War of Words
In May 1989 a small group of radio and newspaper journalists and media activists from Belgrade took over a small room in Central Belgrade that the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party had once used as a storage room. We cleared out the rubbish and started a radio station: B92. The station, the first of its kind in any of the Yugoslav republics, offered a mix of objective news, urban music and irreverent critiques of the reigning powers of the moment.
The Internet became an important tool of our radio project in 1994 as part of B92's overall strategy: to create a world parallel to that established by the regime in order to feel that we were living outside the authoritarian, criminal state. Faced with the secrecy, isolation and repression that characterize the regime, we took up the powerful weapon of transparency. In addition to the radio network, we managed to establish our own music label and our own film and video production unit. People all over the world came into contact with our productions, our style and our spirit, and they began to recognize themselves in what we were doing and thus become part of the creative resistance to the totalitarianism of Slobodan Milosevic.
The 1996-97 antigovernment demonstrations became known as the "Internet Revolution" because of our sophisticated use of the Internet--which allowed students to gather enormous support around the world for their demonstrations and to mobilize anyone interested in a show of solidarity. Internally, in coordination with Radio B92, we used the Internet to alert people to the demonstrations without interference by the state security apparatus. During the protests Radio B92's transmissions were cut by the authorities, with the imbecilic explanation that water had seeped into the coaxial transmission cables and prevented normal broadcasting.
Then there was a strange coincidence. On the same day that the regime banned the radio station, a technician arrived to install a dedicated phone line--which we had requested months earlier--enabling us to communicate with our Internet service provider in Amsterdam. The same Telecommunications Ministry that banned the radio station thus provided us with the means to evade the ban via the Internet.
B92 immediately redirected its feed and began live broadcasts over the Internet. News items were downloaded from the Net and distributed widely within the country and throughout the world. This sent a strong message of resistance to the censors and triggered powerful international political support for B92. After fifty-one hours the regime was no longer able to resist and revoked its ban on Radio B92. This was the first political and media battle Milosevic lost on his home turf of Serbia, revealing that his levers of control over the media were potentially vulnerable. But his advisers vowed that there would be no more defeats.
The successful distribution of radio programs on the Internet gave new life to the old idea of extending B92's coverage to the whole of Serbia (the station's broadcast license was limited to Belgrade). By the middle of 1997, B92 had established a network of independent radio and TV stations, the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), consisting of more than thirty local radio stations from all areas of Serbia and Montenegro. With the assistance of the BBC, we set up a unique rebroadcasting scheme: Every day, four hours of B92 and ANEM news programs were sent via the Internet from Belgrade to Amsterdam and then to London. The BBC then uplinked the B92 and ANEM transmissions to its satellite. Local ANEM radio stations downloaded them and put the programs on the air.
During the Kosovo war, the regime came quickly to realize the power of the Internet to disseminate its own point of view. It moved quickly: On March 25, the day after the first NATO bomb was dropped, it shut down Radio B92. One week later, the government took over our Web address; anyone going to the B92 Web site would see government propaganda supporting Milosevic's stance against NATO. Many citizens were ready to believe this simulation in the same way that they had put their faith in state-run television. "That's true," the saying goes, "I've seen it with my own eyes on television." This is why Radio B92 operates under the slogan "Don't believe anyone, not even us." In Amsterdam a new Web site, www.helpB92.com, was set up to provide whatever information we could about the situation on the ground in Serbia and to generate international support for B92. As the bombs fell, we initiated a discussion on guilt and responsibility--important issues that will also be relevant in the near future as we consider and reconsider our roles individually during the past ten years of constant war. Immediately after the bombing finished, we again began broadcasting on a leased frequency, and www.helpB92.com was transformed into www.freeB92.com, our current Web address.
The Internet helped us to continue broadcasting and gave us a sense of freedom even when we were isolated. The power of the Internet is so widely recognized in Serbia today that right-wing extremists have begun waging a campaign against it. The major state-controlled daily newspaper, Politika, recently published an article claiming that the "www" identification code for the worldwide computer network, "while ostensibly standing for World Wide Web, is a transcribed form of the letter 'vav' which is the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet." The implication was clear: The world of the Internet is actually an international Jewish conspiracy. The government's clumsy attempt to impose isolation is a revealing indication of how the Internet has in fact helped prevent Serbian totalitarianism from totally closing off our society.