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Milosevic Turns His Aim on Journalists

Kosovo: Any settlement must include guarantees of free expression.

October 28, 1998|ANN K. COOPER | Ann K. Cooper is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York

With one hand extended to the West, Slobodan Milosevic has promised to end his crackdown on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. But while the West warily accepted the promise, the Serb leader tightened his other hand into a menacing fist and aimed it at another target: independent journalists based in the Serbian capital of Belgrade who dare oppose the nationalist line of the Serbian state. If Western powers allow Milosevic to censor and silence independent journalists, one of the few, fragile hopes for democratic reform in Yugoslavia will die.

Throughout the Kosovo conflict, journalists have been squeezed between the warring factions. Just last week, two Serbian journalists disappeared on a reporting trip in southwestern Kosovo; colleagues fear they were kidnapped by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

But most attacks on the media have come from the Serb side. And none has been more ominous than the crackdown that began this month, as the Serb government weighed concessions aimed at averting air strikes by the NATO alliance.

Using the NATO threat as its excuse, the government issued a decree on "Special Measures in Circumstances of NATO's Threats With Military Attacks Against Our Country." It banned any coverage deemed "unpatriotic" and forbade reporting that, in the government's view, foments "defeatism, panic and fear." It also allowed the Serbian Information Ministry to close news media after a single warning, a job the ministry took on enthusiastically. So far, it's pulled the plug on two radio broadcasters and shut down three independent Belgrade papers: Danas, Dnevni Telegraf and Nasa Borba.

In its complaint against Danas, the ministry noted the reprinting of articles from the Washington Post and the German newspaper Die Welt. Foreign views are unwelcome on the airwaves as well; the decree banned rebroadcasting of programs from the British Broadcasting Corp., Deutsche Welle, Radio France International, Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.

That rule was aimed at a 50-station network of radio and television outlets headed by Radio B-92, whose broadcasts are a vital alternative to nationalistic, state-run Serb radio and television. The independents reach 80% of Serbia's population. Perhaps it was the size of the audience that prompted the Serb government to solidify the foreign programming ban by converting it from a "special measure" decree to a permanent law.

To accompany the censorship, the government has launched a barrage of attacks on dissenting media, accusing them of espionage and high treason, threatening them with arrest and even warning that independent journalists would make convenient hostages should NATO eventually order air strikes against the Milosevic regime. That theme, that the media are enemies, is trumpeted on state television, in accusations against the "more than 400 foreign spies pretending to be journalists and reporters."

U.S. officials say they have condemned the crackdown in private sessions with Milosevic. But without more public denunciations from the same governments that welcome the Kosovo settlement, the long-term struggle for democracy and free expression in Serbia may be dealt a fatal blow. If the U.S. and Western governments ever want to see an alternative to Milosevic, they must speak out now, loudly and clearly, against the censorship and threats of the Serbian government. And they must make clear that any resolution of the Kosovo crisis has to include guarantees of freedom of expression for Yugoslavia's media.

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