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

Serbian Media Face Renewed Libel Threat

Milosevic is using his infamous Information Law to drive independent media out of business.
By Vlado Mares

The Serbian authorities have launched a wave of the legal actions against independent media, in the their latest bid to silence government critics.


In the past month, a number of print and electronic media have received heavy fines under the controversial Information Law.


The legislation, forced through parliament by the ruling Socialist Party and its coalition partners just over a year ago, makes it hard for independent publishers and broadcasters to defend themselves against government defamation charges.


Three independent newspapers and around ten TV and radio stations have been forced to close after losing libel cases since the introduction of the infamous media law.


The latest spate of legal actions, which follows a series of bans on electronic media for allegedly illegal use of broadcasting frequencies, have resulted in fines equivalent to scores of thousands of US dollars.


The news agency Beta was fined 17,200 German marks, DM, after being sued by the Yugoslav Minister of Information, Goran Matic, for publishing a statement by the dissident student organization, Otpor.


It called for the minister to reveal the identity of those responsible for last year's killing Slavko Curuvija, the editor-in-chief of the daily Dnevni Telegraf. Matic argued that the statement had damaged his reputation.


The TV station Studio B, controlled by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, was fined DM22,400, its third financial penalty in the past year, after losing a libel case brought by police chief Branko Djuric.


The action followed a Studio broadcast SPO statement announcing that Djuric had been called as a witness to a road accident which, the party claimed, was an attempt on the life of its leader, Vuk Draskovic.


Other media sued recently were Kikindske novine, Vreme, Danas and Narodne novine from Nis , fined a total of DM125,735.


In other developments, the Federal Ministry of Communications gave Radio Pozarevac eight days to change its broadcasting frequency, allegedly to make way for Radio Madona, owned by Slobodan Milosevic's son, Marko.


Local TV stations in Bajina Basta and Nis, towns governed by Milosevic's opponents, were ordered by the courts to move out of premises they've rented for years. And in Bor, vendors of independent and party magazines were arrested. The police claimed the titles were forbidden publications.


The independent media have so far struggled to put up any resistance to the government crackdown.


Studio B, Vreme and Narodne novine have refused to pay their fines, but the protest will probably not amount to much as all the regime has to do is block their accounts and withdraw the penalties.


The most serious act of resistance so far has been the independent media's collective decision to boycott Vojislav Seselj and his extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party, a member of the governing coalition.


The move came after Sesejl threatened to kill independent journalists after accusing them of conspiring with NATO and western countries in the murder of Defence Minister Pavle Bulatovic.


Vlado Mares is a regular contributor to IWPR from Belgrade.