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Comment: Belgrade Press Consent to Censorship

Serbian press accept need for reporting restrictions, as the authorities hunt premier's killers
By Tamara Spaic

Despite the recent gags the authorities have placed on several newspapers, few amongst the Belgrade press view the state of emergency as a threat to journalistic independence - at least for now.

Most editors and reporters accept that the authorities are employing special powers to round up the mafia and not as, some observers have suggested, to get rid of their political opponents and critics in the media.

The government, however, must be careful not to fritter away this goodwill by ratcheting up the state of emergency, as this could end up alienating the press.

The pact forged between the opposition and the independent media in the months that preceded the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 has been renewed since the murder of prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

Then as now, the non-government press unanimously rallied behind the forces of democracy against Milosevic and his allies - the remnants of which are held responsible for the premier's assassination.

The general view amongst journalists is that a state of emergency, regardless of the risks it poses to civil liberties, is what Serbia needs at the moment if it wishes to deal with its past, once and for all.

A little less than a week after the special powers were declared, as a measure to facilitate the arrest of Djindjic's killers, police have arrested about 2,000 criminals.

They have clamped down on three media organisations - banning a little-known weekly tabloid Identitet and the mass-circulation daily Nacional and fining the TV station Mars. The government claims they all "fired shots" at the late premier in the days before his death.

Other restrictions include banning the distribution in Serbia of the Podgorica daily Dan for a comment article likening Djindjic to his assassins; and a warning to Vecernje Novosti, the highest circulation Serbian daily, over an article deemed sympathetic to one of the main murder suspects.

Few journalists here have shed tears about these prohibitions, as those targeted are mainly low-quality tabloids, notorious for their unverified reports, invasions of privacy and reliance on rumour and even lies.

Serbia's culture and information minister, Branislav Lecic, said Identitet had not been suspended under the new emergency powers but because the title's associates and founders were thought to be linked with the criminal gang in Zemun, led by Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, the prime suspect in the assassination.

The minister confirmed that members of Identitet's management would remain in custody while a police investigation proceeds into whether the Zemun gangsters financed the paper.

Lecic said Nacional has been temporarily suspended for violating the terms of the new security regime and that police have launched an investigation into its finances - although there is no reliable evidence that it has links with organised crime. The paper's editors say its been targeted for "courageous and forthright" reports, which have long displeased the government.

One day before the premier was assassinated, both Identitet and Nacional published articles that government ministers and police claim amounted to a sign of the mafia's intention to kill Djindjic.

Identitet's front page contained a frightening masthead heralding the premier's death, headlined, "Djindjic Target of a Freelance Shooter - Hague Serbs order Assassination".

On the same day, Nacional published a list of people - including Legija - it expected would be extradited to The Hague, which, some believe, may have provoked Lukovic or his accomplices to move against the premier.

TV Mars was fined for broadcasting inappropriate programmes during the official days of mourning.

To convince the media that they are not its targets, government representatives - including Serbia's deputy prime minister Zarko Korac - have held two meetings with leading editors.

Those attending the gatherings say both sides have tried to hammer out an agreement on what the press could report during the state of emergency. Officials called for a ban on material dealing with the investigation into Djindjic's death and the state of emergency, but stressed that their intention was not to undermine political and civic freedoms.

The ruling DOS coalition has no wish to alienate the media, which it has viewed as the only truly democratic voice in the Milosevic era. If anything, it wants to renew the pact it made with them prior to the overthrow of Milosevic, with Korac urging editors to support the authorities by refraining from, for instance "quoting so-called independent comments, paid for by criminals, and statements from corrupt lawyers".

The editors - even those representing Vecernje Novosti - broadly accepted that a number of restrictions were necessary. Indeed, some even called for more stringent measures.

The main problem for the media at the moment is that no clear and unambiguous lines have been drawn for reporting during the emergency period.

For now, it seems, the government enjoys the media's full support and trust as the DOS coalition did before Milosevic was ousted.

But if the authorities are seen to be clamping down on freedom of speech in "the interests of the investigation", then the media will start resisting.

For those who have been shut down in the meantime, there is little sympathy. The general opinion is that they never really belonged in the category of professional journalists anyway.

Tamara Spaic is an independent journalist and media consultant for the speaker of the federal parliament chamber of citizens.

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