Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Saturday, 26 February 2011

BBC Serbian language service waves goodbye

As the BBC World Service closes several of its language services including Serbian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean, BBC Belgrade correspondent Mark Lowen reflects on the impact and legacy of the Serbian Service.

Bush House in London in the 1940s
The BBC's Yugoslav Service began broadcasting from Bush House in 1939

Jovan Cirilov closed his eyes in thought, casting his mind back 70 years.

"Da-da-da Dum... Da-da-da Dum," he sang, his elderly face suddenly animated.

"I remember it well. Beethoven's Fifth - that was the jingle for the evening news bulletin on the BBC.  We could have been arrested, even killed, for listening."

The memories were still vivid for this renowned Serbian theatre director.

He was eight when the BBC Yugoslav Service was launched in 1939, broadcasting in the language formerly known as Serbo-Croat to a country that soon fell under occupation by the Nazi-led Axis powers.

Vital lifeline

He and his father would perch by their shortwave radio, listening to the rare source of independent news in occupied Yugoslavia.

"We closed the doors and turned down the volume," he said, "so nobody else could hear."

And so began this vital lifeline of information to a country of 20 million people.

As World War II progressed, the British government supported the Partisans, the Communist resistance force of Josip Broz Tito.

President Tito salutes at a military parade in 1975
Josip Broz Tito was president of Yugoslavia from 1953 until 1980

But the BBC's role was, as ever, to stand above government policy, to remain impartial.

And yet still, after the war, during Tito's long leadership of the country, there was criticism of the BBC's Yugoslav service for a perceived pro-Communist bias.

During a parliamentary debate on the service in 1960, the British Liberal Party MP, Jeremy Thorpe, spoke out.

He said: "Does not the honourable member agree that there have been some glaring omissions from the presentation of the British point of view to Yugoslavia and some wilful misrepresentations?

"Is he aware that it is very difficult for somebody holding anti-Tito views to obtain the freedom of the air?"

The British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Robert Allan, replied: "I do not accept the honourable member's statements.

"In general, it seems to me that the best answer to Communism is not to abuse it but to show that our system is better, and that is what the BBC tries to do."

'Tacit respect'

For more than 50 years, the BBC's Yugoslav Service continued its daily broadcasts.

The Serbian service team in February 2011
The Serbian Service always tried to transcend the often difficult political relationship between Serbia and the West

And then, as Yugoslavia began its slow and painful collapse into civil war, so the Yugoslav Service divided into separate arms in 1991 - Serbian and Croatian.

During the tumultuous decade of the 1990s, when independent media were taken off air and attacked under Slobodan Milosevic's presidency, BBC Serbian remained in place.

"There was a tacit respect for us from the regime," said Djordje Vlajic, Belgrade correspondent for the service since 1993.

"A Serb leader during the war once said to me, 'We don't like what you're doing but we can't do anything about it, because facts are facts.'"

The Serbian Service always tried to transcend the often difficult political relationship between Serbia and the West.

Serbs hated the British government for leading the Nato bombing of Serbia during the Kosovan war, and yet they tuned into the BBC Serbian Service in ever greater numbers.

But not everybody was convinced of its impartiality.

"The BBC is an anti-Serb propaganda machine, a tool of British colonialism," one Belgrade resident told me.

Successful formula

In the last decade, a democratic Serbia has emerged, free of Milosevic's rule.

Every major Serbian figure has passed through this office, from presidents to pundits, from human rights activists to ultra-nationalists

During that time, the international BBC news operation and the Serbian Service have shared the same cosy office in the heart of Belgrade.

Largely hidden in a central apartment block, we have been able to report freely, though also retreat to safety when public tempers have frayed.

Every major Serbian figure has passed through this office, from presidents to pundits, from human rights activists to ultra-nationalists.

I, as a young reporter in a still sensitive area, have had nothing but friendship and support from this committed and professional Serbian Service team - both in London and Belgrade.

It is a structure that the BBC uses around the world - BBC News and the language service working together.

And it is a successful formula, as I have learned from my native colleagues' wisdom and experience, drawn on their contacts and their advice.

They, my second family, will be profoundly missed by their audience and by me.

Going it alone

And what of the legacy of the BBC Serbian Service?

"It has set the highest standards of journalism," said Jovan Cirilov, who still tunes in daily.

"And it's made those of us who listen citizens of the world, since Serbian news is so domestic."

Jovan Cirilov

There may be rough times ahead when we need the BBC the most, but then it'll be too late
Jovan Cirilov

The service closes as Serbia extends its hand westwards, striving for EU integration.

The argument is that, as this country's own media and democratic institutions strengthen, there is less need for the BBC Serbian language section.

But Jovan Cirilov is not convinced.

"You never know with the Balkans," he told me. "There may be rough times ahead when we need the BBC the most, but then it'll be too late."

In 1939, the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony opened the news bulletin to one of the world's great countries.

Seventy-two years on, a battered, smaller, weaker Serbia bids do vidjenja (farewell) to its language service.

For decades, the BBC has been speaking to this country throughout its turbulent and profound change.

Now it is time for Serbia to go it alone.

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Three BBC language broadcasts end
25 Feb 11 |  Europe
Timeline: Break-up of Yugoslavia
22 May 06 |  Europe


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