Radio B92's Jaunt To Cyberspace Saved Revolution In Serbia

Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic shut down the independent radio station B92, and something unprecedented happened. The station switched to digital broadcasting over audio Internet links. Tens of thousands of people, reported The New York Times, switched their computers to Internet web sights, and the attempt to choke off the voice of protest was defeated.

That little communications revolution made me think of my friend, the late Ithiel de Sola Pool, MIT professor of communications, and his prophetic book in 1983, "Technologies of Freedom." Ithiel wrote that, whatever else the electronic media do, their most salutary effect is to spread freedom and make it harder to suppress freedom.

I first witnessed this with radio (Voice of America and Radio Free Europe) when I worked behind the Iron Curtain, where authoritarian rulers resorted to jamming - trying, in vain, to keep uncensored news away from the ears of their people.

And then television, which, in 1989, contributed mightily to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. In Prague, protesters one day carried banners saying "Television Lies" (Czech television). Then technicians in the Prague studio conspired to put the protest demonstrations on the air nationwide. The next day the placards read, "Long Live Television!" What helped to make the Berlin Wall inviable was that the East Germans could watch West German television on "Sender Freies Berlin," the "Free Berlin transmitter."

FORMER President Reagan, in a London speech, said that "electronic beams blow through the Iron Curtain as if it were lace," and "the biggest of the Big Brothers is increasingly helpless against communications technology."

So now, after radio and television - cyberspace. Professor Pool saw that coming in 1983 when he wrote, "As computers become the printing presses of the 21st century, ink marks on paper will continue to be read, and broadcasts to be watched, but other new major media will evolve from what are now but the toys of computer hackers."

So this month we saw the debut of the latest of the technologies of freedom - Radio B92, broadcast from Belgrade by Internet. Two days later the Milosevic government gave up and let B92 back on the air. And Sasa Vucinic, director of a loan fund that supports independent information in Eastern Europe, said that it was the signal put out on the Internet that "saved the revolution" in Serbia.

Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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