Winter 2000

A Glimpse at Digital Resistance

‘…new technology is not just a tool but is freedom itself.’

By András Vágvölgyi
It was 1993. I was in Sarajevo. Sporadic shellings could be heard all around me as I walked the stairs up to my room on the eighth floor of the Holiday Inn. Since the unrest had begun, this hotel had been burned out 17 times. I was returning from a live talk show on Radio Zid (Radio Wall), the city’s independent radio station. On my way upstairs, I decided to drop by the BBC’s office on a lower floor. This stop offered me a good excuse to make a break in my climbing, since there was no functioning elevator in the hotel. But I also had a reason. Before I’d left my office in Budapest, I had agreed to send dispatches for the Hungarian Service of BBC. So this gave me a justification to use some of BBC’s facilities and information.

When I walked in I sensed immediately restlessness in the air. News had just come in from London that some 35 Croatian peasants had been slaughtered—their throats cut—in a village 30 miles away from Sarajevo. At this point, nobody knew who could be blamed for these dreadful crimes. The lead BBC correspondent and his local assistant were working the phones, squeezing information out of militia members who might know something about the massacre. All they were hearing back was denial that such a thing had happened. The story wasn’t believed.

That evening I told a colleague about this story. The next morning he pounded on my door. He was shouting “Turn on CNN! Your story from last night is the top news.” I did, and as I gazed at the dead bodies of the villagers with their throats cut and at their dead dogs, I listened to the shelling outside and I thought about how bizarre everything seemed. Here things became real when they were seen on a screen, a strange mirror indeed. It is odd, but sometimes looking into a mirror is necessary if one is to accept as true such cruel things, even in a city in which on certain corners there are signs saying “Beware of snipers.”

As I think back on this moment, I think about how all of this happened during what turns out to be the last sigh of the age of television.

In our brave new digital world, almost everything is different. Digital communication provides us with more of an arena then a mirror. In Serbia, the last Balkan republic to have remained in the grip of a dictator, media in general, and the Internet especially, presented immense challenges for the authorities. When students and opposition parties marched in 1996-97, the Internet was the most effective communication tool in the hands of those who were defying President Slobodan Milosevic’s power. It was easy for Milosevic to command what appeared on television and in much of the print press. With radio, in particular the independent B92, Radio Index and Radio O21, which insisted on reporting what was actually happening, Milosevic relied on jamming their broadcasts.

But Milosevic was never able to control the Internet. Both in the hands of his opposition and members of the independent media, the Internet played an important role in what has happened in Serbia. After radio station B-92’s reports were banned, the programs could still be heard through the Internet. And independent journalists in Serbia could find information on Internet sites that was prohibited from appearing in the local press, as well as communicate with one another.

The new opposition of Serbia was born out of the long demonstration that followed the local elections in 1996. They were protesting the fact that Milosevic’s party had annulled the results of municipal elections in most of the 15 cities where Zajedno (Together), the alliance of anti-Milosevic parties, had won. At the time, Oxford scholar and Balkan expert Timothy Garton Ash, writing in The New York Review of Books, quoted a 23-year-old student demonstrator as saying, “I just want to live in a normal country. I want to get up in the morning, go to a normal shop, read my books, and have the rule of law and democracy. And travel. I’m not a child of the Internet but I’d like to be.”

Maybe this particular demonstrator wasn’t “a child of the Internet” in 1997. But this year, after several years of being away, I traveled to Serbia again, revisiting Belgrade and Novi Sad. I was very surprised at the changes I found there. My old friend, ethnic Hungarian writer Laszlo Végel, chairman of the Novi Sad chapter of the Open Society Foundation, is now treated like a hero in a William Gibson novel. He spends most of his time working at his computer, using a lot of cell phones with different digital chips. Power from his computer comes from a generator. When I asked why, he told me with a smile, “If they disconnect electricity in the city, I still have six hours to go!”

For free media to exist in Serbia means that the new technology is not just a tool but is freedom itself. This is why the pressures aligned against them were so far-reaching. The alternative media have integrated Serbian society in new ways, and this powerful new force was unacceptable to the powers that be. The Internet strengthens the country’s civil organizations since, by geography, members are spread out and otherwise isolated. The Internet helped to connect these little cells. According to my friend Végel, the result of all of this is that, during the recent federal presidential election, neither the annulment of results nor cheating could be achieved.

In September I sat on the terrace of a café with 20-year-old Jelena Kleut, who is an Otpor (Resistance) activist and in charge of foreign relations for the Vojvodina region. The presidential election’s first round would happen the next day. She was anxious and nervous. Her mobile phone was constantly ringing: Anything could happen, the callers were telling her, including the possibility of shootouts. Frequently she looked around to see whether police were watching.

Her boyfriend, Nebojsa, arrived, well equipped with Gotov je! (He’s finished!) leaflets, banners, badges and bumper stickers. He is one of the most frequently arrested Otpor activists; it happened 17 times between March and September. He is also 20 years old, never been abroad, never seen the sea. He was seven when this madness began in his country. They ask my patience while they settle something in Serbian, and I take a look at Otpor’s booklet on how to behave against the police. It suggests, if cops are about to approach a group of young people—which means arrest is almost sure to take place—to put one hand in your pocket and have the mobile phone on, staying on last call. That way it’s enough to push only one button and someone trustworthy will hear that friends are in trouble and possibly pick up some other details as well. Demonstrators, students, activists and parents then surround the police station and shout until the arrested, but nonviolent, resisters are released.

This struck me as the first step in digital resistance. Hopefully, such instructions won’t be needed in Serbia anymore.

I remember well a situation that happened in Budapest 12 years ago. The most important Hungarian samizdat (a self-published political underground magazine) ceased to exist in its clandestine form. Frequent author and world famous writer George Konrad said, “Okay, it seems there’s gonna be freedom of speech and media liberty from now on, but I advise you to keep some of the stencil print machines in a safe place!”

The opposition won in Serbia, and some changes are starting to occur there now. But the advice is still sound: Don’t throw away those cell phones.

András Vágvölgyi, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, founded and edited Magyar Narancs, a trendsetting Budapest weekly. He spent many years in the United States and Japan and is now senior writer for Élet es Iroldalom, the Hungarian equivalent of The New Yorker, and cultural columnist of Index.hu, the primary Hungarian-language Internet portal.

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