Facing Airstrikes, Serbs Tighten Grip on Airwaves

Milosevic seeks more control of independent radio as NATO readies the option of force.

All is quiet in the studio of Radio Index. No disc jockeys taking calls. No pop music blaring through the halls. Just news editor Katarina Spasic fielding questions from visiting journalists.

"They finally got us off the air," she says from the 17th-floor newsroom overlooking downtown Belgrade. "We don't have any legal documents, so for now there's nothing we can do."

One of the most popular independent stations in Belgrade, Radio Index has spent the last week racing one step ahead of the law. It has changed frequency three times, moved offices in the middle of the night, and caught at least one other station trying to jam its signal. On Oct. 12 the staff finally succumbed, when the police came to shut them down.

Ms. Spasic says the plight of the student-run station shows Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to consolidate power in the face of threatened airstrikes from abroad.

"Milosevic is trying to take advantage of the situation," she says. "While the world focuses on Kosovo, he's trying to secure his power as much as possible. If they succeed in shutting us down, they can do the same in the rest of Serbia."

With no breakthroughs in negotiations between US diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Mr. Milosevic, NATO was expected to authorize military action yesterday. The 16-country alliance is threatening airstrikes because Serbia has not met international demands to withdraw special forces from Kosovo and begin negotiations with the ethnic Albanians who live there.

One "major part" of the talks has been Milosevic's unwillingness to allow an increased international presence to monitor compliance in Kosovo, a US diplomat said yesterday.

"It's been tough, intense ... and heated," says the diplomat. "Progress is not a word we're using." Nevertheless, the fact that the two sides are still talking indicates a desire on both sides to reach an agreement.

The ethnic Albanians, a 90 percent majority in Kosovo, want independence, but their armed resistance movement has been crushed by a police-and-military offensive that has left hundreds dead and uprooted more than 250,000 people. NATO wants to resolve the crisis before the onset of winter; there are some 50,000 Albanians living in the open.

Milosevic's efforts to silence independent media have not been limited to Radio Index. His government has attacked international broadcasts of Voice of America, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle radio. And over the weekend it closed Radio Senta, a Hungarian-language station in the northern province of Vojvodina.

Because most Serbs are too poor to afford newspapers, radio is an especially important medium here. Most stations, like Radio Index, cannot afford to register with the government and are forced to operate illegally. There is no independent television - all the stations are controlled by the government or friends and family of Milosevic.

"There is no censorship," Alexander Vucic, the Serbian minister of information, recently said. "But we will not allow actions against the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Serbia. No one who works in the interests of the country should be afraid."

According to Veron Matic, the director of Serbia's leading independent radio station, B 92, the Milosevic government is looking for someone to blame in the event of airstrikes. "The regime focuses on independent media because it needs enemies inside the country," he says. "The enemy can't be opposition politicians because they don't exist."

Cedomir Antic, spokesman for the Democratic Party, Serbia's most popular opposition party, agrees that the opposition has been more muted with the escalation of the war in Kosovo.

"Milosevic is supported indirectly by the international community because he's the only one in negotiations about Kosovo," Mr. Antic says. "We're in a worse position now than ever before."

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