The First Casualty
Toronto Serbs and Croats each get war news from their own ethnic media. But they aren't really getting home truths
Back when multilingual radio was still young in Toronto, there were three travel agents. The first, Franceska Starchev (a Slovene), also had an import business. The cost of advertising on a number of ethnic programs on CHIN was, she figured, equal to the cost of creating her own program, and so Caravan of Friendship was born. The second travel agent, John Loncaric (a Croat), was also in the entertainment business. He approached CHIN Radio about buying advertising. Instead, he was offered his own program and Sounds of Croatia was born. The third travel agent, Mike Milicevic (a Serb), another dabbler in the entertainment business, was frustrated with trying to promote his events through the existing programs at CHIN. The station told him if he could round up enough sponsors he, too, could have his own program and Sounds of Yugoslavia was born.
Years passed. The programs-amalgams of expedience, commerce and homesickness-became established. Legions of loyal listeners tuned in to hear community news, sports scores and music in their native tongues. Then, across the sea in the land where they were born, war broke out, and the country that was once called Yugoslavia split apart. For the three travel agents, life was not so simple anymore.
In 1992, after a quarter century on the air, Franceska Starchev announced to a surprised audience that theCaravan of Friendship was finished. The hour-long program, which ran weekdays and featured the music and culture of all regions of Yugoslavia, was an early casualty of war. “The program was very well accepted,” Starchev says. “Everyone felt comfortable and welcome. We never questioned what anybody was.” Her program was enjoyed by immigrants who just wanted to hear the sounds of home without the political baggage that loaded down other, more narrowly nationalist and political programs.
But the war erased any neutral ground. “People were confused and unsure of themselves,” says Starchev. “They lost confidence and trust in each other. You would have Serbian and Croatian families living in the same neighborhood and it didn’t matter. Then suddenly it did matter.” It mattered to her sponsors, too; after war broke out it was no longer acceptable to be nonpolitical. They expected Starchev to pick sides. But to support one side would mean losing the patronage of the other and she refused. “I would rather give up than give in to one group.” Advertising revenues shrank and she could no longer afford to go on. Business self-interest and the forces of exclusionary nationalism had won. The caravan of friendship broke apart as each group circled its wagons.
Mild-mannered travel agent and entertainment promoter John Loncaric suddenly found himself centre stage in the Croatian encampment. Fortunately for the Croatian community, Loncaric did not suffer from stage fright. Six days a week for the past 30 years Loncaric’s smooth, even-toned voice has welcomed listeners to his hour-long program, Sounds of Croatia. Similar in tone to Caravan,Sounds of Croatia had attracted a large audience of sports fans and Croatian-music lovers. Still, Loncaric had already demonstrated his preparedness to do more than entertain the Croatian community. During “Croatian Spring,” when Tito clamped down on rising Croatian nationalism in 1971, Loncaric hooked his listeners right into the news on Radio Zagreb to keep them informed.
While Yugoslav army tanks were approaching Zagreb in 1991, about 2,000 Croatians anxiously charted their progress in the Croatian Club in Toronto. Newly independent Croatia was struggling for its life and the community was mobilizing to do everything in its power to ensure the new nation’s survival. Loncaric’sSounds of Croatia became a central reference point for southern Ontario’s Croatian community. People tuned in at lunchtime, some even leaving work to listen on their car radios, to hear the latest news and commentary, fundraising appeals and suggestions about what they could do or where they could go to help the war effort. Because of the immediacy of radio and its potential to reach a broad audience, it was possible to organize demonstrations-to protest the war or lobby the Canadian government for formal recognition of Croatia-with just 24 hours’ notice.
Croatian Canadians are quick to praise Loncaric for his role in the war effort. “Without him, we wouldn’t have been able to help as much as we did,” says Drago Geoheli, who is known both here and abroad for spirited, forceful editorials that used to be aired regularly on Loncaric’s show. The money, medicine, food and clothing raised by the community have been credited with helping Croatia survive. Jakov Cosic, a former member of the Croatian National Fund, estimates that since 1991 $13 million-75 percent of which he says came from southern Ontario-was sent to Croatia. Loncaric estimates that through his travel agency alone $500,000 was raised for medicine.
But the power of radio to reach a broad audience reaped more than just praise for Loncaric. “If I say something against the Serbs, they automatically call in,” he says. “Once I said something that I shouldn’t have on the radio and the radio station received 3,500 calls in protest. “I guess,” he adds, with an ironic grin, “the Serbians are listening more than the Croatians.”
It was not an isolated incident. CHIN Radio was inundated with complaints from both Serbs and Croats about each other’s programs. Carl Redhead, vice president of operations at CHIN, particularly remembers problems with “a selection of musical pieces written in the last three to four years. The patriotic lyrics included innuendo that was injurious to the other side or could be perceived as a slap in the face.” In meetings with the producers of the Serbian and Croatian programs, Redhead reminded them that they were “under contractual obligation to refer controversial matters to management,” and when they didn’t, callers certainly did. Redhead told them that, while it was “permissible to express one’s point of view and politics, insults and things that could be interpreted as having a double meaning were out of place”-the station required “decency, respect and that any statement can be proven regarding its factuality.”
“Factuality,” however, was often in the ear of the listener. Drago Geoheli’s frequent editorials on Loncaric’s program raised the ire of Serbs. While Geoheli claims they were factual, the Serbs found them insulting and hateful. For example, he used the image of an old, grief-strickcn Bosnian Serb woman in a black scarf cradling the skull of her son-a Serbian icon of suffering and victimization-as the heart of an editorial illustrating Serbian “backwardness and barbarity.”
After a few such pieces aired, Loncaric was required to submit controversial editorials in both English and Croatian a day in advance to Redhead. This turned out to be “too much of a headache” for him and after two years, despite listener protests, Loncaric discontinued them.
The pressure on Loncaric to provide the community with news is not just because people are worried about family members still living in Croatia or because they wish to argue politics in their local coffee shop. All Croatians, regardless of what country they reside in, have the right to vote in Croatian elections and are represented in the Sabor (parliament) by their own diaspora members. Some groups in the community are also linked to the powerful emigre lobby headed by Gojko Susak.
Like many Croatians who left their homeland for political reasons after the Second World War or the Croatian Spring, Susak took the dream of an independent Croatia with him. A wealthy Toronto pizza proprietor, Susak was willing to put his money behind the man he believed could lead Croatia to independence. Prior to the pivotal 1989 elections in Croatia, when all the parties made overtures to the diaspora community, Susak led a group that threw considerable financial support behind the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and its leader, a retired general named Franjo Tudjman. Today Susak, who has been called the “Canadian king-maker,” is Croatia’s defense minister and a member of Tudjman’s inner circle.
As the father of an independent Croatia, Tudjman is also staunchly supported by a large majority of the diaspora community. Recognizing this, and in a bid to guarantee a three-quarters majority for his party in the Sabor, Tudjman passed an unprecedented law that enfranchised diaspora Croatians to vote in the October 1995 parliamentary elections.
To keep the community current on events and issues in Croatia, Sounds of Croatia features a daily newscast. From 1 to 1:10 p.m., Loncaric hooks into either the evening broadcast of Radio Zagreb or airs prerecorded news from the Croatian news agency HINA. National news is augmented by five to 10-minute regional reports prepared for Sounds of Croatia by correspondents of Radio Pazin on the coast (Mondays), Radio Sarajevo (Tuesdays) and Radio Karlovac in the hinterland (Thursdays).
Providing all this news does not come cheaply, but Loncaric claims no lack of sponsors. “I don’t even have to go out and get advertising anymore, they come to me,” he says. This is partly due to the longevity of the program and the level of trust Loncaric enjoys in the community. “I think the reason I’ve lasted so long,” he says, “is because the program is for all Croatians, regardless of religion or political affiliation.” But it is also likely due to the fact that, from a Croatian perspective, Loncaric’s show is not controversial. Like the majority of his listeners, he is a supporter of President Tudjman and his party; Loncaric boasts that he was one of the few Canadians to receive an audience with Tudjman when the leader first went to Washington. The news onSounds of Croatia has a pro-government bias. While there is limited freedom of the press in Croatia, the broadcast media, which are Loncaric’s source, are either controlled or voluntarily act as a government cheerleader. In Croatia, opposition parties charged that some of their political ads were suppressed by the media while Tudjman’s party received blanket coverage.
Even in Canada, any Croatian media that oppose or criticize the official line must face certain intractable realities. “Croatians by nature tend to be pro-government,” says Srebrenka Bogovic, producer of Voice of Croatia, a radio program sponsored by the Croatian Soccer Club and broadcast Sundays from CJMR, a small radio station in Oakville. “Croatians don’t take kindly to criticism,” she adds. “They rise on their hind legs and complain and boycott.” Bogovic speaks from experience. Two years ago, she helped produce a Croatian community newspaper, Nase Novine (Our Paper), and an opposition radio program. She learned a number of lessons-among them, not to rock the boat and that “there are more ways than one to skin a cat.” Her former radio show, she says, “was terribly controversial and, in retrospect, it was a bit destructive. It was too harsh, too forward; it was obnoxious. A small group was very happy while a larger group was very unhappy.” (The reverse of Loncaric’s situation.) Still, she continues to believe that a Croatian “should be able to say certain things, voice disapproval and not be seen as a fifth column or folding the country.” Her current program, Voice of Croatia, tries to persuade the community that “there are more ways than one to look at a situation. If we have a sponsor we will put anyone on.” But Bogovic is using a “softer sell” approach this time.
Bogovic’s aim is one that mainstream Canadian media take for granted: provide a plurality of views and leave it up to the listeners to decide what they want to believe. But the question remains, is this what the Croatian community wants? Bogovic realizes that some views may not be accepted by the whole community, but if she sandwiches opposition views between official ones, the opposition views stand a chance of being heard by a larger audience. “For economic reasons (sponsorship), we have to be always careful, but we try not to be terribly servile if we can help it,” she says. Ultimately, Bogovic is striving for acceptance (even if it is without respect) for what Voice of Croatia stands for. As long as members of the community continue to view the situation in Croatia as precarious and any criticism of the government as unpatriotic, Sounds of Croatia will continue to glide smoothly over the calm waters of orthodoxy while Voice of Croatia struggles to remain afloat.
In the choppy waters surrounding the Serb community, Mike Milicevic has had no trouble staying afloat. For years, Milicevic, the producer of Sounds of Yugoslavia, was dismissed by nationalist Serbs as a “communist” because his program accepted and even celebrated Yugoslavia as it existed. Sounds of Yugoslavia appealed to a wide, nonpolitical, non-nationalistic audience-people more likely to refer to themselves as Yugoslavs than Serbs or Croatians. When war came, however, Milicevic renamed his program Sounds of the Old Country, and transformed it into the Serbian equivalent of Loncaric’s show.
But Milicevic’s program does not share the same stature in the Serbian community that Loncaric’s does in the Croatian. Sounds of the Old Country is but one of three competing Serbian programs on CHIN. There is an old saying-“Two Serbs, three parties”-which hints at the divisions within the Serb community. And each political, regional and church faction has its own voice. In addition to the radio programs, there are at least four well-established nationalist papers, each with its own loyal audience.
About the only thing all Serbs agree on is that, in this war, they alone have been “demonized” and their side of the story has not been fairly told by the media.
They claim that their efforts to correct what they perceive to be obvious falsifications are refused and their letters of protest to media outlets are rejected. The Serb community speaks with one voice in denouncing mainstream-especially American-media coverage of the war in the former Yugoslavia as distorted, biased (against the Serbs), manipulative and sensationalized. As a result, the Serbian community has turned inward to its own media to get a “truer” version of the news.
At the end of each program, Milicevic hooks into the recorded news of two Belgrade-based news agencies: AVALA, which is independent of the government and tends to have a pro-Bosnian Serb bias, and Radio Beograd, a government mouthpiece. Milicevic claims that many of his listeners prefer the news from AVALA, but he continues to provide them with both perspectives. Milicevic recognizes that this news component is important to his listeners: whenever it is shortened or dropped from a show, he gets numerous complaints. But Sounds of the Old Country is only broadcast Sundays between 6 and 7 p.m. And the eagerly awaited week’s worth of news is only five minutes long, delivered with the speed of an auctioneer.
The other two programs, Bora Dragasevich’s Sumadija and Bill Djurovic’s Ravna Gora (which proclaims itself “the voice of free Serbs”), are virulently anticommunist and anti-Yugoslavia as it existed. Each program is the personal fiefdom of its founder/producer and combines the news with exhortative commentary. From these shows, listeners hear about the anti-Serb but pro-Croatian and Bosnian Muslim policies of the Americans and Europeans; how the Sarajevo breadline and market massacres were actually orchestrated by Bosnian Muslims to force military action against the Bosnian Serbs; of the wild exaggeration surrounding Serb rape and prison camps. The gripping image of a skeletal man staring vacuously at the camera from behind a chain-link fence-which has come to symbolize the brutality of Serbian prison camps-is, the Serbs claim, actually an incarcerated petty Serb criminal ravaged by tuberculosis. When Serbs, living with the memory of the genocide perpetrated against them during the Second World War, are victims of ethnic cleansing, rape and other atrocities, Dragasevich and Djurovic complain that the world doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Unlike the Croatian community, which gets its news almost daily, the whole Serb community has to wait until the weekend. These programs are only broadcast once a week: Suadija on Saturdays (6 to 7 p.m.) andRavna Gora on Sundays (5 to 6 p.m.). With the imposition of sanctions on Yugoslavia in the spring of 1992 the availability of newspapers and magazines from back home became limited and another source of information for the community dried up.
Seeing this news vacuum, a small group of Yugoslavian journalists living in Canada conceived the idea of publishing a newspaper twice a week to inform members of the Yugoslavian community about what was happening in their former homeland. The first issue of Novine (The Paper), published in Cyrillic script, came out in November 1994. Novine attempted to be neither political nor nationalist. And while two-thirds of its readers were ethnically Serbian, according to its first editor, Zivko Cerovic, it was also read by Macedonians, Bosnian Muslims and even Croatians.
The philosophy behind Novine was to provide readers with a wide range of information and viewpoints. Articles about the situation in Yugoslavia were drawn from a variety of sources (independent, professionally staffed news agencies in Yugoslavia, pieces by wellknown Yugoslavian journalists and correspondents, the international press and Internet-derived reports of “independent” institutes with expertise in the Balkans). The paper didn’t editorialize but left the readers to draw their own conclusions. Sensitive to the Serb perception of bias in the media, Novine provided Serb readers with serious articles that recognized the complexity of the situation in Yugoslavia and considered the Serb side of the story.
Under Cerovic, too, there was a commitment to professionalism, both in content and appearance-Novine was staffed by five journalists and two graphic designers. Ljubomir Medjesi, a non-Serb (Ruthenian) reader, agrees that, in its early days, Novine did try to be independent of a (wholly) Serb perspective. “It had a good style of journalism,” he says, “that heralded back to that of the best journalism in the former Yugoslavia.”Novine was unique.
But in August 1995, the original founders sold Novine to Mirko Stokanovic. Stokanovic, not a journalist, brought with him a new vision of what Novine should be. “The basic [thrust of the paper] was good,” says Stokanovic, “but a paper has to stand on one idea.” What he meant was that Novine would no longer be politically neutral. Under Stokanovic, who had been beaten by police during the 1991 riots in Belgrade, the “idea” behind Novine was to oppose and expose Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. To the disappointment of non-Serb readers such as Medjesi, Novine became an explicitly Serb paper, its tagline changed to “The paper of Serbs in Canada.”
Stokanovic’s grand vision is to make Novine the paper of the entire Serbian community, not only in southern Ontario, but all of Canada and, ultimately, North America. Novine should be “a connection between all Serbs in the diaspora,” he says. Old-timers, newcomers, communists and anticommunists-everyone is welcome as long as they are Serbs. Stokanovic sees Novine as a forum to present all their ideas. “People should read about everything in Novine,” he adds with conviction.
From its inception, however, Novine has tended to appeal mostly to a recent immigrant audience. Labouring to establish themselves, the newcomers complain that at $1.50 a copy ($2 outside Ontario), Novine is too expensive. And since they are struggling to make ends meet, they are not a lucrative source of advertising revenue.
Making Novine more interesting to the established community by moving the paper in a more Serb-nationalist direction may have seemed a shrewd way to increase circulation and ad revenues. But the question that Stokanovic didn’t ask was whether these new readers and advertisers-mostly political immigrants who had fled communist Yugoslavia would support the airing of views they disagreed with. The newcomers’ culture, their bastardized sense of Serbian history and political views are not readily compatible with their own.
Stokanovic’s simple vision of creating a paper that represents all the views in the community and is widely accepted by the community may be more ephemeral than sustainable. Srebrenka Bogovic (the producer ofVoice of Croatia) tried to do the same thing in the Croatian community and failed. For a year and a half in the early nineties, the weekly paper Nase Novine, which she helped produce, provided a cross-section of articles, critical analysis and a variety of viewpoints. She found that depending on advertisers for an economic base affected the paper’s editorial content. “You put your integrity in jeopardy,” says Bogovic. “You have to pussyfoot around-can you say that or not? You are always looking behind your shoulder at who you may offend who will then withdraw their funds.” And even more telling, she found that the community itself was “not strong enough to support all the views [published in the paper] ‘ “
One of Novine‘s editorial platforms has been to provide readers with balanced coverage of events. Stokanovic claims to remain committed to this policy. He is prepared to publish “bad things” about Serbs that the community may not want exposed or want to know. So far, the bad stuff-about Milosevic and his regime-plays to the mood of a broad segment of the Serbian community, both old and new, that views Milosevic as a traitor ever since he severed ties with the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs in August 1994. And Stokanovic boasts that he provides his readers with information not readily available to their compatriots in Yugoslavia. Novine stories about the exodus of the Krajina Serbs from Croatia and their plight as refugees-an event that devastated the Serbian community here-received minimal coverage (it was a political embarrassment to Milosevic) in the government-controlled media in Yugoslavia.
But in the community, the other side of being anti-Milosevic is being pro-Bosnian or Croatian Serb. Milosevic is seen as helping to destroy the Bosnian Serbs and as having “sold out” the Krajina Serbs. To expose and criticize Milosevic is acceptable. To expose or criticize Radovan Karadzic or General Ratko Mladic, both champions of Serb interests outside Serbia, however, is a different story and “balance” becomes a liability.
“We are trying to provide balance,” Stokanovic says, “but it is very difficult. We have to measure our words, because there are so many opinions in the Serb community.”
Dragan Ciric, a recent political immigrant who used to publish a paper in Serbia and now helps produce the news on Ravna Gora, has also struggled with the problem of balance. “For every journalist to be a member of one nation is never to be objective,” he says. “You’re not looking from outside, you’re inside.” Neither community wants to hear the “bad stuff ” about themselves, he adds defensively.
“If I put in one sentence that the listeners don’t like,” says Ciric, “it’s like I’m betraying them. They see me as a traitor. Because of that one sentence, they don’t want to listen anymore.”
The question of how far Stokanovic is prepared to compromise editorial policy to retain advertisers and readers may be eclipsed by that of whether Novine-which Stokanovic admits is largely “self-financed”-will even survive in the short term. When Stokanovic took over Novine, most of the original staff, including Cerovic, quit. Attention is still paid to putting out a professional-looking paper, but the quality (from a journalistic rather than nationalistic perspective) has declined. The content of Novine is now derived almost exclusively from agency news, and the paper reads as if it is written by only one or two writers. In the last few months, Novine‘s masthead has shrunk even more and there are rumours that circulation is dropping.
While they may be sworn enemies, to an outsider, the Serbian and Croatian communities share a certain symmetry. Internally, the communities are divided and intolerant of dissention. Externally, the united face they show the world is that of victim-the other side is the aggressor. There is a stark simplicity to the “truth” as each side perceives it. They-the other side-started it and we’re only protecting ourselves. Arguments that there have been victims on both sides fall on deaf ears and an “if you’re not with us, then you’re against us” mentality prevails.
Courageous Croatian and Serbian journalists overseas who have tried to show both sides of the story have not been praised for their journalistic integrity in reporting the truth as they have found it. Many of them have been labelled traitors. Back here, far away across the sea, no one has dared to be a “traitor.” Instead, the communities are blessed with a number of travel agents-cum-broadcasters who are willing to give them what they want. And the travel agents will live comfortably ever after.