In the latest attack against Belgrade's independent Studio-B television, five masked men in police uniforms yesterday (Monday) sabotaged the station's transmission facilities. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines Belgrade's increasing efforts to silence Serbia's independent electronic media.
Prague, 7 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Belgrade's political opposition is warning that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is trying to shut down independent broadcasters across Serbia.
The warnings follow a violent attack Monday on the transmitter of Belgrade's largest independent television station -- Studio-B -- by a group of men wearing masks and Interior Ministry police uniforms. A security guard and a Studio-B technician were seriously injured in the attack, and broadcasts were interrupted for several hours.
The Belgrade-based Association of Independent Electronic Media, known as ANEM, blames the attack on the Yugoslav government. ANEM says it is the first time since NATO air strikes last year that "blood has been spilled" because of Belgrade's repression of media.
Milorad Savicevic, deputy chief of the opposition Demo-Christian Party of Serbia, says the incident shows that Milosevic is determined to clamp down on independent media ahead of local and federal elections scheduled for later this year.
"It's clear that it is now the time for [a crackdown] against the electronic media. Until now, [Milosevic's government] has interpreted [last year's information] law as only pertaining to printed media. [But now] a dark cloud is moving over all the independent electronic media -- especially members of ANEM and others."
Belgrade's efforts to censor independent journalists have so far been based on a three-pronged strategy. Last year's restrictive information law gave authorities the legal power to silence press criticisms of Milosevic. Opposition transmissions have been jammed by the Milosevic regime for months. And recently, economic pressure increasingly has been employed as a tool of censorship -- including excessive taxes and licensing fees.
After Monday's attack, a Belgrade magistrate fined Studio-B about $10,000 for breaching the information law in a statement made during a live broadcast. Also yesterday, the Yugoslav minister of telecommunications threatened legal action against Studio-B if the station fails to pay $850,000 in licensing fees by next Tuesday (13 March).
Studio-B's editor-in-chief, Dragan Kojadinovic, says his station does not recognize the debt. He predicts that Belgrade's next step will be the closing of Studio-B's television and radio channels. Kojadinovic also alleges that yesterday's attack on the transmitter was the result of direct orders from the Milosevic government:
"It's obvious that one of the attackers was very well informed about the arrangement of the rooms and also the technical equipment. [After beating the security guard,] when they entered the transmitter room, they were surprised to find another man -- our technician -- and they started to beat him. Then they tied their hands and covered their heads with blankets so that they couldn't see what happened next [or recognize] who was the technical expert and who was disassembling the equipment."
Kojadinovic noted that the attackers only damaged and stole equipment used for broadcasts by opposition media. The attackers left intact all of the equipment used by pro-Milosevic state media.
Mirko Slavkovic, the Studio-B technician who sustained severe head injuries in the attack, told RFE/RL that he thinks the assailants were agents of the Yugoslav government:
"It all happened very quickly and it was very professionally done. It appeared that these men had been trained for something like this. So, they could be either ex-police, or active police, or simply people trained for such operations."
The Yugoslav Interior Ministry has denied that any of its officers were involved. The ministry says Studio-B chief Kojadinovic has fabricated a "malicious lie." The ministry has launched an investigation.
Studio-B is owned by the Belgrade city council and controlled by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement led by Vuk Draskovic. The attack temporarily halted broadcasts to some 400,000 television viewers and 1 million radio listeners. Also cut off the air was another independent Belgrade broadcaster, B2-92 radio.
The incident has succeeded -- at least for now -- in bringing together members of Serbia's fragmented opposition. Draskovic's key opposition rival, Zoran Djindjic, appeared at a meeting with other opposition leaders at Studio-B headquarters Monday night. His presence was a rare conciliatory gesture emphasizing the concern that opposition parties share over the attack.