Interview with Nenad Pejic

Image Source: Nenad Pejic

I chose to interview one of my study abroad professors, Nenad Pejic, who lives in Prague. Mr. Pejic is a retired journalist who began his career in former Yugoslavia. He worked there for many years as a journalist before and during the war until he left for Manchester. I interviewed Nenad Pejic not only because he is a well respected journalist, but because he has experience in reporting during times of conflict. Mr. Pejic’s career is very inspiring, and I thought his interview would shed some light on the profession to help younger generations who may be entering the field of journalism. 

My first question to Mr. Pejic was how he came to be a journalist and why he chose this profession: “A long time ago when I was at the age to make decisions in what kind of university I was going to study in… It was in my former country, Yugoslavia, it was a time of economic crisis and of course as any other young man I wanted to find something that would secure me. Don’t forget we were living in a communist country. So I wanted to go to the army, because the army provides security and an apartment, etc. When I talked about it to my dad, he told me, ‘You know what? You can do whatever you want in your life but only one thing I am not going to allow you to do is go to the army because this is definitely not for you.’ He told me, ‘Look, you already started writing some poems so why don’t you try to go study journalism?’ So I followed my dad’s advice and I went to the Belgrade University to study political science and journalism. The guy who was heading this course in journalism was, from my point of view, one of the best print journalists in ex-Yugoslavia.”

Mr. Pejic explained how his professor divided his class up into two after asking them to write their own pieces. He told one group that they would graduate, but they should not go into journalism for they lacked any talent in this. The professor continued to use this method, taking the rest of his students to try radio journalism and then dividing them into two, telling one group to stick with print journalism. The seven remaining students were tested in a television setting. After reading their articles on the broadcast, the professor told six of his students not to go into television because they lacked talent for this. He finally turned to the remaining student, Mr. Pejic, telling him that he had to go into TV.

 “I got a scholarship for Sarajevo TV and I started from the very beginning like any other journalist and ended up as the program director of Sarajevo TV before the war and during the war. At the beginning of the war, this pre-war time was the most difficult time of my life. My family was facing menacing phone calls. So, I was trying to keep [it] professional at Sarajevo TV, and I did manage, but at the end of this story I realized…I can’t do [anything] more.” Mr. Pejic said that it was after the moment when his colleagues at Sarajevo TV gave him a hiding place and a gun with bullets that he knew it was too dangerous to stay. “They told me, ‘Nenad, you are the first among the targets so this is your place to hide.’ So when I went back to my office I told myself, ‘Okay what can I do?’ I can do nothing, there is no way I can survive, so this is when I decided to leave.” 

I proceeded to ask Mr. Pejic about his experience as a journalist in a communist country. He told me, “You know, talking about ex-Yugoslavia, first we need to recognize we did have communism but this communism was different from the USSR; we were traveling freely, we had all the Western products, we really didn’t have too many problems. In the 80s, the communist system was becoming weaker, and we used this opportunity and managed to force local parliament to adopt the law to elect authorities at Sarajevo TV. We managed to get a law saying that nobody can be elected at the top position of Sarajevo TV without the approval from the employees, and the employees can’t appoint anybody without the approval of parliament because this was public TV. So I won [the election,] parliament approved it, and this is how I became the program director. In terms of censorship, from the 1980s to the 90s we did not experience any censor[ship] by anybody. The major problem before in the 80s was self-censorship when journalists were educated and told that they belong to a profession that needs to protect society and the system from all other kinds of elements that might do something bad for the society. There was only one TV station in Sarajevo. As soon as I became program director, I opened up a second one, I opened up for private productions, so that resulted in high quality products… We had more international awards than all other TV stations in ex-Yugoslavia.”  

When asked about the moments leading up to when Mr. Pejic left his country he responded, “It was too much, I lost my fight for professional journalism, the political parties wanted to divide TV along ethnic lines, so it was not acceptable for me.” Mr. Pejic told me he was lucky to be a member of both the European Institute of Media and the East West Corporation Committee. Both heads of each organization urged Mr. Pejic to leave the country. The man from the European Institute had left Germany in 1939 and the woman from the East West Corporation Committee had left Hungary in 1956, so they both understood exactly what was going on in his head. Mr. Pejic had finally prepared to leave and was given 1,000 Deutschmarks for tickets to leave to Manchester. “This is how I ended up in Manchester,” he said. Mr. Pejic was given an office and a computer and was told, “Now for the next three or four months you will do nothing, simply write down what you went through because your story is extremely interesting.” 

After publishing the book, Mr. Pejic was invited by the director of Radio for Europe, Robert Gillette, to come to Munich and establish the Balkans service. Mr. Pejic continued, “This is how my career at Radio for Europe started. My major concern was ‘Ok, now I am a refugee. I have no revenue, I have no future. This is a great opportunity but how far will I need to go [before compromising] my professional principles?’ I expected that someone from the radio would tell me what to do on a daily basis.” Mr. Pejic was completely shocked during his first meeting at the company when they asked for his opinion on what was going on and how these events should be covered. These were professionals who did not wish to tell him what to do. In fact, they expected him as the expert to determine how stories would be covered. He was “completely impressed” by this. Mr. Pejic continued, saying, “That radio moved to Prague in 1995, and you know during that time it looks like I was doing a good job; I introduced many new things there and ended up being acting president and co-president and editor-in-chief. So it was then last year, I left the radio.” 

I also asked Mr. Pejic to talk about something he wished he would have known early on in his career as a journalist. He told me, In this process you really go through difficult situations and you make mistakes, and you keep correcting yourself. If I had the knowledge that I have today at the time when I became program director of Sarajevo TV, to be honest with you I would not fight. Because today I know it was useless, I had no chances; that was the biggest lesson. I’m not saying I regret, not at all, I did what I wanted to do. I did my best. But this is for instance something I could have done differently. I keep asking myself what would happen if I had accepted Sarajevo TV to be divided along ethnic lines at the very beginning of the conflict… Would this help the country, kind of, to get out of it or not? I don’t think this is the case, because it was too complicated. So maybe those two things… I even think today about this.”

I was curious about how Mr. Pejic had learned to separate his emotions and feelings from being professional during difficult situations. Mr Pejic responded saying, “When I was faced with menacing phone calls to my family… we sent the kids out of the country. My wife and my kids left the country so it was much easier afterwards. But when you think about it, even when they were there before the war, during all of this pressure…  you always need to ask yourself, if you give up, if you start to compromise, what is going to happen? I do know as soon as you start to compromise, at the end of the story, you end up… you know what I mean… a person with no respect. On the other hand, you very often have no time for emotions in this position. When you need to act you have no time to think, you need to simply act, you need to do your job, you have no time for emotions. Emotions are always coming later on, after the events. But not before and not during the event because you have no time.” 

Mr. Pejic discussed two things that he learned about himself throughout his career: “I learned that I am sometimes too direct. My father was an army officer, and as an army officer he was kind of tough on the kids. He was always pushing us into the direction to be open and direct…I don’t regret it, but that’s me.” The second thing that Mr. Pejic mentioned was that through it all, he was a good journalist, “what I learned about myself is that I …well you know…I was not so bad.”

I proceeded to ask Mr. Pejic how he sees journalism evolving, and what direction he thinks it will take: “This is a tough question. I think at the end of this year or maybe even next year, there are going to be 4,000 low-altitude satellites in the world. It means that every single person in the world will have access to [the] internet and WiFi. It means that journalists and non-journalists will be sending any kind of information, like they are doing now, but the audience could be much bigger than it is at the moment. What I see now, and I hope this is going to continue, is that the trust in professional media is going up, and trust [in] social media is going down. Second process that I see is that more and more people, including those of your generation, are going deeper into the articles. They want to know more. These long articles that explain something are having more and more reads. One very good example [of] this is Vice News that provides very good insight on various topics…  On the other hand, you have in the world, a political crisis on almost every single level. Having this in mind, you have a decrease in media freedom. In Europe, for instance, I believe that I had more editorial freedom in Sarajevo at the end of [the] 1980s than my colleges have now. Then you have what tabloids are doing in the U.K., Romania, Bulgaria. Look at the States, so you have more political crises, and more manipulation that journalists have been voluntarily doing for years. Then you have these diminished rules, in ethics, in journalism and media. Not only in journalism, [but] you have it in society. So I don’t know how [journalism] is going to end up, but it’s gonna be a clash…You can’t fight [the] industry of fake news without [the] industry of truth.”