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Vojvodina TV Challenge

A move by the Vojvodina provincial assembly to wrest control of local broadcasting from Belgrade exposes divisions within DOS
By Mihailo Ramac

A dispute over control of local broadcasting in Vojvodina, northern Serbia, has exposed divisions within the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, ahead of the December 23 Serbian general election.


The Vojvodina provincial assembly in Novi Sad voted in November to wrest control of the provincial broadcaster, Radio Television Novi Sad, from Belgrade - a move which has angered "centrists" within DOS, including Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.


The argument over RTV Novi Sad is part of a much deeper disagreement over the status of the northern Serbian province, which was deprived of its autonomous status, along with Kosovo, by former federal president Slobodan Milosevic in the early 1990s.


When the province lost its autonomy, RTV Novi Sad became part of a unified broadcast network under the control of Radio Television Serbia, RTS, based in Belgrade. Large quantities of equipment were moved to the Serbian capital and over 100 journalists, who refused to accept the new editorial policy, were fired.


Compulsory license fees were henceforth paid directly to RTS. The Novi Sad broadcaster became another cog in the Milosevic propaganda machine.


In recent years, opposition parties in Vojvodina have persistently called for the restoration of autonomy and local management of RTV Novi Sad. Having won a majority in the Vojvodina assembly in the October federal election as part of the DOS coalition, a vote was passed to take control of the local TV station and appoint a new administrative board.


But the transitional government - made up of DOS, Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and the Serbian Renewal Movement - has declared the move unconstitutional and warned that state organs would take whatever measures were necessary to prevent the break-up of Serbia's unified broadcast network.


Of the 18 parties making up the DOS coalition, Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia is most resistant to autonomy for Vojvodina.


The issue has been a constant source of friction between Milosevic's opponents. But ahead of the October federal elections the issue was put to one side in order to provide a united front against the former president.


During the ballot, leading Vojvodina politician, and now speaker of the provincial assembly, Nenad Canak called on voters "to hold their noses and cast their ballots for Kostunica."


Former director of RTV Novi Sad Slobodan Budakov believes the Belgrade government can prevent the station becoming autonomous simply because all license fees, broadcast frequencies and marketing are controlled by the Serbian capital.


The station's new director Aleksandar Kravic admits the decision to break away from central control was unconstitutional but argues the present Serbian constitution was a product of Milosevic's rigid centralisation.


After the overthrow of Milosevic, the station, like that of all state-controlled media in Serbia, switched allegiance to DOS. Many journalists sacked by the old regime returned to work.


Under Kravic's leadership, RTV Novi Sad has resurrected its prime-time news programme, abolished by Milosevic in 1991, now rebroadcast by RTS in Belgrade - suggesting some sort of compromise may have been reached, at least temporarily.


With Serbian parliamentary elections looming later this month, DOS supporters in the Vojvodina assembly and the transitional government are keen to keep a lid on the dispute.


DOS is expected to win a majority on December 23, and once a new government is formed the coalition will have to make clear its position on Vojvodina's demands for autonomy.


"When the new republican assembly has been constituted, we shall propose constitutional changes," Canak said. "I don't believe an extremist position will gain support - neither those who demand a Vojvodina republic nor those who support centralisation."


In early December, the Vojvodina assembly formed a working group to prepare an analysis on the situation in the province and to draw up demands to present to Belgrade.


The signs are a compromise can be reached. Provincial politicians will probably shelve demands for their own constitution in exchange for greater independence within a revised Serbian constitution. But if Belgrade opts to ignore Vojvodina's demands completely, then calls for autonomy are likely to get louder.


Mihailo Ramac is an IWPR contributor