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American Journalism Review
Cracking Down  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1999

Cracking Down   

Yugoslavia's campaign against an independent media hearkens back to the Cold War era.

By Jerome Aumente
Jerome Aumente is a professor and director of the Journalism Resources Institute at Rutgers University''s School of Communication, Information and Library Studies.     

THE BRIGHT NEW BROADCAST TOWER of City Radio rises from an apartment building rooftop high above the Serbian city of Nis, signaling both the ambitions of independent media and the harsh reality of government censorship in Yugoslavia.
In their modest studio below, Nikola and Svetlana Duric had scraped together resources and, in November 1997, went on the air with a rich brew of local news, feeds from an independent Belgrade station, foreign news programs and a splash of classical music, jazz and rock. Experienced journalists in their 30s, they and their handful of younger staffers kept attuned to the community and awaited an official broadcast license.
The police came one day in late August to meet with the couple, lingering over coffee and small talk. Then, abruptly, they dismantled key components of the transmitter. Nine months after City Radio began broadcasting, it was silenced.
Svetlana Duric suggests that City Radio's in-depth news reporting, including critical coverage of anti-government demonstrations and of the fighting in neighboring Kosovo province, helped lead to the shutdown.
``Here, the state is controlling licenses not for technical but for political reasons,'' seconds her husband, Nikola. The two are waging a court fight to get back on the air.
In late November, Nikola Duric--named in the application as the station's owner--was charged with broadcasting without a license. His trial has been set for January 18. Under criminal statutes, he faces arrest and a possible jail term of one to eight years.
The Durics and City Radio are among many casualties in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's sustained battle against independent media. It's lesser known than his other war in Kosovo, but of great importance nonetheless: If Milosevic can quiet opposition voices, he'll more readily sway audiences exposed only to the sanitized reports of state-controlled media. These media make up the bulk of the country's roughly 2,500 daily and weekly newspapers, 400 radio stations and 120 television stations, according to the government.
The stakes of this information war are high. Critics say Milosevic aims to curtail reports of the fighting in Kosovo, as well as of his embarrassing capitulation in October to NATO demands that he call an immediate cease-fire, admit outside monitors and halt alleged atrocities against civilians or face airstrikes. These activists also say the Serbian government fears that dissent, if left unchecked, might spread to Montenegro and the Serbian regions of Vojvodina and Sandzak.
Serbia and Montenegro are all that remain of Yugoslavia, since the provinces of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia declared their autonomy in the early 1990s. While the United States does not support Kosovo's quest for independence, ``we do support a negotiation between Belgrade and Pristina for greatly enhanced Kosovars can have much greater control over their daily lives,'' says Jeff Murray, spokesman for the State Department's European Bureau.
In October, the Serbian government stepped up its assault on independent media. Police staged raids on at least three newspapers and several radio stations, confiscating their equipment and shutting them down. Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, president of the ultranationalist Radical Party, threatened to arrest journalists and seize foreign hostages if NATO bombed his country; he also named specific editors as ``collaborators and traitors.''
And on October 20, the Serb parliament passed the Law on Public Information. Affecting only Serbia, not Montenegro, it's considered the most repressive in Yugoslav history. Major provisions call for censorship of all media; a ban on all local rebroadcasts of foreign news programs; and backbreaking fines. Broadcasting without a license can bring a penalty equivalent to $10,000.
The law generally offers only vague guidelines about what constitutes an offense, and judgment is swift. A Serbian magistrate can bring a news organization to trial--arbitrarily deciding that, for instance, a report on Kosovo fighting might disturb the populace or threaten national security--with 24 hours' notice. The organization has another 24 hours to prove its reporting has not violated the law. If convicted, the organization must pay $41,000 to $82,000 for each individual committing each reporting offense. In the independents' world of little or no profits, these are impossible fines. If unpaid, they result in closure and seizure of all assets.
Milosevic rammed the information law through the Serb parliament, using the threat of NATO bombings as an excuse to move against independent media. The vote was 170-5, with scores of the 250 legislators staying away in protest. On October 30, an independent union of 600 Serb judges denounced the measure as ``unconstitutional...reminiscent of the times of violence and lawlessness,'' the Associated Press reported.

OBSERVERS CALL THE REPRESSIVE measures the worst in Central and Eastern Europe today, suggestive of the era before the democratic reforms of 1989.
Milosevic ``is behaving like an old Communist dictator,'' says Kati Marton, a journalist and board member of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. ``There is no give--only under pressure, systematic and relentless.''
Marton is married to U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, who in mid-October negotiated the Kosovo agreement with Milosevic as well as the November 1995 Dayton accords ending the Bosnian war. Marton marched in support of independent media in Belgrade in 1996, when government forces beat some journalists and shuttered feisty independents such as B92 (the popular radio station quickly reopened after a flood of protests). ``I got Milosevic to sign a note during the 1996 demonstrations that he would keep his hands off the press,'' Marton says. ``But the man doesn't keep his word. He is not someone you can rely on.''
To bolster the independents, the United States, its NATO allies and private Western foundations have contributed millions of dollars in equipment and journalism training over several years. American media organizations--including Rutgers University's Journalism Resource Center, which I direct--regularly send representatives into Serbia and Montenegro, offering workshops in reporting, editing, management and production. A modern press center has opened in Belgrade to provide a workplace for independent and foreign journalists.
Serbian officials insist--in press conferences and on government Web sites--that they are the beleaguered victims of one-sided foreign reports. One of the Yugoslav government's Web sites ( lays out ``The Media War Against Yugoslavia'' in screen after screen.
These officials say they're endangered by Serb independent media that are beholden to foreign funding and threaten national security.

AT THE EPICENTER OF GOVERNMENT resistance in Serbia is ANEM, short for the Association of Independent Electronic Media, a network of 33 radio stations and 18 TV stations. Its flagship is B92, a scrappy model of radio independence that provides satellite news feeds to its sister stations. Both B92 and ANEM are based in Belgrade.
And both are headed by Veran Matic, a bearded, self-assured 37-year-old broadcaster who plays the Internet like a finely tuned organ, piping out voluminous statements every time the government moves against his besieged media colleagues or the ever-threatened B92.
Matic--editor in chief of B92 and chairman of ANEM--is one of the most internationally visible leaders in the Serb independent media movement. In September, he took his case to the White House, appealing to first lady Hillary Clinton to pressure Milosevic about halting the media crackdown. The administration and State Department have repeatedly protested the Serb leader's actions. U.S. Envoy Christopher Hill, heading into an October 27 meeting with Milosevic in Belgrade, told the AP: ``You cannot wipe out independent media any more than you can deprive people of oxygen.''
But Milosevic's government is trying, Matic says. He points to an absurd dilemma facing ANEM affiliates awaiting approval of their license applications. ``Affiliates are not allowed to register as broadcast media, which is a prerequisite for them to legalize their frequencies,'' he says. ``And in order to register, you need to hold a legalized frequency.''
ANEM affiliates serve as potential centers of cultural and social concern in their communities, Matic says. Some are fi-nanced by municipalities in which Milosevic's foes dominate the local government. Others are privately owned. All live with the threat of license revocation or application refusal. But, because the smaller radio and television stations are so integral to their communities, ``we are much more certain of [their] survival...than of those in the big cities,'' Matic adds.
Illustrating the precarious status of ANEM stations is a postcard, with a map of Serbia and station names in red or blue identifying their locations. The colors are strung out like festive lights on a Christmas tree, though their message is somber. Red indicates the two dozen stations threatened by authorities or already closed. Blue denotes those 18 or so less endangered. The protest cards, handed out at the stations to be mailed to Yugoslav telecommunications industry authorities, can't keep pace with changes.
Still, ANEM and other independents do their best to crank out information and stay ahead of Milosevic's forces.
In October, when police closed down the Belgrade university station Radio Index, its staff sent digital reports over the Internet. The British Broadcasting Corp. rebroadcast the reports back into Yugoslavia, and ANEM stations distributed them to local listeners. The government countered by bringing criminal charges against Radio Index's chief editor for alleged unauthorized use of a radio frequency. The case is pending.
To keep information flowing, independents have developed agility over the years. In the 1996 demonstrations, when Yugoslav police closed Radio Ozon, an ANEM station in Cacak, broadcasters packed their gear into a trailer and continued reporting from back roads. Authorities allowed its official return to the airwaves a few months later, after a demonstration by some 7,000 supporters, says former Editor in Chief Vesna Bjelic. The station remains in danger of closing today.
Journalists from TV Trstenik boasted that villagers tried (unsuccessfully) to block the main road into Trstenik and prevent police from seizing their transmitter in a 1996 clash. When police shut down a municipal TV station in the town of Poncevo the following year, TV news crews used a video projector to flash their reports on a wall in the town square.

I LEARNED ABOUT SUCH GUERRILLA tactics in September and October while leading broadcast workshops in five regions of Serbia. These training sessions--supported by the U.S. Information Agency, with ANEM hosts and organizational help from the American Embassy--brought together dozens of young broadcasters from ANEM radio and TV stations.
With fellow trainers Stephani Shelton, a former CBS network broadcaster, and Michael Fairhurst, former news director for public television's New Jersey Network, I focused on how to pry information from government sources, conduct more probing interviews, launch investigative projects and produce sharp broadcasts with limited resources. Station managers told me the Serb government pressures private corporations against advertising with independents. The independents also face special taxes for use of broadcast frequencies.
These independent journalists deal with obstacles unknown in Western newsrooms, and they've grown increasingly sophisticated in surmounting them. The Internet has emerged as an important tool in getting out information and publicizing their plight.
When the government briefly shut down B92 in 1996, staffers took to the Internet and brazenly printed reports on the mass civil protests and follow-ups on the annulment of local election results. Today, ANEM and B92 publish Web sites in Serbian and English that offer news developments, letters of support and detailed archives. Their Webmasters play cat-and-mouse with Serbian authorities, who have their own sites. There are reports of pro-government hackers disrupting anti-Serbian Internet sites and of government monitoring of Internet sites to spot troublemakers.
The Internet is vulnerable in a more basic way. Matic suggests the government, which sold off part of its telecommunications system to investors in 1996, still could stop the flow of electronic data simply by restricting phone lines.

SUPPORT FOR SERBIA'S INDEPENDENT media comes from numerous sources and takes many forms.
Aside from sponsoring workshops abroad, the U.S. Information Agency brings foreign independent journalists to America for training and other enrichment. American financier George Soros, through his global network of nonprofit foundations, supports independent journalists in Serbia and other eastern European locales. The Freedom Forum, since early October, has provided continuing coverage of Serb media actions through its Web site (see "Following the War on the Web", page 47). Internews, an Arcata, California-based nonprofit supporter of independent media in emerging democracies, aids the independent press in Central and Eastern Europe through training and funding. The nonprofit International Research and Exchange Board in Washington, D.C., has a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development, of which $2.3 million is earmarked to provide media assistance to Serbia and Montenegro. Among other things, IREX is helping to underwrite a radio training and resource center in Belgrade being established by ANEM.
Beyond that, media organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists lobby leaders in Serbia, the United States and elsewhere to ease press sanctions in Yugoslavia.
CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper uses an arsenal of letters, phone calls and personal visits to effect change. In October, she wrote to protest the Milosevic government's refusal to grant visas admitting foreigners for a Council of Europe conference on independent broadcasting. (Serb Information Secretary Goran Matic chided Cooper in a follow-up letter, inviting her to tour the country and help establish a fanciful Committee to Protect Truth--a jab at her organization.) The government reconsidered weeks later, granting visas so journalists, including Cooper, could attend the rescheduled conference in Belgrade in December.
Meanwhile, Cooper sent an open letter to Yugoslav independent journalists, reassuring them that they weren't being forgotten and pledging CPJ's continued support.
``Dealing quietly [with Serb media oppression] is not the right approach,'' Cooper contends. She makes noise--and urges the U.S. government to do the same.
Cooper and Marilyn Greene, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee, outlined their fears about the media crackdown during an October 9 meeting with John Shattuck, assistant Secretary of State at the time and now ambassador to the Czech Republic. He showed them a statement, issued later that day by the State Department, condemning press mistreatment.
More help would be welcomed by the independents, says Matic, of B92 and ANEM. He suggests increased funding from the international community to underwrite media technologies that evade censorship and leapfrog borders.
``What is needed is a mini-Marshall Plan for the media,'' Matic says, referring to the effort by the United States and other nations to speed Europe's economic recovery after World War II.
His wish list includes specific measures:
Protection of independent media as part of any diplomatic accords;

  • More thoughtful, nuanced reporting on the Balkans by foreign journalists;
  • More digital equipment, portable cameras and mobile editing suites for independent broadcasters, and satellite capacity for an ANEM television network;
  • A ``rapid response'' fund to help struggling independents keep their staffs intact and to find alternative ways to deliver information in the face of government shutdowns;
  • Creation of a strong independent newspaper with its own printing press and distribution network. State-run presses can halt production of outspoken papers, and distributors can easily ``lose'' them.
    While the situation for Serb journalists is daunting, Matic holds out hope. The hunger for uncensored information is so great, and the independents' sense of mission so intense, Matic says, ``no tyranny can destroy them.''



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