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Yugoslavia: Attempts To Control Internet Fail

Washington, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Serbian expert on electronic media says efforts by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to ban electronic media in his country have been ineffective and largely a failure.

Drazen Pantic, director of the Internet department of the independent Serbian station Radio B92, made the comment Wednesday in Washington during a press briefing on Serbian media issues.

The briefing, entitled "Preserving the Free Flow of Information Using the Internet: Serbs Thwart Milosevic's Censorship," was sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace -- a non-profit organization established by the U.S. Congress. It focuses on promoting peaceful resolutions of international conflicts.

Pantic also founded and directs OpenNet, the first Internet service provider in Serbia. He says despite a severely restrictive media law which was passed last October, the Serbian government has been unable to effectively stop the flow of uncensored information and news via the Internet and electronic mail.

Radio B92 was the first media outlet in Serbia to experiment with using the Internet to provide an alternative source for uncensored news. It all started during anti-government demonstrations in Serbia in December 1996, when thousands protested the government's annulment of municipal elections. Radio B92 broadcasts were sporadically jammed and eventually the radio's transmitter was shut off.

In an interview with RFE/RL in April of 1997, Veran Matic, editor-in-chief of Radio B92, said that during this turbulent time, Radio B92 turned to the Internet to get its broadcasts out. He said B92 posted print versions of the news on its Internet web site and also began using RealAudio -- a program which allows users to listen to actual on-line broadcasts over the Internet.

Matic said Radio B92 was so successful with its Internet experiment that the station was able to quickly secure agreements with American radio stations RFE/RL, Voice of America, and the German station Deutsche Welle to rebroadcast B92 programs back into Serbia via their airwaves. Matic said that two days after the B92 transmitter was turned 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 students, who were the mainstay of the demonstrations, were energized by the B92 victory and began referring to it as their "Internet Revolution."

On Wednesday, Pantic said that it was this success by B92 that unleashed the power of the Internet for all independent media in Serbia. He adds that its effect and potential also greatly alarmed the Serbian government.

For example, Pantic says that the new media law in Serbia includes attempts to try and control the Internet. One such attempt, he says, cites that owners of satellite dishes and Internet users are subject to a special and expensive tax. But Pantic says the government has not figured out a way to determine who exactly are Internet users, so they have been unable to implement this tax.

Pantic also says the Serbian government has put filters on independent media web sites, including B92's, which prevent Internet users in Serbia from accessing these web pages. One example of this, he says, is when officials put filters on the Serbian Academic Network, blocking access to B92's web site.

Pantic says no official announcement of the filter was made and that the move was simply done "overnight." But, he adds that B92 was easily able to get around the filters by setting up "mirror pages," which are alternative Internet sites which provide the same information as on the home page.

Pantic explained with a smile: "The government can't filter every mirror site."

Pantic says that within a few weeks of setting up the filters on the Serbian Academic Network the government partially lifted them. He says officials finally realized they were unable to block the mirror sites and effectively stop the information from being disseminated.

But perhaps the biggest irony of the situation, says Pantic, is that the government has been unable to prevent the electronic mail distribution of B92 news. He says the station currently has a subscriber list of about 30,000 people who receive B92 news daily.

Gene Mater, a retired broadcast journalist and adviser to the U.S.-based Freedom Forum, also spoke at the briefing, saying that Serbia's new media law is the end of any hope for a free press in Serbia.

Mater says he had the Serbian law analyzed by a Washington law firm which has extensive experience in dealing with Central and East European media laws.

According to Mater, the law firm determined that the Serbian media law is a "blatantly unconstitutional exercise in media censorship, intimidation, and punishment that cannot stand under either Serbian or international law."

Mater says the firm also determined that the law wrongfully deprives Serbian citizens of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to an independent and free press and freedom of thought and conscience.

Mater states that this law "makes clear that freedom of the press (in Serbia) is a concept of the past."

Rob Timm, Director of the Balkans Independent Radio Project, agreed with Mater, adding that government intimidation and harassment of independent journalists in Serbia is outrageous.

Says Timm: "Big brother is, in fact, alive and well and living in Belgrade."

But Timm says that B92's contribution to the development of the electronic media in Serbia has been impressive and effective.

Timm explains: "B92 is extremely important. If it wasn't, the Milosevic regime wouldn't be paying any attention to it. If what B92 does and what they do through the Internet didn't matter, the Milosevic regime wouldn't care about them."