Independent Media Writhe under Crackdowns

Serbia's privately-owned newspapers are feeling the force of a government backlash while TV and radio stations stage a brave rearguard action against recent crackdowns

Independent Media Writhe under Crackdowns

Serbia's privately-owned newspapers are feeling the force of a government backlash while TV and radio stations stage a brave rearguard action against recent crackdowns

Editors of independent newspapers in Belgrade claim the government has deliberately stage-managed a paper deficit in bid to drive them out of business.

And they say that the regime is also forcing them to slash cover prices - a move which would make it impossible for most papers to break even.

Crisis loomed after the Matroz factory, the sole producer of newsprint in Yugoslavia, suspended production on March 25. The company's general director, Dragan Lazic, promised that the factory would be back in operation by April 1.

However, Dragan Tomic, Vice President of the Serbian government, has now put the reopening date at April 10, explaining that vital cellulose imports have been interrupted by a strike in Hungary.

But Veselin Simonovic, editor of Blic, Belgrade's biggest independent daily, said the authorities were exploiting the situation to cripple any printed publications which were not controlled by the state. Blic, he added, had enough paper in stock to last another 10 days.

An ongoing deficit, explained Simonovic, would force papers either to decrease the number of pages or buy newsprint at an "inflated exchange rate" from licensed importers. Not only is this exchange rate six times higher than the official one, claims the Blic editor, but it even exceeds terms offered on the black market.

In another recent development, the Yugoslav Trade Ministry has ordered both Blic and Glas Javnosti to bring down cover prices from eight to six dinars, explaining that both newspapers are making "unwarranted profits".

At the same time, however, the cost of printing services has soared by more than 100 per cent, meaning that Blic would lose 0.41 dinars per copy in the event of a drop in the cover price.

Editors at Glas Javnosti have calculated that, in view of the current market conditions, papers should be charging at least 10 dinars per copy in order to remain solvent.

Belgrade's independent political magazines, NIN and Vreme, have been more guarded in their reactions to the news. In a recent editorial, Vreme editor Dragjljub Zarkovic dismisses claims that the Matroz case is politically motivated, describing it as further evidence of widespread economic slump.

Zarkovic compares the case to an ongoing cooking oil deficit - despite continuing supply problems, officials stubbornly deny that there is any shortage at all.

The hard-hit dailies claim that both NIN and Vreme are unwilling to join in the general chorus of protest because they have sufficient stocks of newsprint to weather the lean times.

Certainly, pro-government newspapers in Belgrade - which enjoy cheap paper supplies and a range of other privileges - don't seem to be feeling the pinch.

Borba, for example, receives direct finance from the state treasury while Politika and Ekspres-politika are both exempt from taxation. In recent weeks, Vecernje Novosti, which has always prided itself on its financial independence, has fallen under complete state control.

Officially sanctioned publications also find themselves in the invidious position of being able to sue rival, opposition-run newspapers in government-controlled courts. On March 31, the weekly Kikindske Novine was made to pay 280,000 dinars ($28,000) for offending Rajko Popovic, the editor of a local competitor. It was the sixth lawsuit that Popovic has filed against Kikindske Novine.

Meanwhile, Serbia's independent broadcasting media are fighting a brave rearguard action against the regime, which seems intent on shutting them down.

On March 25, Kraljevo's local TV station went back on the air just a week after its transmitter on Mount Goc was dismantled by the Yugoslav Telecommunications Ministry.

Kraljevo residents staged angry protests against the government action, an outcry which is thought to have persuaded telecommunications minister Ivan Markovic to reinstall the equipment.

Despite this modest victory, six radio and television stations have been shut down across the Yugoslav Federation - all in towns which support President Slobodan Milosevic's political opponents. The list comprises RTV Pozega, TV Nemanja, Tir Radio in the town of Cuprija, Bum 93 Radio in Pozarevac, Golf Radio from Belgrade, and TV Pirot.

In some opposition strongholds, special committees have been formed to protect local broadcasting media. In the town of Cacak, the TV transmitter compound is locked and guarded by a private security firm.

According to inside sources, Cacak mayor Velimir Ilic has said he is prepared to mine the approaches to the compound in a bid to safeguard the station from government crackdowns.

In the town of Nis, locals have erected a barbed wire fence around the TV broadcasting tower while protest rallies have been organised in Pirot where banned TV programmes are broadcast across the radiowaves. In Pozega, the town television station is transmitting through cable.

Vlado Mares is a regular contributor to IWPR from Belgrade.

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