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Serbia: Internet Plays Key Role In Belgrade Politics

By Natasha Borchanin and Julie Moffett

Washington, April 4, 1997 (RFE/RL) - A leading Serbian journalist says the Internet is today's key to bringing down totalitarian regimes and breaking the state's monopoly on the media.

Veran Matic, editor-in-chief of the independent Serbian radio station B92, made the comment in Washington this week at a conference entitled "Virtual Diplomacy." The event was sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent federal organization that promotes research, education and training on international conflict resolution.

Speaking through a translator, Matic said the Internet should be considered an essential tool in the fight for journalistic integrity, objective reporting and the cessation of authoritative state control of the media.

Matic cited his own experience, stressing the importance the Internet played in keeping his radio station operating during last year's anti-government demonstrations in Serbia when thousands protested the government's annulment of municipal elections won by the opposition..

Matic said that even before the December demonstrations, there were indications that the government was going to try to shut down the independent radio station. Officials began sporadically jamming newscasts and interfering with the broadcasts.

As a result, Matic said B92 began to actively search for alternative methods of reporting and disseminating the news.

At the time, B92 had already established a home page on the Internet, primarily aimed at luring young people back to Serbia -- especially men who had fled abroad in order to avoid the draft.

"The idea was to create new links with them in the hope that one day they would return," said Matic. He added: "Yugoslavia's lost generation has the advantage of living in democratic countries all over the world and is untainted by years of war-mongering propaganda. Their contribution to society is badly needed here."

But Matic said that soon his staff began to explore other possible uses for the Internet connection. He said his staff looked closely at a software called RealAudio which permits sound transmission over the Internet. The staff then successfully experimented sending on-line broadcasts, using RealAudio, to the Internet service provider in Amsterdam.

Since B92 was using a long distance phone line to transmit its broadcasts, the only way the government could stop the dissemination of B92 news via the Internet was to shut down all telephone lines in Serbia, something it was not prepared to do.

When the protests were in full swing, the government began consistently jamming B92 broadcasts. Matic said B92 managed to get word of its plight out to the international community via the Internet.

When the U.S.-based manufacturer of RealAudio, Progressive Networks, heard what was happening to B92, it donated a more powerful server that permitted an increased number of users to log on to the B92 site and get updated information.

Sam Tucker of Progressive Networks told RFE/RL the company wanted to help the staff of B92 enhance its capabilities.

"They had already turned to the Internet," said Tucker. "We knew they had something important to say and we wanted to make it easier for their voices to be heard. We were excited to be a part of it."

As a result of the increased flow of information via the Internet, Serbian youths abroad began organizing demonstrations and focusing world attention on what was happening in Serbia.

On December 3, the Serbian government completely shut off B92's transmitter. But Matic said that thanks to the Internet connection, B92 staff was able to broadcast around the clock using RealAudio programs. Matic said that the news was then picked up and rebroadcast back into Serbia via a transmitter in a neighboring country.

According to Matic, at this point, B92 was quickly able to secure agreements with American radio stations Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, as well as the German radio station Deutsche Welle, to rebroadcast B92 news programs via their airwaves.

"It was unprecedented for these radio stations to loan frequencies to local partners," Matic told RFE/RL in an interview during the conference. "I think this could be a model for future cooperation for the radios -- for them to have a more intense connection with local stations, rather than simply injecting information from the outside."

Matic said two days after B92 transmitter was switched off, the government -- apparently realizing it could not stop the dissemination of information and programming via the Internet -- turned it back on.

Matic said the government denied shutting down the transmitter, claiming instead that the disruption was due to "water in a coaxial cable of the transmitter."

Matic said the students, who were the mainstay of the demonstrations, were energized by the B92 victory and began referring to their resistance as the "Internet Revolution."

Eventually the Serbian government relented and reinstated the election results. Matic said the protests were successful due in part to the objective and accurate news that people were able to obtain through B92.

Matic warned, however, that B92's troubles with the government are far from over. He pointed out that the radio station is still unable to get a permit to officially broadcast beyond Belgrade. But he added that it is just about ready to put into operation a program that will permit it to transmit news and information via satellite and then be picked up and rebroadcast by local Serbian stations.

Matic said he estimates B92 programs will soon be able to reach about 80 percent of Serbian territory.

"This is the first serious attempt to stand up on a national level to the state media's dissemination of lies, hatred and violence, who at the present time have a monopoly of nation-wide coverage," he said.

Matic said he has no doubt events would have turned out differently if not for the Internet.

He added: "I think the Internet model of self-defense both for Radio B92 and for the right to freedom of information in general, has a high probability of success as a new form of resistance to totalitarian regimes."