NATO’s War on Media in Serbia

Ruined RTS building seen from RTS parking lot.

By Hoi Mun Yee

Belgrade, As the bells of St. Mark’s Church rang for 4 P.M., it is just another afternoon at Tasmajdan Park. Kids are playing and people fill the cafes around.

But a few hundred metres away is a sombre reminder of the wards of the 1990s. Walk pass a few cafés, and a right turn reveals the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) headquarters, a ruined building left by the 1999 NATO bombing. A stone memorial with the inscription “Zašto?” or “Why?” stands nearby on the grass. Sixteen names of RTS employees who perished during the bombing follow.

Memorial for deceased RTS workers seen in front of RTS.

In the early hours of 23 April, 1999, NATO launched a missile attack on the RTS headquarters, accusing the broadcaster of spreading propaganda for Slobodan Milosevic, then President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Milosevic’s regime was accused of persecuting and killing independence-seeking ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The move sparked controversy throughout the international community, and even among NATO allies. NATO member France reportedly expressed reluctance to agree with the bombing, and many human rights and media watchdogs, including Amnesty International, saw the RTS bombing as a war crime despite NATO’s claim that media was a weapon of war.

Vesna Alavanja was in an underground bar about a mile away from RTS the night the bomb fell. She said it had been a completely unexpected move from NATO, but when it happened she knew it was no earthquake.

“This was nothing like I experienced before, it was simply a blast of noise and the ground moved,” she said.

The targeted building stands today as it did after the bombing, as if it was carved in half. Pigeons have made their homes in the remnants of war. The sun highlights its decaying state, fragments hang from the ceilings, and the walls are bare. The ruin looks incongruous connected to the new RTS building, a modern glass structure.

“We were scared, we were aware it hit somewhere close,” Alavanja said.

She said that nobody dared going outside, as staying underground seemed the safest option. When the news broke, she was shocked to hear the place that had been targeted.

“Radio Television Serbia is a civilian target,” she said.

“One of my not-so-close friends should have worked (there) that evening but she switched shifts with another guy, who died.”

Eighteen years on, the younger generations remember less about the incident. Ksenija Radovic works at RTS today but she was nine when the blasts occurred.

“Older coworkers like to tell stories about that time, you can see them with tears in their eyes talking about people who died that night,” she said.

However, the incident did leave a lasting impact on her.

“I still get chills and feel a bit scared when I hear an airplane sound.”

Many Serbs believe the bombing was an act of aggression by NATO towards Serbia. “To us, it is a reminder of great injustice to not only people of Serbia but to those who are less strong than NATO,” Alavanja said.

“I don’t think any attack worldwide can be justified.”