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Serbia: Government Seeks Media Monopoly

Serbian authorities block media reforms to keep down independent TV station and prop up former Milosevic mouthpieces that now support them.
By Milanka Saponja

Press groups close to Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic have been attacking the country's leading independent radio and television station as part of a government drive to retain the virtual media monopoly it inherited from the Milosevic regime.


The attacks began in mid-September, when the pro-government private television stations BK and Pink used prime time news slots to accuse Radio Television B92 bosses of privatising the company without the employees' knowledge and to their disadvantage.


Belgrade media last week received unsigned letters allegedly written by anonymous B92 employees accusing their bosses of abusing the company's privatisation process. BK and Pink, the two largest private broadcasters in Serbia, which were once very close to the Milosevic regime, quoted these accusations in their leading news broadcasts.


In the latest salvo against the station on October 4, hundreds of posters appeared overnight in Belgrade with the picture of Matic and the logo of B92. Underneath it was written "Caught Stealing".


B92 editor Veran Matic dismissed the claims, and IWPR has seen a copy of the minutes of a station staff meeting, in which it's clear that most employees agreed with the method of privatisation proposed by the management.


Matic charged the authorities with attempting to block B92's from having national coverage. Under American pressure, the authorities agreed two months ago to allocate the station temporary frequencies, enabling its television arm to cover 55 per cent of Serbian territory.


Media analysts believe the government is fighting to retain as much of the press monopoly it inherited from Milosevic as it can, with independent media such as B92 seen threatening this goal.


At home and abroad, the station is widely regarded as a symbol of democracy and independence, and was repeatedly closed and banned by the former regime.


TV Pink and BK Television,owned by Zeljko Mitrovic and Bogoljub Karic respectively, meanwhile acted as mouthpieces for Milosevic, only to switch sides as soon as he was ousted.


The two stations are most important to the Serbian authorities as they reach audiences well beyond Belgrade. Between them, their broadcasts cover 90 per cent of Yugoslav territory, netting huge profits from advertising.


The Serbian government, in an attempt to preserve its media monopoly, is dragging its feet over implementing some press reforms, including TV frequency regulations and a system of public inspection. Many believe the former was only adopted because it was a precondition for Yugoslavia's accession to the Council of Europe.


As a consequence, the media that once served Milosevic have kept their privileged positions and their national frequencies, while the stations that fought hardest for democratic change are deliberately confined to a limited viewing audience.


Matic said the situation was ironic, "The media that are an authentic part of the democratic changes in this country and a symbol of independent journalism are still being discriminated against because they don't have radio and television frequencies."


In a separate development, the new authorities have done nothing to put a stop to a wave of legal cases against reporters who fought against the wars of the 1990s, the politics of hatred and are now campaigning for professional journalistic standards.


Some 300 such cases are currently going through the courts, with many of the reporters being sued by the former regime's associates and members of the ruling coalition.


This month, for example, an official in Djindjic's Democratic Party, Radoslav Ljubisavljevic, charged B92 with libel after the station reported that he had been handed a two-year suspended sentence in 1994 for forgery and abuse of power.


Ljubisavljevic did not dispute the report's facts, but sued B92 for "mental anguish". "What really hurts Ljubisavljevic is the truth", the Association of Independent Electronic Media commented.


Milka Saponja Hadzic is a freelance journalist in Serbia


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