Prague, 26 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- News reporting from and to Yugoslavia has become a first casualty of the NATO bombing of military targets there and of Belgrade's attempts to manage the impact on Yugoslav public opinion.
The government of Serbia, which along with smaller Montenegro makes up the Yugoslav federation, yesterday ordered the expulsion of all foreign journalists affiliated with media from NATO-member countries.
Today, the Western media's reporters remain outside Yugoslavia, scrambling to learn what is going on inside. Some signs have emerged that they could be allowed to return soon but under as yet unknown conditions.
Just hours after the reporters were expelled under an order of Serbia's ultranationalist Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, a key official in the Yugoslav federal government, Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic, invited the reporters to come back. Draskovic said that Belgrade still needs the foreign reporters as a means for Serbia to express its position to the world.
Journalists say that the expulsion of the foreign media is just the latest difficulty in getting news from within Yugoslavia since the NATO bombing began two nights ago.
Nenad Pejic, director of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service, which broadcasts daily to the region, says that Yugoslavia's telephone system capacity has been overwhelmed by worried callers within the country checking on their relatives and friends, making international calls time-consuming and highly uncertain.
"It is extremely difficult to reach Serbia, extremely. Sometimes you need to call for one, two or three hours. Sometimes you get through within a second but then you consider yourself a happy man. So regarding communications and how to get information from Serbia, it is almost impossible."
Pejic says the news situation is further complicated by a mounting sense of fear among people in Serbia over talking to foreign media. He says one RFE/RL stringer has received menacing calls and that liberal politicians as well as ordinary citizens are increasingly reluctant to be interviewed. Pejic said:
"We are calling ordinary people, asking them what they can see and a lot of them refuse to talk because they are afraid ... Some experts we know also have had to change apartments because they are afraid they will be picked up, either by police or by irregulars."
The mounting atmosphere of fear comes amid reports of apartment searches by police and irregular Serbian forces in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, exclusively targeting ethnic Albanians but raising concerns that the searches could be extended to opposition figures in other cities.
The minister of justice of Montenegro, Dragan Soc, who is opposed to Milosevic's conflict with NATO, said last week that he feared the ruling party in Belgrade will use this opportunity to finish with its enemies. Inside Serbia, news broadcasts are now almost entirely restricted to state television and radio. Pejic says that even Belgarde's well-known independent radio B-92 is now distributing almost the same news carried by the state media. The station went off the air briefly two days ago after police entered its studio in the capital and ordered it to cease broadcasting immediately, but it continues to disseminate news by Internet and e-mail.
The only exceptions to the blanket state control of Yugoslavia's media are in the republic of Montenegro, which has followed an increasingly independent policy from Belgrade in recent years. Pejic says that television stations in Montenegro have been retransmitting CNN and SKY NEWS live in addition to carrying state television broadcasts from Serbia.
Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic has sought to divorce the republic from Belgrade's policy of rejecting the international peace plan for Kosovo and confronting NATO. The republic's moderate government has refused to impose the state of emergency declared by Belgrade earlier this week and said it will take measures to ensure its territory is not used to combat NATO attacks. The republic, however, has been the target of NATO air strikes on Yugoslav military sites there.
The increasing media isolation of Serbia amid the NATO bombings has raised fears that Belgrade will be able to use its control of the media to radicalize public opinion against the West. That could help Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic tighten his hold on power and prolong his confrontation with the major powers over Kosovo.
Pejic says that at the moment it is impossible for journalists to accurately gauge the impact of the bombing so far on ordinary citizens. For that, he says, foreign journalists will either have to wait to get back into Yugoslavia or for the wave of fear in the country to pass and for people to talk freely to reporters.