Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis
Muzzling the media
The Milosevic regime is resorting to increasingly draconian measures to control Serbia's media.
By Vlado Mares in Belgrade
As the gulf between reality and the official version of events becomes ever greater in Serbia, hardly a week goes by without some journalist or medium falling foul of the authorities or their friends.
Among the latest casualties of Serbia's draconian information law are independent publications and stations throughout the country.
In the space of three days between 9 and 11 September, for example, the courts fined the Cacak weekly newspaper Cacanski glas a total of 400,000 dinars (34,000 German marks) in two rulings. Given Serbia's current environment, such fines may well put the newspaper out of business.
The newspaper's director Stojan Markovic has been ordered to pay 350,000 dinars (30,000 German marks), and editor Vesna Stepanovic 50,000 dinars (4,000 German marks). Curiously, both have been fined for the same offence, namely for publishing a statement by the local branch of Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) criticising the chief of Cacak's financial police, Nikola Pavicevic, for irregularities.
Although leaders of Cacak's SPO promised to appear in court to explain their statement and furnish the evidence to back their claims, they failed to show up at the trial.
In Belgrade, two journalists, Radmila Ognjenovic and Sonja Curic, the weekend editor, Vukota Corovic, and the editor-in-chief, Pero Simic, of the daily Novosti were interrogated by police after daring to publish on 12 September an article on the fall in the value of the Yugoslav dinar on the black market.
In Kraljevo, on 11 September, broadcasting equipment belonging to the local opposition station Radio Globus was stolen, and several thousand German marks damage inflicted during the burglary.
Since much expensive equipment was left untouched, employees believe that this was an attempt by the authorities to silence the station which rebroadcasts the programmes of foreign stations, including Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. The burglars have not been caught.
Having defeated Slobodan Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in the 1996 elections, the Zajedno (Together) Coalition is in power in Kraljevo. Ever since the take-over of power, the conflict has been simmering within the Coalition between the SPO and the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic.
The evening before the theft took place, Radio Globus had a phone-in programme in which callers listed the failures of the SPO and accused the party of trying to place all media under its control.
In Kikinda, a town in Vojvodina about one hundred km north of Belgrade, the independent newspaper Kikindske has also been put on trial on the basis of the information law.
The case against the paper's editor Zeljko Bodrozic and its publisher Dusan Francuski was brought by the editor of another local paper, Komuna, who also works for the state Radio Television Serbia. He argued that he had been libeled as a paranoid war-mongerer and liar in articles that appeared in Kikindske under the headlines "Paranoid Fixations" and "Reminiscences". In this case, however, the charges were thrown out.
In Sokobanja, a town some two hundred kilometres south-east of Belgrade, the editor of the local television station, Nebojsa Ristic, has been in prison for the past three months serving a one-year sentence imposed for disseminating false information.
During the bombing, Ristic put up an ironic poster on the office's window, with the inscription "Free Press - Made in Serbia", in protest against the closure of his TV station on two occasions.
Another weapon is technology. On Saturday interference blanked out some transmissions of Belgrade's Studio B's TV interview with the former governor of the National Bank of Yugoslavia, Dragoslav Avramovic, the Alliance for Changes candidate for premier in a possible transitional Yugoslav government. Citizens of Belgrade and parts of Serbia were not able to watch the programme, the station reported, because the 49th and 53rd UHF channels were "strongly interrupted".
What worries many journalists is that the increase in pressure on independent media was heralded in state-controlled media after Belgrade daily Politika Ekspress ran a text on 6 September fiercely attacking the independent weekly NIN.
The attack was in response to the publication in NIN of an interview with the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci, which appeared under the headline "I am Mother Theresa," a direct quotation from the Albanian.
The staff of NIN, and especially its editor-in-chief Stevan Niksic were accused of "plotting with the enemies of Serbia" and "making the victims and the executioners equal", whereby "they worked on the destabilisation of the state and the destruction of the Serbian people".
At the end of March this year, at the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign, Politika Ekspress published a text by the same journalist Miroslav Markovic with almost identical contents. Then, it was aimed at the independent daily Dnevni telegraf and its owner and editor Slavko Curuvija.
For six months prior to the text Curuvija had been the prime mover behind a high-profile campaign against the regime. His newspaper had been fined repeatedly; its equipment confiscated; its right to print in Serbia denied so that for a while it was published in Montenegro and smuggled in.
A week after the Politika Ekspress article appeared, Curuvija - who had already stopped publishing his newspaper since he said that he did not wish to work for the censor - was gunned down in the entrance of the building in which he lived.
To date, the official investigation into Curuvija's murder has failed to turn up any leads, with the result that Belgrade's "chattering classes" believe that the killing was ordered by the authorities in order to intimidate and discipline the independent media.
Vlado Mares is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.
© Institute of War &Peace Reporting
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