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Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Veran Matic

Radio Free Serbia: Can the Truth Reconcile a Shattered Land?

September 10, 2000|Michael Soller | Michael Soller is Opinion articles editor

Yugoslavia's slide into murder and war in 1991 was precipitous, but the nationalism that touched it off emerged during communism's last days. Independent Serbian journalist Veran Matic, one of the Yugoslav government's most vocal critics and most frequent victims, watched in the late 1980s as his country's state-run media created a culture of fear. Now he has joined the call for a truth and reconciliation commission for the Balkans. Such commissions have eased South Africa's transition to multiracial government and uncovered military crimes in Guatemala by offering amnesty to people who confess their crimes--a controversial idea in a region known for its retributive politics. Although the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has indicted 94 people since 1993, Matic believes such crimes are only part of the story of Yugoslavia's traumatic past 10 years.

Matic is chairman of the Assn. of Independent Electronic Media, or ANEM, which provides programming and technical and legal assistance to 28 local radio stations and 20 TV stations in Yugoslavia and its former territories. He believes journalists can play an important role in defying a culture in which, as a short film produced by ANEM noted, "Censorship applies to everyone."

Censorship occasionally turns to violence. Earlier this year, the government shut down Matic's radio station, B2-92, and a TV station owned by opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. One month later, gunmen shot Draskovic twice; he survived. Radio B2-92 was the successor to B-92, Belgrade's leading independent radio station, which Matic helped start in 1989. Hours before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing Yugoslavia last March, Serbian officials took over the station; the entire staff resigned in protest. Matic wrote an article for the New York Times condemning NATO's bombing, but his opposition sandwiched him between Serbian officials and Western governments. "During the bombing, almost everyone around us was against us," Matic says.

Matic promotes Serbia's growing youth movement, publishing music and organizing concerts; the radio station's Web site is part Rock the Vote, part Amnesty International. At 38, he is the oldest B2-92 staff member, and he delights in the student group Otpor, or Resistance, whose symbol, a clenched fist, tags Belgrade walls. With Yugoslav elections on Sept. 24, Matic calls that "creative energy" a greater challenge to President Slobodan Milosevic's government than Serbia's fractious opposition parties.

Matic spoke with The Times late at night from a rented office in Belgrade. His wife, Lola, worked for a pharmaceutical company owned by former Prime Minister Milan Panic until two years ago, when Serbia's government took over the company. They have two children, Ana, 14, and Djordje, 8. The conversation was translated by one of Matic's assistants.


Question: How can a truth and reconciliation commission work in Yugoslavia?

Answer: It can be established only when this region is democratized. . . . Because crimes in this region have been going on for 10 years, if we wait for them to end to start the process, we will not achieve anything. It's important to start so we can preserve . . . evidence. Another thing: Reeducation of the local population is necessary, because many people believe that these crimes were committed for just reasons.

Q: What are you doing to pave the way for a truth commission?

A: Investigative journalism should be applied in all media here to find out what happened, what really happened. That is exactly why our network, which includes 30 radio stations, introduced a show called "Catharsis." We are producing a TV version. . . . At present, almost all civic life in Yugoslavia is being conducted through the state-run media. The state-run media made a strong contribution to what happened in the past 10 years, and that is why a change of media is important now.

Q: Truth and reconciliation commissions have mixed records around the world. South Africa's commission helped create a multiracial government, but the country faces spiraling crime and disease rates. What kind of barriers would a truth commission face in Yugoslavia?

A: Unlike other commissions around the world, a Yugoslav commission would already have the presence of The Hague war crimes tribunal. That's the strong difference, though the negative image of The Hague tribunal here could be an obstacle. But a Yugoslav truth commission, unlike the commission in South Africa, would not have to think about things such as an amnesty [for perpetrators].

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