Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Milosevic Crushes Opponents

The opposition and the independent media in Serbia fall victim to state-sponsored repression.
By Vlado Mares

Earlier this month independent TV station Studio B broadcast footage of a young democracy activist being beaten up by five youths. The vehicle the attackers used was shown parked outside the Serbian Interior Ministry. The official response was swift and brutal.


A few days later, police broke into Studio B's offices, beat up two employees and damaged broadcasting equipment belonging to the channel and the popular radio station, B2-92. Studio B lost hundreds of thousands of viewers while B2-92 was temporarily taken off the air as a result of the action.


It is the latest of a series of attacks on opposition controlled Studio B. So far this year, the station has been fined for various offences under a draconian information law and broadcasting equipment at its Mount Kosmaj transmitter has been stolen.


Another medium to face official wrath this month is the biggest-selling Belgrade daily, Vecernje Novosti. Having backed the regime for years, it became popular in recent months by opening up its editorial pages to opinions critical of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.


This changed on March 3 when the paper was taken over and a new editor-in-chief from Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, Dusan Cukic, appointed. Cukic, who is banned from travelling to European Union countries, immediately brought Vecernje back in line. It now resembles any other regime newspaper.


Not a day seems to pass without the regime closing down a broadcaster. On March 9, a radio and television station in Cuprija was shut and the day before Radio Boom in Pozarevac was taken off the air.


Regime critics feel the authorities' strong-arm actions against Studio B and Vecernje Novosti reflect increasing nervousness in Milosevic's inner cabinet.


The crackdown coincides with plans by opposition parties to stage anti-government demonstrations. With unrest in southern Serbia and possible conflict in Montenegro, the last thing the regime wants is opposition activism.


In response to the opposition's plans, the authorities are making contingency plans. Sources close to the police say that a 1,500-strong team of militant government supporters, some linked to Belgrade's criminal underworld, has been formed, tasked with disrupting and crushing possible pro-democracy demonstrations.


Similar groups of regime loyalists have in the past broken into the offices of independent media and threatened journalists. Indeed, on one occasion last year, an inebriated Marko Milosevic, the son of the Yugoslav president, responded to newspaper criticism of his parents by breaking into the offices of the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti and, according to eyewitnesses, threatening journalists with a gun.


Perhaps the extent of the regime's present nervousness is best illustrated by an incident this week in which police entered a Belgrade secondary school to detain a pupil who had participated in a press conference announcing forthcoming student protests.


It followed concerted action against students belonging to the pro-democracy movement, Otpor ("Resistance"). Otpor sources say some 200 members have been detained in recent months, spending a total of about 8,000 hours in prison.


In an incident this week, Marko Milosevic is said to have forced an activist into his car and taken him to his night-club, where he was severely beaten threatened with a gun.


Over the past two weeks, several officials and activists from the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement in Belgrade have been detained for questioning. And the number of break-ins at the homes of city officials has risen dramatically in recent months. Curiously none of the burglars have been apprehended.


In Novi Sad, the capital of the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, 66 opposition activists belonging to the League of the Social Democrats of Vojvodina were arrested while putting up the posters in the town protesting against the visit of Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic.


On the same day, three journalists and photographers with the Beta news agency, the Belgrade daily Blic and Radio Free Europe were beaten up by government supporters bussed in from nearby villages.


Hostility towards the independent media has increased since the official media reported on February 27 a statement from the Serbian Information Ministry alleging on-going media aggression against Serbia by the United States and its Western European allies.


The stations Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC and Deutsche Welle, as well as several independent media outlets in Belgrade were labelled "psychological-propaganda services" of the United States and its allies.


While this kind of attack is not new, political analysts in Belgrade fear that it may herald further violence against dissidents and that, under the pretext of a struggle against international enemies and NATO, Serbs will shortly be faced with a fully fledged dictatorship.


Vlado Mares is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.


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