Milosevic tightens hold on media ahead of vote

Independent broadcasters say they are the target of punitive fees and police raids in a media crackdown.

Employees at opposition-controlled television station Studio B in Belgrade spent a tense night March 13. They were expecting federal police to take them off the air, as has happened with two television and four radio stations in recent days.

Although the police didn't show up, many think it's only a matter of time.

While opposition-controlled and independent media have long been legally harassed and intimidated during the decade-long rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the most recent crackdown, marked by violence, threats, and wild accusations, signals a new hard-line attitude.

Most Serbian journalists say they are not surprised by the attacks and expect the campaign to intensify ahead of local and federal elections. "This is an election year and the regime wants to remove the voice of the democratic movement," says Rajko Milovanovic, editor of a recently raided television station in Pozeg.

Polling data regularly shows that Mr. Milosevic's ruling coalition can't possibly win in fair municipal elections.

Market research conducted by the Belgrade agency Medium has also shown that independent newspapers, which are more likely to support, or at least report on, opposition groups, are read far more than state papers. The same is true of broadcast media.

"The most popular stations here, as anywhere in the world, are strictly entertainment channels. But of those that have a political component, local stations are viewed far more than state media in those places where people have a choice," says Medium director Srbobran Brankovic.

Last week, two guards were beaten at a Studio B transmitter station by men dressed in police uniforms. The attackers also stole broadcasting equipment, including an antenna. On March 12, armed police brushed aside demonstrators trying to protect an opposition-run TV station in the southern Serbian town of Pozeg, leaving 100,000 viewers with no broadcast alternative to Radio Television Serbia, steadfastly loyal to Milosevic.

"We're proud we got raided because it means we were doing our job," says Television Pozega editor Rajko Milovanovic.

Government Telecommunications Minister Ivan Markovic said the stations do not have licenses or have not paid for use of their frequency. The TV stations counter that the government has never issued licenses and that fees are set arbitrarily. Belgrade's Studio B owes 11 million dinars ($275,000 at black-market rates) a princely sum in a country left impoverished by years of United Nations sanctions over its involvement in ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, still technically a Serbian province.

Belgrade mayor Vojislav Mihailovic has appealed to citizens to take to the streets if Studio B goes off the air. "If you see a blank screen, go to Republic Square to defend your freedom, to defend your rights to be informed."

Studio B is run by the Belgrade city government, which in turn is controlled by the Serbian Renewal Movement, Yugoslavia's most powerful opposition party.

The group's leader, Vuk Draskovic, is known as "the king of the streets" for leading protests in 1996-97 that threatened to topple Milosevic.

Telecommunications minister Mr. Markovic signaled March 14 that the recent closings are just the beginning. He said 168 radio and 167 television stations owe the government money adding, "All debts, broadcasting fees owed to the government must be paid up by March 31."

Pressure on Serbian independent media has been growing for months. Serbia's Law on Public Information has been used to levy millions in fines on both print and broadcast media.

One popular shareholder-owned Belgrade daily was recently renationalized. The government also shut down an important independent printing press, ABC Grafika, after the company failed to pay a hefty fine.

Belgrade's Studio B has experienced intermittent signal jamming for the past seven months. Asked about the continuing signal troubles, Markovic said, "Even cordless phones can cause signal disruption."

Gordana Susa, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, expected repression would increase after Milosevic gave a stinging speech Feb. 17 at the Socialist Party Congress. "The print media were already straining under severe financial pressure caused by enormous fines," Mr. Susa says. "Then Milosevic hinted that electronic media were next..... His speech at the party congress made it clear he was prepared to go to the end in snuffing out our remaining rights and that we were moving toward an open dictatorship."

Last month, Serbian vice president and nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj issued a virtual declaration of war on independent media at his weekly press conference. "You are paid with American money to destroy your country. You are traitors, the worst kind, there's nothing worse than you. You are worse than any kind of criminal."

Many of Serbia's independent media receive funding from outside donors, including US philanthropist and financier George Soros.

Mr. Seselj went on to call the journalists "killers" and warned, "Your turn will come to be liquidated."

After Seselj's statement, independent outlets began a "Stop Violence" campaign, now in its fourth week, to draw attention to media persecution. The first action was a boycott of Seselj's press conferences. "There was some debate about the journalistic ethics of such a boycott, but we concluded that we didn't want to serve as a microphone for hate speech. Also, our experience in Serbia has shown that such threats and hate speech are inevitably followed by acts of violence," says Susa.

Independent broadcasters across Serbia will begin airing short spots March 15 to tell viewers of the media attacks. A "pillar of shame" at the offices of the Independent Journalists Association bears the names of judges who have prosecuted media under the draconian Law on Public Information. Susa says the regime aims to destroy independent media through heavy fines, reappropriation of formerly state-owned media, and as a final strategy, direct violence. "I think we're moving into that final stage," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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