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Yugoslavia: OSCE Assisting In Restructuring Serbian Broadcaster RTS

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is helping Serbia transform state-owned Radio Television Serbia (RTS) into an independent public broadcaster. Under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, RTS was a bloated instrument largely issuing government propaganda. The head of the OSCE's Belgrade mission, Stefano Sannino, says the media company's 7,000 employees grew accustomed to working in such a biased environment. In this report, RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill speaks with the OSCE and local media experts to see what is changing.

Prague, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After the fall of President Milosevic's government in Yugoslavia in October 2000, RTS found itself swamped by international offers of assistance.

Its new Board of Governors turned to the OSCE to coordinate foreign assistance to help the broadcaster restructure from a state-controlled entity into an independent one.

Ambassador Stefano Sannino, the OSCE's head of mission in Belgrade, says the job is turning out to have some unanticipated difficulties.

Sannino says the staff had grown accustomed to working as propagandists for the Milosevic government. He also says that with 7,000 employees, the broadcaster is overstaffed, but that the country's labor law inhibits reductions in force. He adds the organization was on the brink of bankruptcy and still struggles with obsolete and inadequate equipment.

The OSCE, as one of its first steps, has hired the international accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen to conduct a financial and performance audit.

Sannino's spokesperson in Serbia, Stella Ronner, says: "At this point, the internal audit is being carried out by the Andersen company. The audit was started a couple of weeks ago, and it is due to be finalized [this] summer."

In addition to a financial audit, Andersen will make recommendations on whether RTS should be privatized into a corporation or maintained as a state-owned entity. The auditors will also recommend how to pare the broadcaster's staff to a workable size and how to finance the purchase of new equipment and technology.

"The main thing is [for Andersen] to come up with a structure that is the best for a renewed and reformed RTS," Ronner says.

RTS began major reforms in the summer of 2001 when the Serbian government appointed members of a new Board of Governors, many of whom were professionals in culture and the arts. The board appointed veteran television journalist Aleksander Crkvenjakov as general director. He named Bojana Lekic as editor in chief.

The broadcaster immediately set out on a path of controversial programming. It broadcast an explosive BBC feature on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre committed by Bosnian Serbs. It reported on the excavation of mass graves in Serbia, showing evidence of Serb murders of Kosovar Albanians. It is also covering live the war crimes trial of Milosevic before the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The broadcaster also is devoting programs to the problems of minorities, AIDS victims, alcoholics, and drug addicts.

Ljubica Markovic is the director and a founder of the independent Serbian news service BETA and a leading Balkan journalist. She says RTS has changed dramatically and for the better. Its daily TV newscast, she says, lacks resources and sometimes is amateurish but strives for comprehensiveness and unbiased reporting. Markovic says editor in chief Lekic is a first-rate reporter.

"She's a very good journalist. She usually knows how to pose tough questions. And this image she has conserved up until today," Markovic says.

Markovic says she fears, however, that RTS remains vulnerable to political influence because some of the members of its board represent political factions.

"The problem with RTS is that they have not yet become [true] public television. It's a big problem. Their managing board still is not composed of enough independent personalities," Markovic says.

Important in the restructuring effort will be a new law on broadcasting that Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac is shepherding through the legislative process. The draft law has encountered a number of delays, but OSCE spokeswoman Ronner says the organization is optimistic.

"The position of the OSCE is that we hope that the draft law as it stands now will be adopted without substantial or essential changes to the draft, as it looks right now," Ronner says.

The bill would establish the nation's broadcast policies and presumably set guidelines for the board. The Council of Europe, the OSCE, and various private press watchdog agencies typically study new press and broadcast laws for signs of overly restrictive regulation.

Serbia's broadcast law has been circulating in draft for a number of months but still has not formally entered the legislative process.