Prague, 23 November 1998 (RFE/RL) --Independent Serbian media chiefs, attending a roundtable discussion in Prague (Nov. 20) sponsored by RFE/RL, discussed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's six-week-old crackdown on the news media and the outlook for democratic change.
In his survey of the Serbian media scene, deputy director of the banned independent Belgrade daily, Nasa Borba, Dimitrije Boarov, described the Serbian crackdown as "unconstitutional" and "a mediaeval inquisition... on the threshold of the 21st century."
Boarov says Milosevic has surpassed himself through his latest bans, going even beyond what he terms "Milosevic's decade of humiliation of media and journalists" and his reliance on "aggressive political propaganda" in the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. He notes only 15 percent of Serbia's population of 11 million regularly read newspapers.
Serb authorities instituted new restrictions on the press early last month, saying they were aimed at combating what they called "the spread of panic and defeatism" at a time when NATO was threatening airstrikes as a result of the crisis in Kosovo. The restrictions resulted in a ban on local rebroadcasts of foreign Serbian language programs from RFE/RL, VOA, BBC, Deutsche Welle and others.
The head of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service, Nenad Pejic, says it has responded to the crackdown by strengthening the transmitter signal of medium and short-wave broadcasts, increasing broadcast time by 30 minutes a day, drawing up plans for new programming and enhancing the South Slavic Service's presence on the Internet. Pejic says his service's web site is receiving 60 percent more hits now than one month ago.
Nasa Borba's Boarov spoke about the consequences of the crackdown. Boarov says Belgrade's Oct. 20 Law on Information was passed without broad public debate and that it has resulted in a ban on three big daily newspapers and two smaller radio stations. Boarov says the law practically bars political criticism and has destroyed two-thirds of private newspapers, including Nasa Borba, the largest independent daily in Yugoslavia. Moreover, he says the ban has unleashed what he terms "a huge financial, personnel and organizational crisis" for the daily that he says its owner, Dusan Mijic, has been unable to resolve.
Boarov adds that after the authorities fined the independent daily Dnevni Telegraf 200,000 deutschmarks for publishing, another independent Belgrade daily, Danas, under the threat of a similar fine, has moved its operations to Montenegro.
Boarov criticizes what he says is the apathy of people in Serbia to the latest restrictions on the press. He says one widely held view is that the crackdown on the news media, as well as on the universities and the legal profession, is a result of the leadership's fear of mass unrest. The theory goes that Milosevic fears possible public anger over his Oct. 13 deal with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and that it could be viewed as a capitulation that could lead to the loss of Kosovo as a Serbian province.
Boarov says Serbia does not dare touch the Albanian language press in Kosovo. Despite the crackdown on the independent Serbian news media, some 60 different newspapers continue to be published in Kosovo. Serbian deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party have complained that the Information Ministry has proven unable to translate and monitor what is being written in Kosovo's Albanian language press.
Boarov calls on the international community to show more generosity in supporting independent media. He says the total international assistance to the Serbian media in one year is equivalent to the cost of a single international observer in Bosnia for one day.
During the roundtable discussion, Dnevni Telegraf editor Dragan Bujosevic warned that the fate of Serbia's independent media cannot be resolved unless the situation of Kosovo's Albanians is also resolved.
Danas editor Dusan Simic says Serbs still have no alternative to Milosevic. He says the Yugoslav economy is currently in such a disastrous state that he cannot imagine how it will survive the winter. Moreover, he says that while Milosevic has been able to blame the loss of three wars on others, his political regime which used the Kosovo card to gain power may finally fall as a result of Kosovo. Simic warns that for Serbia to lose Kosovo would leave deep emotional wounds among Serbs who perceive the province as the cradle of Serbian civilization. He says that although Milosevic has never been weaker than at present he could remain in power for some time to come by manipulating the public.
The director of the Belgrade weekly Vreme, Dragoljub Zarkovic, says the media is the only sector in Serbia to have undergone transformation while the country's industrial sector remains unprivatized. Zarkovic says that "since the media is one step ahead of the others ... it is understandable that the media has become the focus of the repression."
The deputy chairman of the Association of Independent Media in Serbia, Milorad Tadic, added that authorities perceive independent journalists as enemies of Serbia, traitors paid from abroad.
But the director and editor in chief of Radio Index, Nenad Cekic, says journalists have no intention of fighting for power. That, he says, is the job of opposition parties. The independent media's job, he says, is to transfer information.
The participants generally agreed that any pressure the international community exerts on Yugoslavia should be in the form of direct pressure on Milosevic, otherwise they say it could be counterproductive.