Internet Free Europe

With the shutdown by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic of Radio B92 last week, there is now no independent radio station broadcasting inside Yugoslavia. Its closure leaves only state-controlled Radio Television Serbia broadcasting news domestically.

Perhaps you, like many Americans, have successfully reduced the Kosovo police action to a handy personal for-mula: Damn Socialists + Pitiful Refugees = NATO Moral Imperative, or Faraway Land + Ancient Conflict (Unclear Economic Imperative) = Not Our Problem.

American television news relies on simple math like that, and any day now we'll have the technology to digitally insert white hats and black hats into live war footage, the better to help viewers follow the thread. For now, NATO has minimized the problem by keeping the Black Hats on the ground and the White Hats up above in the planes. It's a basic theatrical technique; NATO stages it with bombers rather than risers.

I have seen footage of refugee exodus before, and I have seen air strikes and burning buildings, and frankly I'm having trouble differentiating between this and last season's Necessary Mobilizations. I can't keep the labels straight, or who asked us to get involved. Above all, I don't believe in The News anymore.

Like NATO itself, The News operates as if there is a beginning, middle, and end to this conflict and as if drastic action (such as bombing, or flying in high-ranking correspondents) can advance the plot along. It assumes that the people we are trying to help believe that we are wise and good enough to know exactly what to do. It assumes that there are exactly two sides to every question.

However, I don't recall seeing that clean a war in this decade. Instead, war erupts in small groups of people with arcane shared interests who debate until they detonate—much to the confusion of casual observers, on whom all combatants are likely to turn if meddling is attempted.

All of this means that '90s wars are best understood not through the wide-angle view of mainstream media but through online reports from partisan observers—as many as you can jam through your modem.

There's an international B92 archive-and-support page at http://www.help b92.xs4all.nl. A portion of that site, Open Channels for Kosova, is broadcasting recordings of phone calls from in-country and refugee journalists at http://www. xs4all.nl/~pressnow/open/audio.html. Most are currently freelance by force of circumstance, filing reports whenever they can catch a phone.

Instead of the reassuring presence of reporters we know "from before," the unfamiliar journalists on Open Channels fade in and out, like a radio I can't quite tune. I believe what they tell me—or, at least, I believe that they believe themselves to be bearing true witness. Without the CNN (or cnn.com) or The New York Times (or nytimes.com) brand, there's no shorthand for the reporter's agenda. To be sure of the reportorial biases on these sites, you have to listen to another, and another, and another. When an opinion finally starts to take form, it is your own: your personal Net portal to Kosovo.

The riot of viewpoints continues down the food chain, as mailing lists pick up the slack while Serb censors clamp down on traditional journalists. Net access is dicey when people are dropping bombs on you, but the urge to communicate is almost as powerful as the survival instinct. That conflict of self-interest makes for incredibly direct dispatches. The writers are scared. They're often angry—at NATO, at Milosevic, at other people who have sent e-mail (sometimes contradictory) to the mailing list, at the pressure to keep things black and white for the casual observer.

Highly subjective, narrow, tinged with propaganda? Yes. But I trust my e-mail, because I know it is subjective, and because fear and rage seem to me far more basic and truthful impulses than the urge to fly across the ocean and stand in front of a camera. The Net doesn't encourage me to trust "authentic" or "objective" voices more; it does, however, let me decide for myself whom to trust less.

Slobodan Milosevic has ensured that there are no professional journalists left to truthfully report the latest war. That's fitting. For now, I can only look at Kosovo and Belgrade sideways, through partisan eyes. And I may not know exactly what I'm seeing, but I know that there is something more trustworthy about it.

 
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