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Yugoslavia: Serbian Media Seen Biased Toward Opposition

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic strictly controlled Serbia's state-run media during a decade of his rule. But the tables have turned since Milosevic's ouster last month. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at why state broadcasting in Serbia is now under the control of those who oppose Milosevic.

Prague, 28 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A deal between Serbian opposition leaders and allies of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to jointly oversee state-run broadcast media appears to be on hold for now -- leaving managers from the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, known as DOS, in control of state-owned Radio-Television Serbia.

When members of the opposition and officials of Milosevic's Socialist Party decided last month to form a temporary government for Serbia until elections could be held in December, they agreed to set up a joint steering committee for overseeing the news content of state broadcasting.

But after five weeks -- more than half of the expected life span of the transitional government -- that committee has yet to be approved by DOS.

The effect has been to leave DOS-affiliated station managers in control of the state broadcasters. And so far, these managers have shown a strong bias in favoring candidates from DOS over candidates from other parties that are competing in Serbia's 23 December parliamentary elections.

The status of the steering committee is not clear and it's not known whether the committee will ever be approved.

Milomir Minic, the Socialist prime minister in the temporary government, said last week that a broadcast committee had been formed. He said the three parties that share power in the government, including the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, would each have representatives on the board. He said all news items would be reviewed and approved by the board before being broadcast.

In announcing the committee, Minic said:

"I think today we have all conditions for our state television to play a very important role as an objective source of information for our citizens on political and economic life in our country. That's the first dimension. And I also think that with today's decision by the Serbian government, all conditions are on the table for state television to play a role in the next election."

But Minic's comments were immediately denied by Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, the cabinet's chief representative from DOS. Covic said the committee should be staffed by working journalists and not political appointees:

"There was not any voting on this at the Serbian government meeting, and I'm not going to argue about this at all. If perhaps we are not right, let the Socialist Party of Milosevic have a taste of how it was before when they were in control of state media. I'm not going to sign the Socialist plan for a broadcast committee. I'm not even going to have any arguments with Minic over this."

Covic's refusal to approve the plan leaves pro-DOS managers at RTS in control of broadcasts for now, and ensures that DOS candidates will likely continue to receive more exposure ahead of the vote than candidates of other parties.

RTS acting director Nenad Ristic says Covic is right to veto a politically appointed editorial board.

"I think the decision to have a three-member council, where each of the members has a veto right on news items, will be the death of state television. Under that plan, when we start to deal with one news story, three of us should work with it -- and who knows how long that process will last? When will anything ever be broadcast? It's absurd. If anyone can show me some place, some newspaper or any media organ in history where such a structure has existed, then I will accept this plan immediately."

Ristic defends the disproportionate television and radio coverage that DOS has received since the October uprising. He says the Milosevic regime was given too much air time during the last 10 years and that the new policies of RTS are: "a settling of accounts."

During the early 1990s, any journalist at RTS who refused to follow a pro-Milosevic editorial policy was sacked. Under these conditions, RTS became an important pillar of the Milosevic regime.

But that all changed on 5 October when hundreds of angry demonstrators stormed the RTS building in Belgrade.

Dragoljub Milanovic, the director general of RTS during the Milosevic regime, was beaten by the crowd. Other editors fled and DOS named temporary editors from among its supporters.

Some former journalists have been allowed to stay, but hope seems greatly diminished that Milosevic's ouster will result in a more objective state media and give all candidates equal treatment ahead of the vote.

Some even see a parallel with Russia's situation in 1996, when guidelines giving opposing sides equal time in the media were abandoned by many broadcasters to ensure the re-election of President Boris Yeltsin.

The opposition also appears to be using an RTS rule to bar Socialist party ads from the airwaves. According to the rule by pro-DOS media officials, no party should be allowed access to the airwaves until it first pays off its debts from the September's presidential election campaign. In practical terms, the only debtors are the Socialist Party and their allies -- who together owe an estimated $50,000.