience. This is simply a false division to cancel one or the other. Just think of what national broadcasters look like. You can’t appear on them, because if you do and say something that the ruling party doesn’t like, they start attacking you. We live in a society of the so-called straw man fallacy. The public and the media should be free, but they are not.
The media should work for the benefit of ordinary people, but they don’t, as they are pushed into glorifying one man and one political party. The few media that do not do this, that are pushed into a corner, are portrayed as having some degree of influence. Everybody knows who actually has influence in this country and it is not us. The public is not the one that perpetrates the cancel culture in Serbia – politics does. The media cannot be fundamentally different from politics. Just look at what kind of media takes the government’s side and this is something that has blocked every segment of life. In Serbia, we don’t have normal debates or an exchange of opinions. In Serbia, there are only insults. It is a political story. The only thing left for journalists to do is to themselves, to stick to what their profession dictates, and in that way, try to win their place in the public space.
Unfortunately, of all people, you know best what it means to be the subject of oppression. It all started with your documentary “Assassination of Djindjić – Media Background” or maybe even earlier. How much did that change your life and how did it affect your work as a journalist?
It didn’t change my life at all. It would be odd if people like Beba Popović and people like him did not attack me. I made a documentary film that caused a public reaction. I also had a lot of support, but the attacks resonated much more with the public. It is a good film that sparked a lot of debates among people. OK, I did take a figurative ‘beating’, but it didn’t affect me that much. You can’t be a journalist if you can’t put up with certain things. I believed in my film then, I believe in it now and I’m hitting back.
Society cannot change for the better if journalism is ideal and better than society. That doesn’t exist anywhere
I have to underline I was not attacked by the authorities when the film was broadcast. At that time, (Boris) Tadić was the country’s president, and neither he nor any government minister commented on my film. Some politicians congratulated me, some did not, but my film and I were the subjects of public attention. It is different now. It’s not all the same when the country’s president mentions your name.
Why is it so difficult to deal with and search for the truth today? Is the public ready to hear it?
I believe that the public is always ready and always wants to hear the truth simply because it affects its destiny. However, today we have propaganda that has been developed to unimaginable proportions. When I started working as a journalist, I couldn’t imagine that it would reach this level. Independent media are in a very bad financial situation because they don’t have normal access to the market and advertisers don’t advertise in them, not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t as it would cause political problems. We have a preponderance of politics in Serbia. That policy of the current government in some way broke public life, which is today divided into public enemies and those who love Serbia. If you say anything critical of the state, you are treated as an enemy. Here, public opinion is shaped by countless spin affairs. Just remember all those massive televised coups. The public is thrown a figurative bone to chew on and be distracted. One example of this “bone” is the recent court’s verdict in the case of the murdered singer Jelena Marjanović. Let’s just remember all the affairs that were created and were portrayed as the most important state issues. Politicians, starting with the country’s president, are giving statements that make public life completely meaningless.
What does it really mean when you accuse Vreme weekly of being a mafia/tycoon-ran media outlet? What does it really mean when you keep claiming day after day that Dragan Djilas stole 619 million? If he did, why don’t you arrest him? What does (Aleksandar) Vulin’s rhetoric about Croatia really mean? What does the phrase “Serbian world” mean? The public has to endure spin news that keep “the temperature” constantly high, appease the national sentiment and create this constant feeling of being threatened. Public life is subordinated to the propaganda of one party. When, once in a while, certain important topics emerge. Once these topics find their way to the public, the government immediately shifts to align with them. I believe that the public is interested in the Jovanjica affair and that the government has to react to what the independent media are reporting. Sooner or later, that will reach the audience.
Why is the public’s reaction so lukewarm? Some affairs here are so monumental that, in normal countries, they would bring down the government in one day. However, in Serbia, the public seems disinterested. Why is that so?
To quote Lenin:” It takes organizers to make a revolution.” If you don’t have a strong political factor, and unfortunately there is none in Serbia, then you cannot organize citizens to rebel and demand their rights be met. The only time when this is not true is when all hell breaks loose like in the case of Rio Tinto. When people blocked the motorways, the government froze and went into reverse. That proves that the public is capable of achieving something. If we want to go bigger than that, then we need proper organization. It is a big job, but it is not the ordinary people’s job, but that of political parties. You asked me an excellent question, but it is not for me as a journalist to answer it. You should ask opposition politicians. Why did they not succeed in creating a policy that will attract voters and why didn’t they win their trust? If you want to achieve that, it’s not enough to shout “Down with Vučić!” occasionally – you must create an ideology and policies. It is not enough to just spot problems, but you also need to offer realistic solutions. That’s not the media’s job – it’s the political parties’ job.
How can journalists regain their credibility with the public, when their profession is collapsing and discredited every day, mostly by the government and its structures?
I believe that there are journalists whom the public trusts. There aren’t many of them, but there are a few. They are marginalized and are operating as independent journalists but the public trusts them. There are journalists, like the ones working for Vreme, who pay a huge personal price for doing what they do – they are underpaid, work terribly hard, are exposed to a lot of stress and are stigmatized. I think that these people, considering how they live, which is by no means glamorous, on the contrary, still enjoy some respect.
The media should work for the benefit of ordinary people, but they don’t, as they are pushed into glorifying one man and one political party
But why are journalists generally disrespected? That’s a real question. The decline of trust in journalism is caused by a far greater number of journalists who are actually propagandists and milksops and are destroying the profession. Because of them, even the few journalists that are left do not get the respect they deserve. Society cannot change for the better if journalism is ideal and better than society. That doesn’t exist anywhere. How can we regain credibility? By simply allowing the media to do their media work freely.
What is your view of media “freedom” in Serbia? What is the current trend and is there any hope that it will improve in the foreseeable future?
I have already spoken a lot about media freedom in my previous answers. I think that the media situation in Serbia is very bad, the current trend is worrying me and the hate speech is getting worse. I’m really not an optimist.
Today, we all classify ourselves into various groups exclusively according to interests, not according to ideologies. Why is there a lack of ideas in modern society?
That is a serious question. This is not only the case with Serbia, but the collapse of ideology is a worldwide issue. We believed that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberalism would take over and that would be the end of politics and history as we know it. This view was exported to Eastern Europe. At that moment, the left lost its footing and did not survive the fall of the Berlin Wall. Social democracy either disappeared or was sold. People like (Gerhard) Schroeder and (Tony) Blair completely changed the essence of social democracy, which resulted in the disappearance of its ideology.
On the other hand, that true liberal ideology has transformed into a kind of neoliberalism, which is again intoxicated by thinking it is victorious. Neoliberalism quickly realized that there are no longer any limits, which created this huge gap between the rich and the poor, and a society where a very small number of absurdly rich people rule, and a large number of people do not live better than their parents. We have poverty, armed conflicts and real imperial wars like before the First World War. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Ukraine are just some examples. The rise of nationalism in both Eastern and Western Europe started as a response to the neoliberal system.
An era of uncertainty has started. Still, there is an ideology. That pendulum has swung all the way to the right at this point. I believe that the ideas of solidarity and justice will start appearing in some public policies out of the need for people to defend themselves against the evil that has lost its compass.