'Political' Theft Blocks Studio B

Studio B, Serbia's largest non-state broadcaster, is no longer able to reach some 2 million viewers, following the theft of vital broadcasting equipment in what is alleged to have been a politically motivated burglary.

'Political' Theft Blocks Studio B

Studio B, Serbia's largest non-state broadcaster, is no longer able to reach some 2 million viewers, following the theft of vital broadcasting equipment in what is alleged to have been a politically motivated burglary.

Studio B, Serbia's largest non-state broadcaster, has been unable to broadcast to more than 2 million regular viewers since what its director describes as a politically motivated theft of vital equipment at its transmission tower on January 16.

Unidentified burglars broke into the transmitter site on Mount Kosmaj, 40 kilometers south of Belgrade, in daylight when the security guard was off duty and stole essential equipment. People living nearby reported that two days earlier they had seen "visitors" at the building where the equipment was stored.

This transmitter used to broadcast to one third of Serbia giving Studio B a total, potential audience of between four and five million people. Now residents in Pomoravlje, Sumadija, Valjevo, Petrovac, and Pozarevac can no longer receive the signal. The local television station in Kragujevac also rebroadcast the Belgrade programme via the transmitter.

Studio B director, Dragan Kojadinovic, accused the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of stealing the equipment, saying that Milosevic is using all means possible to silence independent voices.

"We are certain that the state is behind this act", said Kojadinovic in front of the Studio B cameras.

To illustrate that this was not simply burglary, Kojadinovic pointed out that the thieves did not steal the kind of objects most burglars would have taken had they intended purely to steal. Televisions, video-recorders and air-conditioning equipment left on the site would have been easier to sell than the transmission equipment. Indeed, the equipment that was stolen could only be sold abroad because of specific serial numbers attached to the goods to indicate their origin.

Opposition parties and independent observers in Belgrade have unanimously interpreted the theft as another attack on non-state media. Commentators say that the burglary was likely masterminded by the same people who have instigated law suits and levied fines against independent media in an attempt to silence all but official views.

"The regime doesn't want the truth to come out," said Vladan Batic, the coordinator for the opposition Alliance for Change. "The regime is struggling on a daily basis to falsify the grim reality, which it has brought upon its citizens. It wishes to hide all its defeats on national, economic, social, spiritual and moral grounds."

Vuk Draskovic and his party, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) declared in a statement that this was the act of "cowards and robbers who are scared of the truth about their crimes. They want to silence the independent media in Serbia and continue their terrorist actions under a cloak of darkness."

The Association of Independent Electronic Media said that it holds the regime directly responsible for obstructing the work of Studio B. The Association of Independent Journalists pointed out that the Information Law provides only a mild means of silencing the media and thus more brutal measures have been taken against Studio B.

Draskovic, whose SPO currently holds power in Belgrade and who joined the federal government during NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, controls Studio B.

Until recently, Studio B was as closed to rival opposition parties, and in particular Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party, as the state run Serbian Radio and Television. However, in the wake of what Draskovic believes was a failed assassination attempt on October 3 last year, the station has opened up.

Following the signing of a co-operation agreement by opposition leaders on January 10, Draskovic called on all opposition leaders to be guests on programmes at the station. As a result, Studio B viewers have already had a chance to see the leaders of the Kosovo Serbs, Bishop Artemije and Momcilo Trajkovic, as well as the top ten opposition politicians.

But Studio B programmes have been frequently interrupted in recent months. Interference has generally occurred during news broadcasts or current affairs programmes. As a result, senior executives at the station believe that the Serbian secret services have been jamming Studio B's signal.

Serbian officials responded by saying that foreign ships and AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft, were the source of the jamming. Studio B then obtained anti-jamming protection equipment and it was at this point the burglary occurred.

The material damage caused by the break-in amounts to around 100,000 German marks. The indirect damage, however, is far greater because the stolen equipment cannot be replaced in Serbia. And it is difficult to imagine that the authorities would allow Studio B to import new transmitter parts.

Already in 1993 the regime confiscated equipment belonging to Studio B worth more than 100,000 German marks which was never returned.

Following NATO's bombing of the Avala television transmitter, some state-owned equipment and staff were transferred to Studio B's "Beogradjanka" building, where the independent broadcaster helped their state colleagues to continue broadcasting.

Now Kojadinovic has announced Studio B is considering some form of retaliation against the regime and is reconsidering offering any further help to state television.

Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.

Serbia, Kosovo
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