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Success is bittersweet for VOA’s Croatian journalists

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A tall, elegant man with a goatee and an Eastern European accent ushered a guest into an office where meat pies, apple strudel and red wine were spread out on a table. “We are having a party now,” Zorz Crmaric said, “celebrating our own demise.”

It was a funerary feast for the Voice of America’s Croatian service, of which Crmaric was chief until last Wednesday. Born in 1992 as bloody ethnic wars strafed the former Yugoslavia, the service was eliminated as Croatia, a NATO member, stands poised to join the European Union.

For those who spent the past two decades transmitting radio, television and Web content back to their small Adriatic nation, the milestone was bittersweet. On one hand, the closure of the service meant that their mission was accomplished. And yet their success meant their end.

“You work toward one goal, and when you get it, you lose your job,” said Damir Bebic, a broadcaster with the program since 1997.

For 70 years, the U.S. government-funded Voice of America has broadcast news into countries where information does not flow freely. The organization’s charter mandates that the programming be objective and comprehensive while presenting U.S. policy to the rest of the world.

Its programming is often jammed by governments of the countries it broadcasts to. For decades, Soviet bloc countries were a key target for programming. Now, governments such as Iran and North Korea try to block VOA broadcasts.

For a service to shut down means that its goals are considered to have been largely met. But it is also a reflection of economic pressure on the U.S. government. The Croatian service cost $944,000 last year.

At the party, which was also attended by friends from VOA’s 43 remaining language services, some said they fear other services may be seen as unnecessary as the organization shifts its focus away from the former Soviet sphere.

“This is an extremely sad day,” said Katarina Rado­vic, a journalist with the Serbian service, which also started 19 years ago out of the splintered Yugoslav service. “All of us are going to be less relevant and more vulnerable from now on.”

VOA Director David Ensor assured those gathered that “the other services [in the Balkans] will go on for some time to come. . . . But the fact is, the Croatian service has been so successful that it wasn’t as essential as it had been when it started.”

Back then Croatia had no independent media, Ensor said later, adding that VOA had trained Croatian journalists, and its programming was widely disseminated in Croatia and served as a model for its nascent press.

In 1992, when Yugoslavia was breaking apart, “there was no question” that VOA services were needed, said John Lennon, the associate director for language programming. But VOA is now putting more emphasis on Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. The last one to close was the Hindi service, in 2010.

The news was not surprising to employees of the Croatian service. For six years in a row, they were told their program may be canceled. But fans in Croatia were taken aback by a note posted Nov. 22 on the Web site, announcing that the next day’s broadcasts would be the last.

“I can’t believe what I’ve just read,” one wrote in an e-mail.

One called VOA “the only light in the darkness.”

Employees of the service said they worry about leaving their audience at the mercy of homegrown news sources.

“They’re saying we achieved a full free media,” said Zdenko Novacai, a broadcaster since the service’s inception. “It’s chaos, actually. You don’t have any sort of accountability.”

Andrea Walsh, a broadcaster there for 15 years, compared the press in her home country to “Safeway cashier literature” such as the National Enquirer.

Ten other former East bloc language services, opened in the 1940s and ‘50s, including Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Estonian, were closed in 2004. New services have opened: Kurdish in 1992, Bosnian in 1996, Macedonian in 1999, and Somali in 1992 and again in 2007. In 2006, VOA started a Pashto-language radio station aimed at a lawless region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Yugoslav service, which started in the early 1940s, split apart in 1992. As the wars back home heated up, reporting from the different services “was like ‘Rashomon,’ ” Crmaric said, referring to a Japanese film in which characters describe the same event from multiple perspectives.

Many had family members in the battle zone, and tensions rose. “There was animosity, of course,” Novacai recalled.

But on Tuesday, there was no sign of old troubles. Instead, there was the camaraderie of colleagues who had come through a dark period and ultimately bonded.

“When the war in Bosnia was really raging, there was no Bosnian service because there was no Bosnian country,” said Dzeilana Pecanin, chief of the Bosnian service. “Colleagues from the Croatian service gave us the airtime, they gave us the computers, they gave us all the help for working on this mission.”

On the final radio show, all five of the service’s broadcasters announced the news of the day, then told anecdotes about working there.

“During the last several days I teared up several times,” Walsh told listeners in Croatia. “But these were not the tears of sadness, they were the tears of joy — the kind when you send your child out on his own when he grows up.”

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