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Yugoslavia: Serbia's B-92 Still Heard Despite Government Shut Down

Prague, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslavia's main independent radio station can still be heard throughout much of the region despite a government order to stop broadcasting -- an order the station says was made to quiet it ahead of expected NATO airstrikes.

Belgrade's Radio B-92 was ordered to discontinue its broadcasts early yesterday. Station spokesman Sasa Mirkovic says two Yugoslav telecommunications inspectors and 10 policemen delivered a written order to B-92's studios at around 0250 local time. They seized a key piece of equipment, making it impossible for the station to broadcast. And they detained the radio's editor in chief, Veran Matic. Matic was released just before noon, after spending nine hours in a police station in Belgrade.

Mirkovic says the government order to stop broadcasting claims the station's transmitter is more powerful than the limit allowed under Belgrade's Law on Information. But Mirkovic told RFE/RL yesterday that managers believe B-92 has been broadcasting within the government-imposed limits.

He said he believes the order was issued in an effort to block uncensored information from listeners in Belgrade if there are NATO air strikes in retaliation for Serbian military action against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

"I think the government tried to strangle any possibility for a voice in Belgrade that will spread some kind of information that does not have sympathy for the government and that criticizes their preparation for the possibility of NATO air strikes. So they are trying to isolate Belgrade from the media landscape."

Without its equipment, B-92 can no longer transmit its regular FM broadcasts. But the station is still producing its regular broadcasts that can be heard on the Internet. Mirkovic says B-92's news programs are also being rebroadcast by an association of 33 local independent radio stations. That means that the broadcasts can still be heard in most parts of Serbia and Montenegro, except in Belgrade.

The European Union's radio and television agency also decided yesterday to retransmit programs by independent Yugoslav broadcasters, including B-92's news bulletins, in response to the ban on B-92.

This is the third time since 1991 that the Yugoslav government has stopped B-92's broadcasts. The last time was in 1997, when the station's signals were blocked after thousands of people protested the government's annulment of municipal elections. The station got around the ban by broadcasting on the Internet.

Belgrade started a wider crackdown on independent media last fall. In October, its Law on Information -- which placed new restrictions on the media -- was passed without broad public debate. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic claimed at the time that the law was passed to combat the spread of what he called "panic and defeatism" when NATO was first threatening air strikes as a result of the crisis in Kosovo.

Dimitrije Boarov -- deputy director of the banned Belgrade independent daily Nasa Borba -- told RFE/RL last fall that the law practically bars political criticism and has closed two-thirds of the country's private newspapers.

Radio B-92's Mirkovic adds that because media outlets face fines of up to $100,000 for breaking information laws, many have been forced to censor their own stories.

"This information law on the republic level has completely changed the media landscape here because a lot of media were not in a position to pay such high fines so they decided not to publish anymore in Serbia. Some kind of self-censorship exists here because people are afraid which type of source they're going to use because -- with one mistake -- people could easily be forced to close down their newspapers."

Until now, B-92 had managed to avoid consequences from the most recent crackdown. Mirkovic says the station's main concern now is how to get back on the air in Belgrade without breaking any laws. He says the first step will be to appeal the telecommunications ministry's decision ordering the station to shut down.