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Florian Bieber, Cyberwar or Sideshow? The Internet and the Balkan Wars

Florian Bieber, Cyberwar or Sideshow? The Internet and the Balkan Wars

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Published by Florian Bieber
Cyberwar or Sideshow? The Internet and the Balkan Wars, Current History, Vol. 99, No. 635 (March 2000), 124-128.
Cyberwar or Sideshow? The Internet and the Balkan Wars, Current History, Vol. 99, No. 635 (March 2000), 124-128.

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Published by: Florian Bieber on Feb 20, 2011
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“Although the Internet alleviated some information shortages in Yugoslaviaduring the war in Kosovo, its small audience of users within the country meantthat only a minuscule segment of the population was as well informed as manyWestern media consumers. . . . Still, the Internet gave the independentYugoslav media tremendous support and helped reduce the isolation that hadenveloped Yugoslavia.”
Cyberwar or Sideshow?The Internet and the Balkan Wars
F
LORIAN
B
IEBER
T
he war in Kosovo that was fought fromMarch to June 1999 has been characterizedas the first “Internet war.” During the con-flict, conventional media outlets complemented theirtraditional publications and broadcasts with up-to-date reporting and background information on theWorld Wide Web. The home pages of 
CNN
and othermedia received millionsof visitors;
MSNBC
hostedan Internet interviewwith Serbian paramili-tary leader and indictedwar criminal Zeljko Raz-natovic (known as “Ar-kan”). In addition, official and unofficial Serbian andAlbanian web sites tried to attract international audi-ences with slick English presentations.Little attention has been paid, however, to theimpact this new medium had inside the formerYugoslavia. Although the Internet had been availablesince the early days of the wars of Yugoslav disinte-gration that began in 1991, its reach—because of technical and political constraints—was limited.With the war in Kosovo this changed as the numberof Internet users grew dramatically and the mediumbegan to present itself as a significant alternative plat-form for independent media and for personal reportsfrom the war zone. Yet, the Internets influence dur-ing the war and since remains ambiguous.
S
PURRED BY WAR
The war in Kosovo had a variety of effects on theInternet in Yugoslavia. Although more users weredrawn to the Internet because of the conflict, whichdoubtlessly helped extend its reach, the warseverely limited the activities of Internet providersand Internet-based media.During the war, the number of Internet connec-tions in Yugoslavia rose from 25,000 to an estimated55,000. These numbers, however, must be con-trasted with traditional media such as
RTV
Pancevo,which, after the closure of radio station B92, becamethe main independent radio station in the Belgradearea and had an average of 300,000 listeners dailyduring the war. The state-run Serbian television sta-tion
RTS
had an even broader and larger audience,reaching practically every household until
NATO
began targeting its transmitters in late April 1999.Nevertheless, the war apparently triggered an Inter-net boom in Yugoslavia that has continued as thatcountry has followed a global trend of rapidlyincreasing connections to the web.Another event before the war also helped fosterthis growth. In October 1998 a draconian medialaw was passed. The law, ratified by parliamentquickly and without debate, prohibited the redis-tribution of foreign news reports and imposed suchsevere fines for violations that many independentmedia were forced into financial ruin. Some news-papers, including the popular independent Belgradedaily
 Nasa Borba,
stopped publication altogether,while others were printed in the more liberal repub-lic of Montenegro and distributed in major cities inSerbia under the threat of confiscation. This seriousreduction in independent media outlets made the
F
LORIAN
B
IEBER
is an instructor in the department of interna-tional relations and European studies at the Central EuropeanUniversity in Budapest. He has written extensively on national-ism in southeastern Europe and is the editor of the Internet-based 
Balkan Academic News
(www.egroups.com/group/ balkans/fullinfo.html).
124
Globally Wired:Politics in Cyberspace
Third in a Series 
 
Internet distinctly more attractive as an alternativesource of information.The war led to further restrictions on indepen-dent media. Even before
NATO
dropped its firstbombs, the authorities closed the well-known inde-pendent radio station B92(www.freeb92.net) inBelgrade and detained its director, Veran Matic (itlater released Matic and allowed B92to reopen,albeit with a new progovernment staff). Within afew days of the start of the war, all independentmedia had no other choice but to close down orexercise self-censorship to avoid being banned. Therole of the Internet-based media during the war inKosovo thus became twofold: it had to bridge thegap left by the closure of other independent mediawhile it attempted to provide information on thebombing and its effects. Some sites, such as theInternet-based www.beograd.com, became the mostreliable means to keep informed about the destruc-tion caused by
NATO
bombing.Although the Internet provided some alternativeto the government-dominated electronic and printmedia—which offered little news and much propa-ganda during the bombing—the Internet was notimmune to government attempts to exert control.The closure of B92as a radio station coincided withthe disappearance of its web page until May 9, 1999,when the site went back on-line. Access to the newsite, however, was frequently blocked by govern-ment-owned Internet service providers, such as theelectronics faculty of the University of Belgrade.
1
The air strikes and the Yugoslav government’sresponse threatened not only the media using theInternet, but also the web itself in Yugoslavia. Whenthe government took over Radio B92, it also gainedcontrol of one of the country’s largest Internetproviders, OpenNet, which was operated by B92. Asa result, many web pages that belonged to Serbiannongovernmental organizations (
NGO
s), such as theSerbian Helsinki Committee, became unavailable.The largest Internet provider in Yugoslavia, EUnet,issued a set of guidelines for its subscribers thatencouraged users to protest
NATO
bombing but toavoid engaging in Internet abuses such as “spam-ming”—the sending of large numbers of unsolicitede-mail messages—that could lead to the terminationof the company’s access to the World Wide Web.As the war continued, the Western governments’intensified attempts to destroy the media outlets of the Yugoslav government by bombing them, andtheir imposition of harsher sanctions against thecountry, seemed to threaten all Internet access inYugoslavia. Even before the bombing by
NATO
,reports circulated in late April 1999 that a ban onYugoslav access to the Internet by the United Stateswas imminent. Although the ban never material-ized, it led to protests by Yugoslav
NGO
s against itsimposition because of the detrimental impact itwould have on communicating to the outside worldtheir work on political and economic rights.But even without the ban, the Internet proved tobe a vulnerable means of communication. E-mailscontaining “sensitive” words were often delayed forhours by Serbian Internet providers, while otherproviders canceled the accounts of members of theindependent student organization Otpor (Resis-tance). The destruction of power stations andtelecommunications by
NATO
bombing in the lastphase of the war made usage of the Internet increas-ingly difficult and unreliable.
2
T
HE YUGOSLAV INTERNETS BEGINNINGS
The Internet became available in Yugoslavia onlythree months after the war in Bosnia and Herze-govina began in April 1992. It had its origins in thefrustration of peace activists throughout the formerYugoslavia, who were unable to coordinate theirefforts because of the severing of conventional com-munication networks with the dissolution of theYugoslav confederation.Unlike most other Eastern European communistcountries, Yugoslavia maintained close communi-cations links with the West during the cold war.Academic institutions in Yugoslavia were connectedto the European and worldwide electronic networksthat would later constitute the foundations of theInternet. When these networks were destroyedbecause of fighting or were put under governmentcontrol, peace activists began to look for alterna-tives. A small group of these activists and computerexperts from the Center for Anti-War Action in Bel-grade and the Zagreb-based Anti-War Campaignand Center for Peace, Non-Violence and HumanRights set up two electronic bulletin boards andlinked them in July 1992. Using old equipment andreceiving minimal outside help at the outset, this
The Internet and the Balkan Wars • 
125
1
Although a mirror site could have been established at rel-atively low cost, which would have prevented the Yugoslavgovernment from completely shutting out B92or any otherindependent site, few users would have been ready to par-ticipate in an electronic “paper chase” across the Internet,with the independent media setting up new sites that weresubsequently blocked by the authorities.
2
For an assessment of the role the Internet played duringthe war in Kosovo, see the article by the Association of Inde-pendent Media, “Serbia,” in Peter Goff, ed.,
The Kosovo Newsand Propaganda War 
(Vienna: International Press Institute,1999), pp. 332–336.
 
new network, which was called ZaMir (For Peace),provided a communication link between the twocapitals when all other means of communicationwere limited. By 1993, 375 users in Belgrade and125 in Zagreb had access to the ZaMir Transna-tional Network. By early 1994, ZaMir centers hadbeen established in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Ljubljana,Slovenia; at year’s end, Pristina, the capital of theSerbian province of Kosovo, was also connected tothis trans-Yugoslav Internet network.
NGO
s and humanitarian organizations also coor-dinated their efforts with the help of ZaMir net,thereby bypassing nonexistent or unreliable con-ventional means of communication. Besides offer-ing access to peace activists, ZaMir net openedchannels of communication among ordinary citi-zens of the former Yugoslav republics and withother countries. This allowed the continuation of cross-national dialogue and contact with WesternEurope and NorthAmerica, albeit on alimited scale. ZaMirproved especiallyimportant in be-sieged Sarajevo; thecity’s isolation waspartly bridged bythe Internet link that allowed residents to commu-nicate with relatives and friends who lived abroad.
3
The Yugoslav Internet first attracted wider atten-tion in the winter of 1996 and 1997 during studentdemonstrations in Belgrade to protest the govern-ments attempted fraud in the November 1996 localelections. Radio B92 played an important role byreporting on the events unfolding in the streets,events that were largely ignored by the governmentmedia. Because of their coverage, B92and anotherindependent station, Radio Indeks, were forced off the air on December 3, 1996. B92continued tobroadcast on the Internet, however. Only two daysafter the shutdown, B92resumed its regular radiotransmission, which helped energize the protests.The government ultimately relented and permittedthe station to officially reopen.While some observers have argued that B92’s useof the Internet demonstrated to the government thefutility of attempting to ban the station, interna-tional protests appear to have played a far more sig-nificant role in the government’s decision to rescindthe ban on B92. The temporary ban may also havehighlighted the ability to bypass conventional tech-nical limitations and to broadcast radio over theInternet. Yet with an Internet penetration of barely10,000 connections in late 1996 (0.1 percent of therump Yugoslavias total population) and with rarelymore than a few dozen listeners of the actual B92web broadcasts, the Internet emerged more as animportant symbol of resistance rather than a tech-nology that had a real impact on the Yugoslavmedia landscape.
P
ROPAGANDA AND “CYBERWAR
The early use of the Internet by peace activistswas swiftly followed by groups whose interest wasnot in ending the fighting in Bosnia but in justifyingethnic cleansing and bolstering the nationalist poli-cies of the successor states of Yugoslavia. Both thegovernments involved and especially the Serbianand Croatian dias-pora communitiesplayed a pivotalrole. Diaspora com-munities in NorthAmerica and West-ern Europe wereexposed to the newtechnology at an earlier stage and had greater abil-ity to establish an Internet presence (Croatian sitesincluded www.dalmatia.net/croatia/emmigrants/ index.htm and hsk.hic.hr/index-en.html; Serbiansites were www.suc.org and www.srpska-mreza.com/ mission.html). In addition, the Internet provided alow-cost, quick link to the home country, making ita more attractive medium than traditional electronicor print media. Because of the Internet, many dias-pora groups active during the war in Bosnia wereable to achieve a far greater audience and influence,despite their small numerical strength and radicalnationalist positions.The governments involved in the Bosnian con-flict used the Internet to defend their policies. Themajority of the content, mostly in English, targetedinternational audiences. This crude propaganda hadlittle visible impact.During the war in Kosovo, the Yugoslav and theSerbian government set up a number of web sites(www.serbia-info.com, www.gov.yu) to counter theInternet presence of Kosovo Albanians who accusedthe Yugoslav/Serbian authorities of ethnic cleansing.The professional design and frequent updates of thegovernment web pages reflected a new understand-ing of the medium. The content, however, remained
126
CURRENT HISTORYMarch 2000
3
On the development of ZaMir, see Bob Jiggins and MirkoMilivojevic, “Building Bridges: The Internet in FormerYugoslavia,
 Balkan Forum,
vol. 3, no. 13 (December 1995).
The Internet remains largely an elite medium in most of the former Yugoslavia, and is still far from being a part of the region’s mass media.

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