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Balkan Report: October 28, 1998

28 October 1998, Volume 2, Number 42

Serbia Throttles Free Media. Serbian government officials raided the offices of the Belgrade independent daily "Dnevni Telegraf" during the night of October 25-26 and confiscated equipment. On October 24, government officials imposed a fine of $230,000 on the weekly "Evropljanin" (The European). Editor in chief Slavko Curuvija, who heads both publications, said that he does not have the money and would not pay if he did. Curuvija is the first person to be charged with violating the new law regulating the independent media, which expands on an earlier decree that the authorities used to shut down several independent dailies and broadcasters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 1998). Spokesmen for the independent media said that the authorities are also planning to ban those media from posting on the Internet. Surviving independent daily "Blic" wrote on October 26 that, for the authorities, "truth has become the enemy."

Meanwhile in Opatija, some 60 members of the Croatian Journalists' Society signed a declaration in support of their Serbian colleagues, "Vjesnik" reported on October 26. In Podgorica, the government announced the previous day that it will begin repairing three key mountain radio and television transmitters so that the broadcasts of Montenegrin Radio and Television can be heard throughout the country. A spokesman added that "good audibility [of those programs] represents a strategic interest for Montenegro," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. At present, some regions in northern Montenegro cannot receive signals from Podgorica and rely on Serbian broadcasts instead.

Vucic Defends His Law. Serbian minister of information, Aleksandar Vucic, defended the new media law. It not only allows the authorities to close down periodicals and broadcasters that the ruling elite does not like -- it also bans the rebroadcast of foreign programs in Serbo-Croatian, including those of RFE/RL.

Vucic is quoted and paraphrased by the ministry's own newsletter on October 20: "'The right of every citizen to be freely, objectively and fully informed, his right to take part in the process of informing is a democratic achievement that a few countries in the world can claim as ours can...Pressed by ultimatums, blackmailing, threats of some Western countries, our country is obliged to protect its integrity, but although the conditions are hard, we must advance and develop human rights and freedom, including the right of the public to be informed."

Within this context, Vucic also said that in the modern era of satellites, computers and high technology, information is essential for the democratic prosperity of any nation, while information as a psychological and propaganda weapon could be misused against those who do not have the technical and material capabilities to resist them. "The law is very liberal on the conveying and distribution of information, but stern against those who endanger the basic postulates of public information, Vucic said. He added that, according to the new law, "public information is free and censorship banned."

Turning to the question of rebroadcasting foreign programs, Vucic argued that the government seeks "to protect itself from the programs broadcast by some countries' governments that are intent on realizing their political interests on our country's territory. Our country accepts such programs only if the principle of reciprocation and equality is applied." He added that "in American electronic media there is only two percent of foreign programs, and in the Western Countries (sic.), six to eight. In our country, the percent exceeds 30." He did not elaborate or give a source for his information.

And last but not least: "The minister of information emphasized that in the preparation of this law the experience in public information of the European countries with a long tradition in this area was used."

Later that week, the same newsletter quoted Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, who "said that the Law does not allow censorship, it enables full freedom of writing, takes care of the personal rights but is rigorous when lies are in question. Second-rate journalists think that professional success is based on rich imagination," said Seselj.

An Example of "Anti-Patriotic Writing." And how does one run afoul of such legislation? Part of the reason the "Evropljanin" of October 19 quickly landed in trouble with the Ministry -- and was hit with the $230,000 fine -- was because it published an open letter to President Slobodan Milosevic that included the following passages:

"Everything that the Serbs created in this century has been extensively depleted: state and national boundaries; the status of an ally in two world wars; national dignity; membership in all international institutions; the European identity of Serbs has been eroded; Serbs withdrew from their ethnic territories in Croatia and parts of Bosnia; the nation has developed a complex of being an aggressor, genocidal, vanquished and a keeper of the last frontiers of European communism...

"Under cover of transition, which is nothing but a different name for robbery, you impoverished the middle class, allowing at the same time for a new economic and political elite to emerge. Currently there are around two million unemployed, while more than a hundred thousand young and educated people left the country, fleeing from war, the draft, or because there was no future for them in this country...

"Nowhere in today's Europe are crime and authorities wedded in such a harmonious matrimony like here in Serbia. You are the only statesman who has hosted three men who were later killed in street showdowns. You destroyed the spirit of tolerance by instigating artificial conflicts...No European statesman of socialist provenance has chosen a radical rightist [i.e. Seselj] as a coalition partner..."

The journalists closed their letter with a 13-point program, which includes holding free and fair elections, ending persecution of the media, launching an open privatization process, making peace with the Montenegrin leadership, restoring interethnic tolerance, combating organized crime, and returning Yugoslavia to international institutions.

Why Did the Bosnian Police Hold RFE/RL Journalist? Bosnian police released Nikola Gurovic from custody in Sarajevo on October 23. They arrested him the previous day when he arrived at Sarajevo airport. They charged him with staying abroad while on a business trip during the 1992-1995 war without repaying his travel advance to his employer at that time, namely Radio-Television Sarajevo. RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported that many citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina took advantage of wartime business trips to stay abroad, but police did not arrest them on their return after the war ended. The question remains why they arrested Gurovic but not others, the broadcast added.

The next day, an RFE/RL spokesman said in Sarajevo that the incident was an attempt to put pressure on journalists. It might have also been a bureaucratic snafu, or that someone wanted to dissuade Gurovic from returning to Sarajevo to claim his apartment. Or perhaps someone wanted to make the point that Sarajevo has become a Muslim town and that Gurovic, as a Serb, is not welcome.

Quote of the Week. Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, speaking on Russian Television (ORT) on October 24, noted that Russia's position on Kosova "annoys [Western powers] most of all." He added: "Let them get irritated. Russia is a great power."