Yugoslavia; East bloc's hotbed of free expression

A young Serb poet sentenced a year ago over a banned book finally goes to jail. An editor resigns after prolonged pressure from Communist Party dogmatists over his paper's freewheeling treatment of government policies and personnel.

A popular political satirist loses his prime slot on Belgrade radio.

These have all been happening in Yugoslavia, the one communist state where the press has long enjoyed a virtually free rein on editorial independence and literary expression.

But this general freedom of the written word is under heavy fire now. The press is being pressured by hard-liners out to muzzle candid comment on how the government is handling the country's economic troubles, which are acute. So far the press restrictions have not been too serious.

This year's leader of the collective party presidency, Mitja Ribicic, who is himself seen as a ''liberal,'' has told his colleagues that ''blaming the reporter'' will not make the problems go away. And Politika, the paper whose editor stepped down, warned that gagging the press would be politically more harmful to the authorities than leaving it free to air public opinion, even if it raised uncomfortable questions.

Politika is one of Yugoslavia's oldest newspapers. Before World War II, it had a strong liberal tradition. But even under doctrinaire postwar party controls (before the break with Stalin), Politika managed to be largely independent.

Now, despite de-Stalinization, Yugoslav journalists and writers in general have to battle to defend freedom of expression from time to time. There is a broad tolerance under the current crackdown, however, that is peculiar to Yugoslav liberalization and self-management.

An appeals court, for example, has just reduced to 10 months a 2 1/2-year term handed down some months ago on a newspaperwoman charged with ''hostile propaganda'' against local party leaders. Her defense - that the case was cooked up from private conversation after she had exposed official misdoing at the local level - impressed the court even though it decided not to embarrass the party by quashing the sentence altogether.

In the news media at large, a few sacrificial heads have rolled, and discreet shuffles have been made by editorial boards themselves.

There is no censorship in Yugoslavia. Thus, when a book or an issue of a newspaper or magazine carrying an offending article is banned, it is only by court order after publication. By the time a court acts, many people already have bought the book or read the article in question.

For the time being, newspapers are being careful, as are broadcasters, especially those in television.

Both economic and political factors figure in the current difficulty.

With a Western debt of some $20 billion, the economy is in worse shape than at any other time since the years immediately after the break with Stalinism.

As for politics, ''national'' difficulties are endemic in a state that includes so many ethnic groups. The late President Tito kept them under control for three decades - but he sometimes resorted to drastic political means to do so.

The members of the collective presidency that succeeded him are not finding it so easy to do. This is partly because Tito was a ''Yugoslav'' while the collective presidency represents the individual parts of which Yugoslavia is made.

Lacking Tito's public credibility, the collective leadership often seems hesitant and confused. Especially under today's dire economic situation, sharp divisions sometimes appear within the collective leadership.

Differences were evident over how to handle the young Serb poet, Rajko Djogo. When his book ''Woolen Years'' appeared two years ago, it was immediately condemned as offensive to the memory of Tito.

A year ago Djogo was charged with ''hostile propaganda'' and given a two-year sentence. Press and public outcry forced his release pending appeal. The appeals court then cut his sentence in half. Although Djogo was returned to jail, it is doubtful that he will have to serve even the reduced sentence in its entirety.

The press meanwhile had become increasingly outspoken on economic policy as well as on the unrest erupting in the Albanian minority region of Kosovo in 1981 .

Party hard-liners weighed in with attacks on ''excessive'' press freedom. They accused some of the most serious and widely read newspapers of exaggerating both the economy and the Kosovo unrest. The papers, they said, were behaving like ''independent'' power centers outside the party.

Moderate, pragmatic members of the leadership defended the news media and gave assurances there would be no resort to censorship. They did, however, appeal for ''more understanding'' of the government's difficulties and less gloom about the economic outlook.

The papers don't challenge the essence of the state system. But they do openly air the views of political liberals and others who argue that much of the ideology is outmoded.

Since it was Tito himself who first suggested the need to ''revise'' Marx according to contemporary conditions (that was at the time he broke with Stalin) , there cannot be much argument with that.

Nor with press criticism of Soviet policy - on Afghanistan and Kampuchea, for example - since the leadership itself minces few words on these accounts. Complaints by Soviet leader Yuri Andropov about the uncompromising tone of much of the comment seem to have been ignored just as were the late Leonid Brezhnev's on domestic Yugoslav issues.

But the press recently offended dogmatists by raising a sensitive new issue, that of personal responsibilities for past mishandling of economic affairs. It has also developed a ''Watergate'' style of investigative reporting to expose abuses of power by entrenched local leaders. Several such officials have not hesitated to cry ''hostile propaganda'' to silence local journalistic critics.

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