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Milosevic Muzzles Yugoslavia's Media; the World Can Help It Speak

Balkans: Nations can contribute cash, training and expansion of Web capacities to keep the press independent.

May 25, 2000|ANNA HUSARSKA | Anna Husarska is the senior political analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an independent watchdog group

MOSCOW — While Russian President Vladimir V. Putin offers precious moral and material support to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic--$32 million worth of oil and a $102-million loan--the notoriously disunited Serbian opposition leaders seem to be implying that they have a special channel to Moscow (where the Yugoslav ambassador is no other than Milosevic's brother, Borislav).

On Friday, Vuk Draskovic, the leader of one of the main opposition parties--the Serbian Renewal Movement--suggested that he and two other opposition leaders may travel together to Moscow to request "Russia's assistance in curbing terror against Serbia's citizens." The Russian Foreign Ministry is denying any knowledge of an invitation extended to the Serbian opposition.

Draskovic is known to have turned his coat so many times that perhaps one should not take his words too seriously. It may be more constructive to concentrate on the "together" aspect of the supposed trip. This is obviously a result of the recent crackdown in Serbia, which so effectively concentrated the minds of the opposition. Indeed, it seems that Milosevic decided to go full steam ahead with eradicating the democratic-minded media.

The takeover last week of Studio B television was the boldest move so far, although it was not surprising. In fact, it is rather logical. Milosevic thrives on conflict and, having lost the last three wars in the former Yugoslavia, he went after the Fourth Estate.

It is also a clear sign that he is afraid or at least disturbed by free media, which is his way of recognizing their importance.

The end result of the crackdowns is that the opposition in Serbia, weak as it may be, is left almost voiceless. This would seem to be the case for the independent television and radio stations--Studio B, Radio B2-92 and Index Radio--raided by police on May 17. Police also padlocked the newsroom of Blic, the most popular independent daily, which was housed in the same building. (Journalists have since been allowed to return.)

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj put it rather bluntly when he expressed his satisfaction that Studio B was taken out of "the hands of a criminal gang," which he claimed "plundered it and provoked terror." He added that "the state has been waiting too long to face this evil. Now there is no more waiting; that evil must be nipped in the bud."

Well, the print, audio and electronic media are well past the bud stage. Serbian journalists are vulnerable but not hopeless. After being shut down, the staff of Blic worked on the premises of two other nongovernment dailies and produced the paper for the next day, in a reduced size and with a reduced print run, but there it was.

As for Radio B2-92, it probably is going to simply speed up its contingency plans. It is worth recalling that the veteran radio station survived an earlier government takeover (when it was called B-92) in the beginning of the NATO action against Yugoslavia. In this case, B2-92 concentrated on its Web site and satellite transmissions.

Repairing the damage done to the coverage by independent-minded television may prove the most difficult. But here the neighboring freer parts of former Yugoslavia can offer a helping hand. Plans were already well-advanced to cover the whole, or almost whole, of Serbia with broadcasts from Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia; the satellite program of Montenegro TV has a special news program employing well-known Serbian anchors.

Serbs protested the attack on their media by staging street protests. They participate in small and dwindling numbers, but in greater numbers than when their president waged three wars in their name against non-Serbs.

Those who protest (and those who think, "Why bother, if nothing will change") need outside support. The international community should spare no effort in helping them with cash and training. This should include backing the nonstate printing facilities, even tiny ones, inside Serbia and outside, expanding the Web and satellite capacities for independent-minded radio and boosting the transmission signal for television broadcasters in Montenegro and Republika Srpska that carry news for Serbian audiences. This aid should be given discreetly, if possible through former East Bloc countries, so as not to put a stigma of collaboration-with-the-enemy on the recipients. The training, too, can be done by the anciens combatants from Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Poland.

This would be a new incarnation of the East European common market, and it also would help prevent more violent forms of know-how--such as terrorism--from creeping in as Serbs are plotting how to get rid of Slobodan and gain "sloboda," which is a long-forgotten word meaning freedom.

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