Bwog “Newspaper-Reads-You” Expert Valerie Sapozhnikova joined a tiny audience at the Harriman Institute to learn about media in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Sitting amongst an audience of about 15, and listening to the moderator become bored with herself as she droned on about each speaker’s accomplishments, I almost started to regret my decision to attend the Harriman Institute Lecture on the Role of Media in the Former Yugoslavia and the Former Soviet Union. When I heard what the three speakers had to say, I quickly changed my mind. All of the panelists were journalists who had worked with Communist dominated media in Eastern Europe. The three had clearly seen more than their share, and had a nuanced take on journalism that is rarely encountered in the United States.
Nikola Krastev, a quiet and confident Bulgarian native, who reports for Radio Free Europe, brought up an intriguing topic—self-censorship. He told the audience how during his years as a young journalist in Bulgaria, he was not allowed to cover politics. Apparently, his ability to censor his own thoughts was not as well-conditioned as it ought to have been. For a lecture having to do with Communism, this was hardly a shocking story. What did surprise me was his discussion of how he self-censors now that he’s a writer in the US. Krastev made the point that, in order to be objective, one must censor some ideas. In hard-news reportage, emotions and personal biases are hardly appropriate. The difference between the two types of self-censorship, he told the audience, is the level of consciousness present when each is performed.
Marija Sajkas’s experiences were reminiscent of Krastev’s, though Communism’s influence on them was much more extreme. Sajkas, who has done minority reporting for the last twenty years in the former Yugoslavia, went through a timeline chronicling the ups and downs of freedoms in this region’s media. During her days in the Communist era, censorship was an implied part of being a journalist. Glorifications of the current President always took the front page, along with a detailed account of how the socialist economy was of course advancing in comparison to that of those crazy capitalist countries. In 1999, when Belgrade was bombed, the Secret Service agents who had been working in the publications undercover came out of the closet, and checked over every single word sent in for print. Sajkas said the only solution was to write for people who could “read between the lines.” She repeated the importance of allegorical language many times throughout the lecture, making it clear that it was the tool that helped her writing survive.
The third speaker’s stories were much less colored by Communism—he’s lived in New York since the 90s—but he made up for that with his opinions. When Erol Ardic started out as a correspondent for the United Nations, he didn’t get paid (internships <333), and worked side jobs to survive. Everyday, when all the other “lift boys” were eating lunch, Ardic would pick up a New York Times, and see the information he’d passed on to them in print. Soon he started wondering whether he was doing his job as thoroughly as he could. It took Christiane Amanpour’s criticism of Clinton to make him realize he wasn’t, and it was then that he “started to slap everybody”. In the figurative sense, of course. Ardic also disagreed with the new politic the “Bosnian friends” (Americans) keep proposing—one which tries to bring everyone together and label every Bosnian with a binary nationality (ex. Bosnian Serb)—is not working. In fact, it’s making everything go backwards.
In accompaniment to the sound of chalk on the black board (the moderator desperately taking notes), the speakers finished up by talking about the freedom of the press in both countries. They discussed the dangers their colleagues in Russia face (journalists are threatened and killed annually) from both the government and the mafia. Ardic summarized the discussion with a joke: “An American journalist tells a Russian one, ‘In my country, I can stand in front of the White House and shout all sorts of criticisms at the US President and not be arrested.’ The Russian journalist replies, ‘In Russia, I too can stand in the center of the Red Square, and shout all sorts of criticisms at the US President, and not be arrested.’” When it comes to Communism, at the end of the day all you can do is laugh.