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Serbia-Montenegro: Serbian Media Restricting RFE, VOA, BBC Broadcasts Under State Of Emergency

By Dragan Stavljanin and Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Serbia are calling on the domestic news media to behave "responsibly" under the state of emergency imposed after this week's (12 March) assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac met with editors in chief this week and asked them to exert caution in their coverage, to take full responsibility for their output, and not to report rumors or analysis based on rumors -- for as long as the state of emergency is in effect.

For hours on the day of the assassination, domestic news outlets were forced to rely on foreign media reports for news of Djindjic's death. State television RTS and even the private Beta news agency were unable to get official word about Djindjic's death for more than 2 hours and were merely quoting Western news agencies or rebroadcasting Western satellite news broadcasts.

The authorities have yet to impose specific legal measures restricting civil rights, which they are allowed to do under a state of emergency. Acting President Natasa Micic has said the state of emergency will remain in effect until those who were behind Djindjic's murder are caught and brought to justice.

Asked by Serbian reporters working for foreign news organizations whether these recommendations would affect them, Korac noted that the authorities have no direct control and thus cannot influence what is being reported, nor exert any influence on them. No questions or answers dealt with rebroadcasting of Serb-language programming.

The Belgrade-based radio station Studio B, which is under the auspices of the municipal assembly and can be heard across half of Serbia, yesterday stopped rebroadcasts of Serbian programs on FM by RFE/RL and the Voice of America (VOA) on both television and radio.

RFE/RL has more than 50 affiliates in Serbia, the densest network of any of its broadcast regions.

Studio B management explained its decision as being an inevitable consequence of what it termed the government's "decision and recommendation."

However, Slobodan Orlic, the outgoing federal (Yugoslav) minister for information and a member of the leadership of Serbia's ruling DOS coalition, today told RFE/RL that the Serbian government had made no such decision to stop rebroadcasts.

Orlic says the only limitation is the official interpretation of that part of the declaration of the state of emergency dealing with the media -- that is, to avoid disseminating information not backed by proven facts and to desist from analysis based on rumors, or sensationalism aimed at questioning the state of emergency or anything that could hinder the investigation into Djindjic's assassination.

Studio B management's decision to cut off rebroadcasts of RFE/RL and VOA is thus based on the assumption that it could be held responsible for some inappropriate programming over which it has no direct control.

One private radio station in Serbia's northern Vojvodina Province, Radio 021, based in Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad, has also halted rebroadcasts of RFE/RL's main Serbian-language news program at midnight and the BBC's morning show in Serbian. Radio 021's editor in chief justified this move with similar arguments to those of Studio B management. Other affiliates in Serbia are believed to be rebroadcasting RFE/RL programs as normal so far.

Broadcasts by CNN and other television news channels transmitted via satellite in major languages have not been affected.