Hidden History

These Rebel Reporters Harnessed ’90s Dial-Up Internet to Resist a Nationalist Dictator

Back when you were still hoarding AOL CD-ROMs, a team of silenced Serbians took their message to the masses via a strange new tool called online journalism.

These Rebel Reporters Harnessed ’90s Dial-Up Internet to Resist a Nationalist Dictator

Belgrade was bedlam. For a week in November 1996, protesters marched on the Serbian capital, the clang of pots on pans and the screams of whistles filling the streets – necessary tactics, the protesters said, to drown out the lies of a president who’d stolen an election.

By November 25, in spite of freezing temperatures, the hoard swelled to nearly 200,000, uniting university students, Serb nationalists and anti-war advocates – groups that had been staunch political rivals in the past. Their voices grew hoarse after hours of chanting and singing. They threw eggs at the offices of the largest newspaper in the country, and the only national television station, the latter of which had called them “a handful of desperate people.”

But outside of Belgrade, in small towns where the only available news sources were owned by the state, the average citizen did not know there were protests happening at all. Not only did the radio and TV broadcasts distort their scale, newspapers failed to mention them. And on that Sunday, turning the dial to B92, a radio station that was one of the few media outlets in the country hailed for its independent reporting, yielded only static.

Slobodan Milosevic had taken power in Serbia in the mid-80s amid a rise of nationalism throughout Yugoslavia (at the time made up of Serbia and five other socialist republics), which would ultimately lead to the fracturing of the country. Milosevic was skilled at capitalizing on this nationalist feeling, once telling a group of Serbs, “No one will ever dare beat you again.” He also threatened military action and repressive measures against the other republics should they secede from the united country. Still, even he understood that keeping the pretense of a free press would excuse him from the criticism that would follow dismantling independent journalism altogether. Instead, he cast journalists as the enemy, and those who offered critiques were accused of colluding with Yugoslavia’s enemies.

Television news became Milosevic’s medium of choice, with state-sponsored hacks forever spinning his agenda: Economic sanctions were proof of the world turning against Yugoslavia, attacks by the Serbian paramilitary were noble two-sided battles, and most importantly, he alone was looking out for the country’s best interests.

When rhetoric wasn’t enough, Milosevic and his allies would literally stop the presses, manufacturing newsprint and paper shortages, or offering up other reasons to halt publication. “Printing works are disinclined to print independent papers,” Uros Komlenovic wrote in the independent weekly Vreme in 1997, “their services are expensive, while their outdated, low quality equipment is prone to malfunction, and operators are prone to drink and [to] frequent ‘spontaneous’ refusals to print papers that ‘publish anti-national and anti-state material.’ Serbs do not know how to, or do not like to read (only 22% of the population reads regularly), and those who have the desire to read, lack the money.”

While newspapers struggled for the means to publish, independent television and radio stations had limited access to functional broadcast equipment. Oftentimes, as was the case with B92, their range was limited to Belgrade, leaving the many small towns throughout Yugoslavia with only state-approved channels for information. In this black hole, propaganda thrived. And the message to journalists was clear: Say what you want, because no one will be able to hear it.

“B92 was right from its foundation a regular target of diverse strategies for banning our work,” editor Veran Matic said in a recent interview. “But due to our excellent program and new audience that we attracted, we had managed to circumvent [a] ban.”

During previous protests in Belgrade in 1991, Matic and his staff had been thrown off the radio station premises by the police for reporting what was happening, losing access to their broadcast equipment in the process. To cover the protests this time around, they would have to launch a guerrilla operation: unlicensed, using an old, state-owned transmitter that limited their reach to Belgrade, with the knowledge that they could be shut down at any time.

Drazen Pantic thought he had a way around it all. As a professor of mathematics at the University of Belgrade, he had an interest in computer science and the nascent internet, which was just then coming alive with the likes of Amazon and Yahoo. But going online in a country under international sanctions was easier said than done. A year earlier, Pantic had teamed up with Matic and began building a website for B92 – although they still needed a server company that would be willing to work with them (and many weren’t) – as well as a phone line in their office, which would require approval from the state.

Pantic’s associate professor made the connection to a telecommunications provider in Amsterdam. The phone line came after a terse meeting with a state official who referred to the pair as enemies of the state. But with those two tools secured, B92 was online.

For months, B92 was the only internet service provider in the country, running a platform called OpenNet that connected the world to sporadic news updates from inside the country. B92’s priority remained its daily radio broadcasts. But the website attracted the attention of young people who flocked to B92’s “Internet Classroom” – a basement at the university filled with computers, the smell of hot metal always in the air. The demand to learn was immense, Pantic said, with waiting lists for classes on computers and websites.

The 1996 elections arrived with real hope that Serbians would oust Milosevic and his party after years of war and economic turmoil. The initial returns affirmed that hope, with the opposition party taking leads in the southern region of Serbia, known as Milosevic’s power base.

But within hours of the polls closing, the narrative changed, and Milosevic’s party was winning. Protests erupted in the region as word spread of ballot fraud – but the state media stayed quiet.

Drazen Pantic, left, inside the B92 computer center in the Dom Omladina (“House of Youth”) Building in downtown Belgrade, December 1996.

Protests spread to Belgrade, followed quickly by a separate student protest over the government’s control of the University of Belgrade. B92 was one of the few media outlets to report on their unprecedented numbers of protesters. Nearly ten percent of the city’s population came to block the streets, throw eggs and chant – a fact that the state was eager to obscure. Dissenters gathered every afternoon at three p.m. in front of the offices of the opposition party with signs ranging from irreverent – “just a handful of people?” – to moving – “Belgrade is the world.”

But as Veran Matic and his staff returned to the station that Sunday for the morning broadcast, they realized they had been knocked off the air in the middle of the night; the state-owned transmitter they used had been switched off.

“We had [planned out] several scenarios in case [we were faced] with repression,” Matic said. “So, we immediately began to implement our prepared strategies.”

Throughout the protest, demonstrators had blared B92’s newscasts over massive speakers trucked in to the middle of the city. Now, the journalists themselves would use megaphones.

“It was a mixture of super sophisticated and classical methods,” Matic said. “It was important to air our program in all possible ways.”

They sent transcripts of their newscast to friendly contacts in factories, who printed and circulated them en masse. Matic also knew that the international news networks reporting on the region could air B92’s broadcasts and reach more people than the station alone ever could.

But for their most innovative method of distribution, the B92 staff turned to the website.

Inside the B92 computer center in Belgrade, December 1996.

It was a basic, black backdrop with bright yellow HTML links leading to general information about media freedom in the country. What they wanted to do was record their daily broadcasts and upload them, making them available in Serbian and English to listeners both in the city and around the world. But the single line to their server did not offer enough bandwidth.

A knock on the door came one afternoon. To their astonishment, it was a technician from the state, there to install a dedicated phone line – one they’d been requesting for months, to give them greater bandwidth. No one knew why he had come on that day, whether it was luck or the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy, but Pantic suspects that a sympathetic soul in the government may have sent him.

The journalists got to work writing and reporting on the ongoing protests, the international response and their own predicament. They were aided by Pantic’s students – experts on the computers at that point – who transcribed copy and uploaded the audio links. University of Belgrade students would eventually build their own website to differentiate their protest from the larger one.

“The irony is that the government meant to silence us, but instead forced us to build on a whole new technology to stay alive,” Pantic told the New York Times then. “The drive to close us down has given us a tool to vastly expand our audience.”

The first links to audio newscasts went up the same day their signal was cut.

“The authorities thought that we were stimulating people to go out and join the protests,” Matic said. “The government made the wrong assessment because while we had contributed to the growth in the number of protesters, banning and disrupting B92 would contribute to it even more.”

In fact, the number of protesters more than doubled. They egged the state media and raged against their reports, but gathered outside of B92’s offices to cheer.

On day two without their signal, the B92 team repeated their routine of recording broadcasts in both languages, uploading and transcribing them. They were reaching a connected and interested audience that was quick to respond. International journalists offered help. World leaders were outraged at the situation on the ground.

Tens of thousands gathered in Belgrade’s main Republic Square to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, December 1996.

On the third day after the station lost its signal, it was restored. The explanation from the state was that water had damaged a coaxial cable at the station, making broadcast impossible. But the B92 staff thought differently.

“When they realized that this ban was a mistake, taken into account the number of protesters and international support we were offered, they decided to get us back on air, turning on the signal on the transmitter,” Matic said.

But now they had the upper hand. Matic refused to go back on air until the state agency guaranteed that they would not be knocked out again. The pressure from both the international community and the protesters was enough to force an agreement, and B92 began to broadcast two days after their signal was first cut. The website remained a critical part of their coverage from then on, and the protests came to be known as the “Internet Revolution.” It was one of the first battles of the web era, and Milosevic had lost.

“We were convinced that we became invincible, and that we will always find the way to be on the air again,” Matic said.

In the spring of 1997, after nearly four months of protests, Milosevic bowed to pressure from both his people and the global community to recognize the illegitimacy of the election. He remained in power for three more years – three years marked by increasing desperation, civil unrest and international outrage.

In 1999, amid NATO air raids, and another brutal war on his former compatriots, Milosevic’s regime became desperate enough to clamp down on independent media once again. B92 lost their signal. Matic was arrested. But the state had other battles to fight, and the journalists were able to resume broadcasting shortly thereafter.

They were forced off the air one last time in May of 2000, as international clamor grew for Milosevic to leave office. But Matic and his staff resumed their broadcast from an illegal location, and throughout the summer and fall that finally saw Milosevic forced from power, B92 was there to report it all – both on air and online.