Newsroom Technology Arrives In Serbia

As the world hopes for the creation of an open, democratic coalition government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it may be instructive to look at the recent, war-torn history of Yugoslavia to see how newsroom technology has created a foundation for free speech and a more egalitarian government.

If western countries are any indication, the assurance of free speech and a strong democracy is given a strong boost by the existence of powerful news media which, in turn, must rely on evolving technologies to cover global events that impinge themselves even on local news. In the emerging free speech environment of Yugoslavia, one of the most dramatic examples of the marriage of burgeoning democracy and evolving newsroom technology is B92, a struggling local news outlet in Belgrade seeking a license from the Yugoslav government that would allow it to broadcast its contents nationally.

The man behind the story of this news station is Veran Matic, a winner of numerous international journalism awards and one who is widely published all over the world in such newspapers and magazines as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Le Monde, to name just a few.

According to Matic, the injection of new technologies into the news gathering effort is not just for efficiency's sake, but also to help realize progress in guaranteeing freedom of speech for journalists in their country. "New technologies have an important role in establishing democracy in a society like ours," he stated. "It will help us communicate with the rest of the world and become a part of the rest of the world. For us, this is possible because of a gift from Avid."

Indeed, Avid gave 20 seats of its iNEWS newsroom computer system (including training and support) to B92, the independent radio and television station that Matic is building in Belgrade. According to Avid, the gift acknowledges the admirable work of B92 and honors the station's determination to deliver professionally prepared news broadcasts nationally. David Krall, president and CEO of Avid, mentioned in an interview that this was an important thing for his company to do. "It was an opportunity to show our support for free journalism and the entire scope of their program," he said. "It will increase their efficiency, helping them expand to national status by improving their news programming."

Even prior to this, Matic and others were working on the cutting edge of technology--mostly out of desperation. After beginning in 1989 as a student station to draw attention to the human rights violations being committed during the civil war in Yugoslavia, his group established the country's first ISP in 1996. "We did it to serve the media more openly by preventing Milosovic from having control over all media," noted Matic.

Then, in 1999, the group began to look for ways to streamline their news gathering operations and move beyond their "guerrilla journalism," as Matic puts it, to become a modern, self-supporting broadcaster. And guerrilla journalism it was, as reporters could only file reports back to Belgrade via laptop. Not only was the other newsgathering and distributing equipment that standard news operations in the United States and western Europe take for granted not available, but station workers were under constant surveillance by the government. "We used to have to hide from Milosovic's henchmen in different locations," Matic said. Now the station will finally be able to buy brand name computer equipment (it is currently using equipment it bought off the black market).

B92 will continue to use the Internet, but will augment it with newly gained satellite capability. As far as transmission, it will be handled by satellite and terrestrial and will use repeaters and local broadcasters to rebroadcast its news throughout the country. That is, it will be, if the station gets approval from a nervous Yugoslav government that must ok its status as it graduates from a local Belgrade news station to a full blown national news broadcaster. Its success is not assured, as pending Yugoslav legislation, being pushed by hardliners fearful of open, objective news, according to Matic, may attempt to curtail the station's activities. At the very least, legislation will attempt to make it more difficult for small or independent operations to establish their voice. If the legislation is passed by the Yugoslav Parliament, B92 could face serious technical hurdles in its pursuit to gain recognition as a national broadcaster.

According to Matic, "there are people in [the] government who are afraid of the power B92 will wield if we become a national broadcaster." And those people, apparently, are trying to manufacture obstacles-in the form of regulations relating to technological prowess, that the station must meet. Matic believes that Avid's systems will serve as the technology investment needed to help convince the government that B92 has the ability to create professional national news programs and thereby qualify for national carriage. Currently, the station is sanctioned to broadcast only within the centralized region of Belgrade.

What's so important about the national license? "B92 is a watchdog for democracy that is popular in Serbia," Matic stated. "Now we need a national license to compete with commercial stations to sell advertising so we can have that kind of news on a national scale." So the fight continues. From its roots underground to the battle for national recognition, B92 attempts to take Yugoslavia from the dark days of oppression to the light of a new democracy, powered by the latest in newsroom technology.