Written by: Nenad Pejić, journalist

How is it possible that the citizens of Russia trust the regime so much, despite all the facts?

 A month ago when the editorial board of the independent Novaya Gazeta in Russia asked its readers whether they wanted them to respect the government’s censorship of the war in Ukraine, the vast majority answered- affirmatively. Thanks, but we do not want the truth! Journalists have stopped publishing the newspapers!

This news brought back the memories of the pre-war period in our country. It was in 1989 when the media (primarily in Serbia) had already begun to fan the flames from one nation to another. I had to make a decision- whether Sarajevo Television, of which I was the Editor-in-Chief, would do what Serbia has already done, as well as the Croatia Television, aiming to prevent viewers from accessing media from other republics, or continue the policy of openness and enable viewers to watch all three televisions from Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Zagreb, as well as YUTEL, which was broadcasted from the Sarajevo studio. We opted for the latter. We anticipated that viewers will make a distinction between those lying to them and those who were not, and therefore choose the one telling the truth.

It was a professionally honorable decision, but naive, based on a wrong assumption since during the conflicts and wars, viewers watch the media they concur with! It is a confirmation they are on the right side, much easier than reconsidering their views. According to the research from 1989, only 12% of citizens in Belgrade, or 13% in Sarajevo, considered nationality to be the most important determinant of their identity. However, just two years later, a survey among students in Sarajevo showed that 78% of Serbs watched only Serbian television, 68% of Croats watched Croatian Television, and Yugoslavs and Muslims watched Sarajevo Television. The students who are supposed to be the progressive part of society! The public lumped behind their national TV stations and became an ethnic public. Readers of Novaya Gazeta lumped together with the government. When lined up, the public does not want to know the truth, and a state of collective innocence is established.

Blessed is the leader when the public comes to that position. The media play an irreplaceable role in this. Slobodan Milosevic first prevented other media from reaching out to the citizens of Serbia. Vladimir Putin shut down all independent media, banned foreign ones, and marked anyone who receives any help from the West as a foreign agent.

Most still believe that a “special operation” is in progress. No one dares to ask how is it possible for tens of thousands of people to lose their lives during a “special operation”, for millions to be displaced, and for entire cities to be destroyed! The one who asks – goes straight to jail.

No wonder then that surveys in Russia show support for the Russian president, although independent experts are seriously questioning public opinion polls organized by the state itself or those it controls. The researchers from the London School of Economics underline the so-called “preferential forgery”, when those who answer questions in front of researchers answer one thing, even though they think something completely different in private. Fear of repression, in combination with collective innocence, leads to such behavior. And anyway, the Romanian dictator Ceausescu had the official support of 95% of the citizens just before he was overthrown!

Accepting collective innocence does not even mean supporting the regime, but rather a willingness not to question its actions. Apathy is strategically more important to Putin than support. It always lasts longer. Support does not have to turn into active support if something goes wrong for the regime. In other words, because of a state of collective innocence and such support, that is, apathy, one does not go to war in Ukraine voluntarily, nor to barricades to defend the president from rebellion.

 It has been noticed, recently, that propaganda in Russia is trying to solve the problem by labeling the war as a “special operation”. Namely, labeling it that way becomes harder when having in mind that losses are more and more obvious. That is why the Russians are now convinced that the Ukrainians are good soldiers and that the “operation” will last long. A few days ago, a commentator in Komsomolskaya Pravda imaginatively wrote, that Ukraine’s strength lies in “a Russian soldier, a fascist commander and an American general”! Thus, all three propaganda phrases are emphasized in one sentence – Ukrainians are Russians, as there is a Nazi regime, then in Ukraine the commanders are Nazis, and the fighting is hard because it is a war with the West, so victims and losses are easier to justify!

It could be that journalists and media editors consider it their duty to support the regime during the war. This is usually an excuse that comes after the war when all boils down. The time when medals are hidden, and the time to find shelter in the “lee” hiding from the media fame. Also, the media support for the U.S. government in the Iraq war has been extremely unprofessional. However, the media quickly became aware and began to expose crimes committed by the US military, corruption, etc.

The guilt of the media is not just in the promotion and support of the official ideological viewpoint. Moreover, the silence of the media about the crimes of the Russian side is a professional crime! The consequences of that silence are extremely serious. They do not commit crimes personally, but being silent about them allows them to happen. If a Russian soldier commits a crime in Ukraine, thinking that he is killing the Nazis, then the journalist who publishes that propaganda is also responsible for that. Julius Streicher, a journalist who propagated the Holocaust, was sentenced to death, the sentence was carried out in October 1946, not because he committed the crimes but because he made them possible, and acceptable. The latest example with a court epilogue is from Uganda when the editors of RTKM radio in 1993 propagated hatred towards the Tutsi tribe. They called the members of that tribe cockroaches and told their soldiers to finish the job because “the graves are not full yet”. They were convicted in the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The court holds them responsible for creating an atmosphere of hatred. A study from Harvard estimated that the editorial policy of the radio caused 9.7% of the violence and that it was responsible for about 50,000 murders! Journalistic silence and the promotion of hatred is not, therefore, “only” a professional crime!

How many people were killed during wars in Yugoslavia because the media created an atmosphere of hatred? How many people were killed after a journalist from Sarajevo invented and reported the story that they were feeding lions with Serbian children there!? Or, how many people were killed because a journalist from Pale Television put a pig roast in front of him while the citizens of Sarajevo were starving for months during the siege!? Slavenka Drakulić, a well-known writer from Croatia, in her analysis of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, calls the unprofessional behavior of journalists, and not only them, the spread of hatred and silence, “patriotic blindness”, a time when moral principles disappear. The explanation that often comes from journalists can be understood as “we had to keep quiet or lie”. No, gentlemen, you did not have to do so. There are hundreds of those who did not accept to sell the illusion.

Silence about the truth prevents thinking about the arguments of others and prolongs the illusion. What happens to those who live in illusion? How do countries that live in illusion and do not see reality end up? For decades, Russia has been living in projected fear of the West, which is about to attack it. The West is to blame for shortages, poverty, and everything wrong. That fear and suffering are a part of life. People gave up freedom for security. These are people who have been fighting for decades for freedom from someone else, and not for freedom for themselves. A servile journalist shares the responsibility for the lack of freedom of his readers, viewers, and listeners with those whose orders he follows.

That bubble, however, must burst. A day or two ago, hundreds of young people shouted “f… war” during a concert in St. Petersburg.

Maybe it’s time to hide the medals. Everything has its end, even collective innocence.

This article was written with the financial support of the National Endowment for Democracy. The contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and publishers of the Media Institute of Montenegro and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the donors.