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Yugoslavia: Independent Media Fighting Back Hard In Serbia

Government harassment of Serbia's independent media has been getting worse over the past year. Just this week, two more news organizations were hit with heavy fines by Yugoslav authorities. Yet as correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports, the pressures have made journalists more determined than ever to report the truth.

Prague, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The crackdown on independent media in Serbia grows more severe every week, but analysts and journalists alike say that the adversity is actually spurring the news media to toughen up.

This week alone, two leading news outlets were slapped with huge fines for violations of a draconian public information law passed in 1998.

On 10 April, a Belgrade independent television station was fined approximately $40,000 in a libel suit brought by Interior Ministry official Dragan Djuric. Djuric charged that Studio B television wrongly reported that he had appeared at the scene of an accident in which four opposition members died. His suit said the news report implied he was involved in the accident.

On 11 April, a leading Belgrade weekly was fined $30,000 in another libel suit. Dragoljub Zarkovic, editor of the opposition weekly "Vreme," says that he was first informed of the court case only the previous night. Less than 24 hours later, a Belgrade court found the magazine guilty of falsely accusing Serbian Culture Minster Zeljko Simic of firing the director of Belgrade's National Theater. (The ruling came on the first anniversary of the unexplained killing of Slavko Curuvija, editor in chief of the independent "Dnevni Telegraf" daily.)

These cases are just the latest in a flood of crackdowns over the past year. Authorities have been quick to level heavy fines on news outlets for breaking the restrictive media law. Often when an agency cannot pay, or refuses to pay, the authorities confiscate broadcast transmitters and computers.

Snjezana Milivojevic is a media analyst who was fired from her teaching position at University of Belgrade last year for writing a thesis on the manipulation of the media. Milivojevic says that getting out the news is not easy in Serbia:

"The pressures are stronger. The situation is much more difficult. It's probably more difficult than ever in the past 10 years, but than on the other hand the independent media also are stronger than ever."

Milivojevic says that the current crackdown on media and the government repression during the NATO bombing last year have not cowed independent journalists. Instead, it has encouraged them to continue the fight for freedom of speech.

"This is the most promising consequence of the past 10 years in the independent media domain. Not only that they individually became stronger. This sense of solidarity and the feeling of this sense of mutually conquered spaces of freedom, that is, I think, very promising."

Milivojevic says that the new solidarity has been especially apparent among broadcasters. She says that stations often share out equipment when others have their transmitters confiscated by the authorities. Milivojevic says that opposition-controlled towns have developed their own news sources.

Journalists need to band together, as their job has grown harder. Radomir Diklic is the director of the independent Beta news agency based in Belgrade. Diklic says that his agency's largest obstacle is gathering information from government organizations that often refuse to comment or release data.

Diklic also says his agency has been threatened and intimidated. He says independent media in Serbia are locked in a war with the authorities:

"It is not our fault the information from this country is so bad and so negative. But the aim of the regime is to paint everything in very nice colors, that we are living in paradise, the best of all is here in Serbia today according to them and their media. And then when they see the information which is in contradiction to that, then of course they are very angry."

Diklic believes that the crackdown will only get more severe as pressure increases on the Yugoslav authorities to hold general elections:

"When I'm saying I am concerned, I think I am talking in the name of all my colleagues in the independent press. Wherever it is, electronic or printed, we are very concerned. We know and we are witnessing every day the growing of the pressure, growing of the repression which is directed towards the media. Of course we are afraid of a possible crackdown against all of us. But we made a choice 10 years ago, and at the beginning we have been only a few of us. Now we are stronger -- and we have no choice. In fact, we must continue."

Diklic says that despite the growing pressures, the Yugoslav authorities will never be able to stamp out independent media in Serbia. He says information will continue to reach the people. With the new drive among independent agencies, the news is more readily available in Serbia than ever before.