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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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June 16, 2008 6:16 AM

The press in the Balkans

Posted by Ryan Blethen

BELGRADE, Serbia - Two speeches and a panel at the International Press Institute's Congress did much to answer questions I had about the press's role in the Balkans. The speeches and panel also raised many questions.

The Congress began in Serbia's House of the National Assembly with welcoming statements from the host committee, IPI's director, and the Serbian president, Boris Tadic. It was impressive that this nation's president was willing to speak to a group of journalists. That would not happen everywhere.

Tadic said the right things. He acknowledged how devastating the 1990s were for Serbia and how he wants to move his country toward being a positive influence for democracy in the Balkans. Unfortunately there was no question and answer session.

Any disappoint I had was doused by David Dadge's opening remarks. Dadge, IPI's director, bravely asked Tadic to put the state's power behind brining to justice the people responsible for the unsolved murders of journalists. What Dadge did is in line with the journalistic saying of "speaking truth to power."

It was no small thing Dadge did. He risked offending Tadic and of being misunderstood. The implication being that Tadic, at the very least, has no interest in tracking down the killers of journalists. Not a good position for somebody trying to bolster a fledgling democracy.

The importance of Dadge's plea was shored up at panel later in the day titled "Neighbors, Partners, Rivals: Perceptions of South East Europe."

A question was asked whether anybody had been held responsible for the death's of some journalists during the NATO bombings of the late 1990s. I was not familiar with the incident. From what I gathered a broadcast outlet was bombed and a manger at the station had some knowledge this would happen but did not tell the reporters.

The panel's moderator, Tim Judah the Balkans correspondent for The Economist, asked if any of the Serbian journalists in the room could answer the question. Judah's question was met with silence. Why? Did they not know? That seems unlikely. Did they not want to be on the record talking about the situation?

The make-up of the panel also raised questions. There was an economist, a Croatian editor, an editor from Bosnia, and a politically active playwright from Belgrade. I wonder why there was not a Serbian journalist? Or a Kosovar journalists? For a panel called "Neighbors, Partners, Rivals" it would have been helpful to know how the Serbian press functions in relation to its neighbors and rivals.

The panel and speeches left me wanting to know more about the role played in the Balkan wars by the press from all the countries involved. How are those news-outlets contributing to the new order of the Balkans?

Regardless of what was said or not said it is obvious that this region is still grappling with the recent scars of war and ethnic tensions. It is also obvious there are many proud people working hard to stabilize the region. Stability and democracy only happen with a free and independent press. A message that was not lost yesterday.

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