The Media War, Round II

Belgrade's attack on the media in Serbia has been successful. No opposition views are possible, and Serbia now speaks with one voice, that of Slobodan Milosevic.

The Media War, Round II

Belgrade's attack on the media in Serbia has been successful. No opposition views are possible, and Serbia now speaks with one voice, that of Slobodan Milosevic.

With the attention of the world focused on solving the war in Kosovo, Yugoslavia has launched one more war, against its own media. As a result, Serbia now truly speaks with one voice, that of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Emergency procedures under the Serbian Law on Information have been used recently to impose fines on editors, journalists and publishers of a wide range of publications, both Albanian and Serbian. These include the Belgrade-based titles Somborske Novine, a local daily; Blic, the popular tabloid; Glas Javnosti, also a tabloid daily; and the daily Danas. Albanian-language publications in Pristina fined include the dailies Kosova Sot, Rilindja and Gazeta Shqiptare. This marks round two of attacks under the new law; in the first round, immediately after the law was adopted, charges were brought against Dnevni Telegraf, Evropljanin and other media.

According to this law, the accused must prove their innocence within 24 hours. Both official bodies and individuals may bring charges, and the prosecution does not need to present any evidence. The accuser only needs to testify that a media report has caused him to suffer "spiritual pain" or that he has discovered the "dissemination of lies." Several of the papers were fined for publishing a statement by the opposition which blamed the top Belgrade official for cultural affairs for what it said was the worst environment for culture in the city ever.

The special provisions of the law make the editors and publishers personally liable for the payment of the fines; their personal belongings are subject to confiscation if payments are not made within 48 hours. In the country where the average salary is a mere 150 DM, the fines--ranging from 5,000 DM for Somborske Novine to 100,000 DM for Kosova Sot--represent a new and efficient way for the regime to stifle the basic human right of free speech. For the opposition statement on culture, Glas Javnosti was fined 25,000 DM; Blic, 40,000 DM; and Danas, 50,000. Unpredictability seems part of the threat.

As a result of the law, passed in October 1998 by Milosevic's Socialists and the Radicals of Vojislav Seselj, the media scene in Serbia has hit its lowest point in the past decade. Immediately after the law was adopted, Nasa Borba, the only true opposition newspaper in Serbia, ceased. Meanwhile, the dailies Dnevni Telegraf and Danas registered in Montenegro, where theoretically this law does not apply and where the anti-Milosevic authorities have been very welcoming to them. But this has not solved the problem, since every day the Serbian police confiscate the issues of Dnevni Telegraf on the border between Montenegro and Serbia. Danas shares a similar fate; the paper tends not to be available at all on foggy days, when flights from Podgorica are grounded.

The Law on Information contains all the elements of a war law: by sowing fear among journalists and bankrupting disobedient media, its intention is to censor different political opinion at any price, especially concerning Kosovo. General Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo, spoke recently about the traitors in the media, and the law seems intended to settle accounts with them. Thus as part of the war effort, Milosevic will also use Kosovo to rid himself of the few newspapers and other media not under his direct control.

The war against the media in Serbia does not limit itself to financial fines: the editor-in-chief of Dnevni Telegraf, Slavko Curuvija, and two of his journalists have recently been sentenced to five months imprisonment. The charges were brought by Milovan Bojic, vice-president of the Serbian government and a member of the Yugoslav United Left (JUL). The public prosecutor, the investigative judge and the Serbian justice minister, all of whom are also members of JUL, the party of Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, have also all been involved in bringing court proceedings under the new law. Then in what appeared to be a logical extension to the judicial attacks, on March 15, a bomb exploded at the home of Dragan Alempijevic, a correspondent with Belgrade's daily Glas Javnosti in Kragujevac, central Serbia. No one was injured.

Evidently, the regime will no longer allow even the limited openness it has tolerated for years. The Serbian public was much better informed about the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina than it is about Kosovo today. During those earlier wars, there was a firm core of media in Belgrade which achieved absolute freedom and maintained high professional standards. Vreme spearheaded a vibrant group of anti-war press. Borba and later Nasa Borba provided daily reporting, and under the later title offered a real independent spirit. Radio B92 was highly politically involved, transmitting reliable information and also organising anti-regime demonstrations. It and other radio stations rebroadcast news from foreign language services. There was even an independent television station, Studio B, which while not as provocative and very limited in its broadcast range, provided an important source of information and debate.

Now, the media situation is worse than ever. Studio B was taken over by the Belgrade city government. Nasa Borba collapsed from a combination of financial pressures and internal disputes (it also cited the new information law as a contributing factor). Vreme continues, but in dull format with poor paper and the same old style. Radio B92, through its launching of the countrywide ANEM network of stations, has substantially improved its financial position and expanded its outreach. But on the Kosovo issue, it is predominantly simply reporting official statements, and certainly not achieving a campaigning style. The information law also prohibits local radio stations from rebroadcasting programmes from foreign media, so that in Serbia one can no longer hear the Serbian-language programmes of the BBC, Radio France International, Radio Free Europe or Deutsche Welle. Even Croatia, known for its repression of its media, is today much more tolerant of different opinions and has a more open and engaged media.

Meantime, as the war against the remnants of free media continues, the Milosevic regime has stepped up the propaganda on its state television and in the numerous nationalist dailies of a kind Serbia did not have even during the worst days of the Croatian and Bosnian wars. In "normal" times in Serbia, the evening news tends to be a half hour. During the Bosnian and Croatian wars, it expanded to between one and two hours. Nowadays, it is regularly two hours, with several other news bulletins throughout the day-all broadcasting countless pro-Kosovo rallies, official statements, stories of Serbian suffering in Kosovo, and reports of Albanian "terrorism". The war has truly gone wall-to-wall

Through such supposedly unified opinion, as well as "rent-a-demonstrator" propaganda rallies organised by the regime, telegrams of support and other means, Belgrade is hoping to convince international opinion that Serbia and the Serbs will defend Kosovo at any cost and that Yugoslavia, should it be necessary, will wage war with NATO.

Such a political programme has once again spawned fascist arguments about the superiority of the Serbs and their "natural need" for Kosovo-which is uniformly referred to as their "cradle" and the "holy Serbian land." Preparing for such a war against the Albanians, Milosevic did not want to allow any defeatism in his ranks. In this aim, the Law on Information is working perfectly. The small groups of intellectuals, parties or individuals who are aware that a new kind of ethnic cleansing is underway in Kosovo have no means to address the public. Western governments, meantime, desperate to avoid war in Kosovo, are paying scant attention to issues of democratisation and press freedom in Serbia. Now, in the twelfth year of his rule, Milosevic is calling for a war against the entire world, and there is no voice within Serbia to oppose him.

Petar Lukovic is a columnist for Feral Tribune and editor of XZ, a cultural magazine, in Belgrade

Support our journalists