Writers vs. Barbarians – 90 years of Serbian PEN center and (self)censorship by Saša Ilić

Back in 1985, at the international conference in Budapest organised by the Federation for Human Rights, Danilo Kiš read his short, memorable essay on censorship. The author described it as a phenomenon which “does not acknowledge its own existence and attempts to hide behind the mantle of democratic institutions with completely different functions, such as publishing houses and committees or masquerades itself in the person of an editor, a reviewer, a proofreader, etc.” Its existence Kiš perceived as “the symptom of a chronic illness which develops self-censorship alongside with it.”

In the last four years in Serbia a series of “invisible” government interventions took place concerning freedom of speech and media freedoms in general. Some very important political television shows were taken off the channels with national frequencies, some editorial teams were replaced – as in the case of Radio Television of Vojvodina – and similar things have happened to cartoonists too. Namely, to Dušan Petričić, who used to comment on current affairs in Serbia with his signature visual commentaries on the front page of the daily Politika. This year he was sacked and he had to leave. This kind of repression was felt in all media outlets and its editorial boards, where consequently ever growing fear triggered self-censorship.

Recently, the National Library of Serbia organised a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Serbian PEN Centre. The poet Ljubomir Simović spoke at the event and his scathing critical speech provoked an unexpected response from the media, which made us realise that the process of self-censorship took stronger hold than one could have imagined. Everything was planned to run smoothly, though, including the suitable speeches by Vladan Vukosavljević, the Minister of Culture and Vida Ognjenović, the president of the Serbian PEN. However, the speech by Simović, the poet, titled “The Return to Barbarism” (the phrase taken from T.S. Eliot), listed all the misdeeds and impropriety of Aleksandar Vučić’s government, starting from the controversial urban development “Belgrade Waterfront”, followed by their media, language, cultural, educational and economic policies, all the way to the illegal night demolition of housing in Belgrade’s Savamala district. That night Simović warned that the authors who would dare to write about all these misconducts would have been censored. Indeed, Simović’s speech activated the self-censorship button of the majority of the Serbian media who were reporting from this event.

The first news published after the PEN event was from the state agency Tanjug. The news heading was “The Nine Decades of the Serbian PEN”. It was comprised of three parts, the first and most important of which was based on Minister Vukosavljević’s speech. His overview of the history of the Serbian PEN was made of half-truths, delivered in a joyous manner, full of well-wishing for the years ahead. The second part referred to the summary of Vida Ognjenović’s speech, from which a single memorable sentence was taken out: “PEN is indispensable as our fellow fighter in the struggle for freedom of speech, freedom of the written word and freedom of thought, and against war, censorship, violence and inhumane actions.” The Minister finished his speech by reminding us of the year when the Serbian PEN was founded (1926), and of all the authors who participated in its creation. This was, in fact, the (self)censored version of the event. The “agency news” served as an alibi for the (self)censorship that the other media performed, as they uncritically broadcasted the Tanjug version of the event (TV B92, for example, being one of them).

Luckily, on that same evening, TV N1 reported about the same event. Given that Television N1 can be watched only in Belgrade, via a cable tv, just a small fraction of the public was informed about what actually happened. Politika, the main daily newspaper, published the “agency news” about this event only on Saturday 26th November, in its regular cultural section under the heading “The Serbian PEN – Fellow Fighter for Freedom of Speech”. It was telling that no one authored the article, as it was a hybrid of Tanjug’s and Seecult portal news. Only the independent daily Danas, with its very limited circulation, published the integral version of the poet Ljubomir Simović’s speech.

On the same day, the daily newspaper Blic published a short news piece about the PEN’s 90th anniversary celebration. It took the heading from Simović’s talk, but represented his ideas in such a way that readership could gather that the poet was talking about the universal problems of marginalisation of literature, by quoting the T.S.Eliot stance that “the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric”. The Blic journalist’s punch-line was that “the people in power have realised that the power of books could be thwarted.” This means absolutely nothing, in the same way in which the whole article distorts its own capacity for criticism. It turns out that Simović’s barbarians are the same as Eliot’s barbarians, who trouble the world in the same way and measure – which is simply not true.

For completing the jigsaw puzzle about the 90th anniversary celebration of the Serbian PEN one needs to put in much more effort than in the previous years. A reader needs to have an advanced level of media literacy and the perseverance of a researcher, providing that he initially had his doubts regarding the Tanjug agency news and the Minister of Culture’s utterances. The number of such readers, however, is insignificant. The vast majority are left to a dangerous “mental manipulation with profound consequences for literature and the human spirit”, as Danilo Kiš once said.

By Saša Ilić

Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic

   This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 23 January 2017.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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