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Balkan Report: March 16, 2000

16 March 2000, Volume 4, Number 20

Milosevic Cracks Down On The Media--Again. Once again the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities are using flimsy charges to take independent and private media off the air and muzzle the independent press. Opposition leaders suspect that this is part of the run-up to the elections widely expected later this year, or possibly in preparation for a conflict in southwestern Serbia or Montenegro.

In an apparent effort to set the ideological tone for the impending crackdown, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, who is also the chairman of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, said on 10 February that independent journalists "working for the Americans" will suffer "the worst possible consequences," the radio station B2-92 reported. Seselj also said in an interview that journalists "working for foreign intelligence services are murderers." He added that "whoever lives by the sword can die by the sword and you should keep this in mind." Seselj named the Belgrade dailies "Danas," "Blic," "Glas javnosti," "Vecernje Novosti," and B2-92, as the media organizations he was referring to (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 February 2000).

Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic then said in Belgrade on 13 February that unnamed independent media and NGOs receive financial support "from the same aggressors who bombed us" during the 1999 Kosova conflict. He drew attention to Seselj's remarks.

In Vienna, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights called on the Serbian public prosecutor's office to "take legal action" against Seselj. The Vienna-based NGO's statement stressed that Seselj had "threatened" civil society in Serbia in particular when he warned several independent media and NGOs that "you can't really think that you will survive our possible liquidation."

Then as though to say "enough is enough," representatives of Serbia's leading independent and private media announced in Belgrade on 14 February that they will no longer report remarks by Seselj and officials of his party.

But the regime's crackdown on the media has continued unabated. Already in January, government officials tried physically to prevent the printing and distribution of "Glas javnosti." That paper subsequently suffered further harassment by regime officials aimed at preventing it from appearing.

On 26 February, the Belgrade city magistrate fined "Vecernje Novosti" some $4,500 for violating the draconian Information Act, which dates from the fall of 1998 and was inspired by Seselj's Radicals. The regime frequently hits media that it finds uncomfortable with steep fines aimed at eventually bankrupting those media outlets. (This was a favorite tactic of the late President Franjo Tudjman in Croatia as well.)

Then the government said in a statement on 2 March that it has decided to "merge 'Vecernje Novosti' into the Federal Public Institution Borba after being informed that the state is the majority owner" in "Vecernje Novosti." Pero Simic, who is the mass-circulation daily's editor, said in a letter to readers that as late as August 1999 a Belgrade court ruled that the paper is 76 percent privately owned. He described as "slavery" the merger into a paper with a circulation 25 times lower than his own. Simic recently introduced an editorial policy that is more independent of the government than had previously been the case.

The ideological nature of the regime's move against "Novosti" is clear. "Borba" is the mouthpiece of the hard-line United Yugoslav Left (JUL) of Mira Markovic, who is Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's wife. The tiny but feisty party is widely regarded as a collection of old political dinosaurs. Its adherents include many past and present military commanders.

But the regime's main assault was directed against the electronic media, from which most people get their news. Opposition leaders condemned as "state terrorism" a raid on the transmitter site of the television station Studio B on 6 March. The station is run by Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). Dragan Kojadinovic, who is the editor-in-chief of the station, said five people in police fatigues beat up two workers and then destroyed equipment at the main transmitter site. He said the repression "has now taken on the form of a real war against Studio B."

Later that same day, a Belgrade court fined Studio B and Kojadinovic 450,000 dinars (about $11,000 at the black market rate) for violating the Information Act during a live broadcast. Studio B was also ordered by Yugoslavia's Telecommunications Ministry to pay some $900,000 in outstanding licensing costs in eight days or face closure.

On 13 March, spokesmen for several opposition parties called on citizens of Belgrade to rally in front of the city hall if the authorities try to shut down Studio B. The spokesmen stressed that they expect the government's recent crackdown on the independent and private media to continue. But Predrag Markovic, who is a spokesman for the G-17 group of independent economists, said that his group has unspecified information that opposition leaders will "hand the station over to the regime in order to protect their own fundamental interests," "Vesti" reported.

In any event, the SPO-run Belgrade city government paid the bill on 14 March in order to enable the station to remain on the air. But the OSCE said already on 7 March that the various actions against Studio-B seem to be politically motivated and could have been prompted by programs critical of Yugoslav officials.

And the Belgrade authorities have taken their crusade to Montenegro as well. They set up a television station in the north of the mountainous republic with the help of the Yugoslav army. The station is under the control of JUL and its Montenegrin backers. Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Dragisa Burzan said that the new station is aimed at polarizing society in the runup to local elections, "Danas" reported on 22 February. Burzan stressed that the setting up of the television station is part of a larger campaign against Podgorica by Belgrade, in which economic measures also play a part.

Meanwhile in Serbia, Yugoslav Telecommunications Ministry officials closed down and sealed off the offices of the independent Boom 93 radio station on 8 March. Boom 93's owner and editor, Milorad Tomic, said the officials arrived at the Pozarevac headquarters and told the staff it must stop broadcasting. Tomic was told that the station's application for a frequency was being refused because Boom 93 "failed to satisfy the required demands." Pozarevac is the hometown of Milosevic and the center of his family's business empire. Tomic said the closure is the latest in a line of events aimed at "silencing free media in Serbia."

In yet another assault on the unmuzzled media, officials from the Yugoslav Telecommunications Ministry closed the Nemanja Television and Tir radio stations on 9 March. Owner Radisa Milosavljevic said ministry officials "took away all the equipment--transmitters, radio links, and a radio transmitter." Milosavljevic added that he was told his broadcasting license was not in order. The station has been operating since 1995 and had up to one million viewers, he said.

Finally, the private Beta news agency reported that Yugoslav army authorities in Nis ordered the staff of the independent TV 5 station to evacuate their premises by 24 April. The army officials said in a letter that they want to use the "unprofitable space" for living quarters.

This account is far from complete. There have been numerous incidents of harassment of local broadcasters and of aggressive press statements by JUL or regime officials. What is clear is that the regime means business--and that the independent and private media will need all the support they can get. (Patrick Moore and Pete Baumgartner)

OSCE Says Milosevic Subverting Bosnian Serb Media. The OSCE's Robert Barry said in a statement in Sarajevo on 2 March that "recent events in Banja Luka indicate that the government in Belgrade is not content with its clearly announced terrorist campaign against Serbia's independent media. It now feels it must move against the independent media in the [Republika Srpska] as well. The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina will not be subject to the whims of another government. I believe they've had enough of meddling politics."

He was referring to a recent Bosnian Serb court inquiry at the request of a Serbian court against two journalists from the independent weekly "Reporter." The journalists had published a photo of Milosevic wearing a hat favored by the royalist Serbian Chetniks of World War II. In October 1999, a Serbian court indicted the two for harming the "reputation of Yugoslavia." (Patrick Moore)

Western Envoys Criticize Izetbegovic For 'Inflammatory' Remarks. The Muslim chairman of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, was criticized on 7 March by Western officials for using "highly inflammatory language" at an election rally recently. Wolfgang Petritsch, the international community's high representative, and Robert Barry, the head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia, said in a joint statement that "the liberty to campaign is not the same as a license to slander."

Izetbegovic reportedly said at a Sarajevo campaign rally on 3 March that the "real enemies" of his Party for Democratic Action (SDA) were "Cetniks and Ustase," the pejorative terms for the Serbian and Croatian nationalist fighters during World War II. Zivko Radisic, the Serbian member of the Bosnian joint presidency, said the use of such terms was damaging for the country's peace process. (Pete Baumgartner)

Albright Plays Down Multiethnicity For Kosova. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Washington on 2 March that the key principle that must be applied in Kosova is "respect for minority rights." She added that "the word 'multiethnic' is harder to talk about for [Kosova] because the Serbs are really a minority there, so it is a matter of respect for minority rights."

Her statement marks a departure from the practice of most Western leaders to stress that their goal is to restore a "multiethnic society" to the province. Ethnic Albanians make up approximately 90 percent of Kosova's population. Other minorities include Roma, Bosnian Muslims, Turks, Montenegrins, and the Gorani. The latter are a Slavic Muslim people unique to the region whose culture shows heavy Albanian, Macedonian, and Serbian influence. (Patrick Moore)

Quotations Of The Week. "There is no more UCK. As you know, I was one of the UCK commanders. My impression is that the problem of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac and the appearance of uniformed people has been exaggerated in the media." -- Hashim Thaci, who is the former leader of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) and now head of the Party for Democratic Progress, to Reuters on 2 March (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 February 2000).

"We and the international community are observing the situation in order to solve the problems in accordance with the rights of the citizens who are living there to overcome armed confrontations which are dangerous for the region." -- Thaci again.

"I am afraid this is not going to turn out well." -- Elderly Serb villager, who would only give his first name, Marko. Quoted by AP on 12 March in southwest Serbia.

"I have always considered [Croatian General] Tihomir Blaskic an innocent man. This is a terrible punishment which brings into question the credibility of the Hague tribunal." -- Croatian Social Liberal leader Drazen Budisa, after the Hague court sentenced Blaskic to 45 years in prison for war crimes. Quoted by Reuters on 3 March.

"This [negative] talk [about Czech troops in the Balkans] is nonsensical because everywhere Czech soldiers have been so far they were always among the best, maybe also because they are not pampered children and are capable of arranging all things by themselves." -- UN Balkan envoy and former Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, in Prishtina on 14 March. Quoted by CTK.