Serbian police raided the offices of several leading media in Belgrade yesterday, curtailing the news operations of key radio and television stations as well as Yugoslavia's largest privately owned tabloid newspaper. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele says that the actions are among the most serious of Belgrade's recent crackdowns on independent media.
Prague, 18 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday morning, Serbian police stormed the Belgrade studios of the opposition-controlled Studio B radio and television stations. They also raided independent Radio B292, student Radio Index, and the tabloid daily "Blic."
The police actions did not close down the stations. But they severely limited their news broadcasts, forcing Studio B to broadcast news from government radio and mainly news-oriented B292 to replace news with music.
All four media outlets are housed in the same high-rise building, Beogradjanka. Later today, more than 100 opposition supporters blocked traffic in front of the building to protest the pre-dawn police raids.
Serbian Deputy Prime Ministers Vojislav Seselj and Milovan Bojic issued a joint statement saying that the Republic of Serbia has taken control of Studio B. The two officials alleged that the station "frequently called for the toppling of the constitutional order and for rebellion against a legally elected government."
Seselj is a leader of the Serbian Radical Party, while Bojic is a member of the Party of the Yugoslav Left, which is led by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic.
Studio B director Dragan Kojadinovic describes the crackdown as amounting to a state of emergency:
"[It is] state-organized robbery, without any legal basis. With no justification, they burst into Studio B. They took over all our premises. A few hundred plainclothes policemen -- security people -- were at the scene. They brought literally busloads of police, who entered the building and broke into our offices, and practically took over Studio B."
Kojadinovic also says that after occupying Studio B's Belgrade offices at 2 am, police then seized the station's branch office -- together with its transmitters -- in the town of Mladenovac, south of the capital.
Opposition Social Democratic party leader Vuk Obradovic called the raids "a declaration of war on the democratic opposition and all of democratic Serbia." In an interview with the private Beta news agency, Obradovic warned that unless the opposition reacts energetically "the whole of Serbia will be arrested tonight."
Studio B belongs to the Belgrade municipal government, which in turn is controlled by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement. It is the main media outlet for the movement's leader, Vuk Draskovic, and has a strong signal that reaches half of Serbia. After an emergency session of the city council this morning, Belgrade municipal government spokesman Aleksandar Cotric said that street protests will be called -- as he put it -- for "all citizens of Belgrade to come to defend their radio and television." Draskovic, who is reported to be in Montenegro, has not yet commented publicly. But an adviser, Ognjen Pribicevic, says the crackdown is "a new means of state terrorism" and will have unforeseen political consequences.
Radio B292 is funded by George Soros's Open Society foundation and other private contributors. B292 General Manager Veran Matic, speaking today to RFE/RL, warned that this latest crackdown on the media would have long-term consequences:
"This is a complete prohibition of elementary freedom of speech today in Serbia. These media outlets were, after all, the heart of our information sphere in Serbia today. The media landscape in Serbia will be permanently fragmented and damaged in the future if we don't start working again the same way as we did before."
The tabloid "Blic" has a circulation of 200,000. Today's raid came one day after the state-owned company that had been printing the full-color daily announced it would cease to do so until the paper changes its editorial policy.
Serbia's opposition media have been targeted in a series of shutdowns over the past 20 months for alleged anti-government bias and unpaid fines. B292, for example, has been shut down three times, most recently during the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia last year.
Today's raids coincide with government moves against the opposition following the murder in Novi Sad last Saturday of the head of the provincial government in Vojvodina, Bosko Perosevic. Serbian authorities were quick to accuse the murderer of having ties both with the student opposition movement Otpor and with Draskovic's party.
In the past few days, police have detained Otpor members and other opposition activists in Novi Sad and elsewhere. Serbia's information minister has warned that anyone participating in street protests will face arrest. As a result, only 20,000 people showed up Monday for a scheduled anti-regime protest that had been expected to attract some 100,000 protesters.
Even before the Novi Sad murder, Serbian authorities were actively harassing reporters. On a single day (May 9) last week, police detained 29 journalists.
Opposition parties in Belgrade remain largely divided, and public frustration with the inability of mass protests to induce change has bread apathy. As a result, the independent news media have become perhaps the most potent opposition force in Serbia -- and the Milosevic regime's prime target in its effort to stay in power.