Lock on the media, truncheon for the citizens

Branka Kaljevic

SAT, 20 MAY 2000

Belgrade - The epilogue of the last night's second in a row of mass protests of Belgraders provoked by shutting down of non-governmental media in front of the City Hall in the centre of the city ended with a brutal intervention of the police and teargas thrown on the gathered citizens. The exact number of the injured is unknown, but for almost an hour ambulances dashed around the city with their sirens on.

Since in the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, police broke into Belgrade Palace and shut down city Television Studio B, radio B2-92, Radio Index and locked up the premises of Blic daily, it is very difficult to get any information about what has been happening in Belgrade streets in the past three days. Information are passed by word of mouth and the remaining non-governmental dailies Glas and Danas were sold out yesterday early in the morning.

There is for a long time already plenty of wrath, discontent, fear and uncertainty in Serbia, but the hasty decision of the government of Serbia that the Republic take over city TV Studio B accusing it that it had roused rebellion and terrorism against Serbian regime brought the country to the verge of civil war. Radio B2-92 and Index, the most popular and the only non-governmental radio stations in Belgrade, were shut down without any decision and explanation. The employees of the daily with the highest circulation, Blic, could not enter their premises. Just a day before, the printing works of Borba refused to continue printing it, because it did not agree with the editorial policy of this newspaper. According to the latest unconfirmed information, the editorial team of Blic was allowed to return to its premises in Belgrade palace. In just a few hours the citizens of Serbia and whole of Serbia were literally left without any information.

All they have at their disposal is state TV Serbia which kept repeating that whole morning the curt information about taking over of city TV, while information about beating up of citizens in the streets of Belgrade and explosion of the so-called shock bombs were presented as conflicts of hooligans who broke shop windows and overturned rubish containers with the police. The interpretation of state TV about fans of the Red Star football club who were the first to clash with the police cordons on their return from the game, because the police would not permit them to join the citizens who were protesting around the city hall was that they were in fact "manipulated by supporters of the opposition". Not a word was said about beating up of citizens and reasons for the protest.

Belgrade was literally panic stricken, news were conveyed only by word of mouth, e-mail and tedious attempts to get through to foreign radio stations whose signals are getting weaker and weaker over Serbia. It is almost surprising how Belgraders in such a large number gathered in front of the city hall for the first public reading of the news of banned stations from the balcony of this building.

The opposition called the citizens to disobedience, blockade of roads, street walks, strikes, in order to show the regime that they disagree with its actions and in order to defend the remaining independent media. To the latest retaliation against independent media reactions followed of all opposition parties, non-governmental parties, Independent Union of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS), Group G17 formed by respectable economists, Independence trade union, and they all assessed this move as "an introduction to state of emergency in the country" and the "beginning of open dictatorship".

The appeal to the world and domestic public was also addressed by the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) calling all "democratic forces of Serbia to definitely unite in defence of fundamental freedoms - freedom of speech and freedom of information...". The latest move of the government left another two hundred journalists without their jobs. Yesterday Vojislav Seselj, deputy of the government of Serbia with whose signature on the decision along with that of the other deputy Milovan Bojic, Studio B was put under control of the Republican administration, announced new possible showdown with independent media, mentioning Glas, Blic, Danas and ANEM.

The Belgrade operation of silencing media spread to independent media in other parts of the Republic: TV Mladenovac (part of Belgrade Studio B) was shut down, as well as TV Lav from Vrsac, while Radio Pancevo which is incessantly guarded by the citizens, was deprived of its transmitter. To some media electric power supply was cut, and use of mobile phones is increasingly aggravated.

Last night's brutal beating up of citizens in Belgrade, towards the end of the protest and strong special police forces who had even automatic rifles in their buses, is a very clear sign that the regime has serious intentions to settle accounts with its opponents. From the verbal war in which all those who do not share the stands of the regime have for months been classified among traitors, mercenaries, janissaries, NATO associates, the regime has started practical repression. In the past few days in Serbia many people from the opposition have been arrested, but especially members of Resistance movement which has aroused the citizens of Serbia and called them to put up resistance to the regime. Last night one of the young people, representative of this organisation which is a thorn in the flesh of the regime, said at the protest in Kraljevo: "This is not a struggle for transmitters and against stolen elections. This is a struggle for a free country and replaceable authorities..."

The long decline Serbia is experiencing for more than a decade under Milosevic's rule seems to have accelerated in the past few days: murders of prominent men in politics or crime have become frequent, as well as intolerance between politically completely divided Serbia. Last night in Nis, a serious incident occurred even without the police. The citizens physically attacked city councilmen - members of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) - when dissatisfied with the session agenda - especially with the item "stop terror and violence" - they left the city assembly. In cities where opposition parties are in power crisis groups are established for defence against terror, seizure of the assemblies and media and offering assistance to the arrested.

A few days ago, Serb Revival Movement (SPO) at its gathering on Ravna Gora, in front of the monument to general Draza Mihajlovic, launched a new dangerous slogan "Uprising" which has gained in significance among supporters of SPO who are quite numerous at Belgrade protests, too. Other citizens or party supporters, especially those from the League for Changes prefer non-violent and unarmed Resistance. Since the city television station which was inclined towards SPO has been taken over, Vuk Draskovic has not been seen in public. Perhaps he is not even in Belgrade. In his party they are very mysterious concerning this issue. They say that after what has happened on the main road in the Ibar river valley when four prominent members of SPO were killed, he had better be where he is "safe". It is highly questionable which place in Serbia with the present degree of repression, discontent and uncertainty can be considered - safe.

The agile Yugoslav United Left (JUL) about which connoisseurs of relations among the ruling coalition partners claim that it prevails over SPS and even the Radicals in deciding about possible solutions how to proceed with the opponents, proposed to the assembly of Serbia yesterday to adopt in an emergency procedure its draft “law on the struggle against terrorism imported from abroad” and the law on control of arms and who can possess it. These draft laws have not been made public yet, but judging by the severity JUL is advocating via state TV – the only visible one to the citizens of Serbia, one can expect only even more radical moves.

Local analysts who cannot be heard via electronic media any more but only met at rallies, do not forecast anything good. They warn about the possibility of even greater radicalisation of the situation in Serbia which might lead to the ban of operation of political parties.

Seizure and stifling of independent media in Belgrade and increased repression by the regime also provoked tumultuous reactions of the citizens of towns and cities elsewhere in Serbia. At the same time last night, people protested in Valjevo, Novi Sad, Smederevo, Kraljevo, Uzice, Pancevo, Jagodina, Sabac, Zrenjanin…

Sessions of municipal assemblies were held outdoors, in some cities walks of the citizens were organised, and in some reading of news in city squares. Judging by brutality of the police, Belgraders were given the worst time. Repression in provincial towns mostly came down to the arrests and interrogations of activists who were handing out leaflets or invitations to everyday rallies. In Smederevo, for example, the police conditioned protests of the citizens by removal of insignia of Resistance movement.

Judging by the latest reactions and joint statements and public appearances at the protests, it seems that stifling of media has brought the disunited opposition to its senses, which appears to be united at the meetings which have never been shorter. It appealed for help to non-governmental organisations, professional institutions and trade unions.

Last night, the Synod of the Serb Orthodox Church issued a statement appealing on state institutions to immediately give up on the abolishment of independent media. They also appealed on the citizens and the opposition to refrain from any form of violence.

Milovan Bojic, deputy prime minister of Serbia and member of JUL did not threaten with new shutting down of media yesterday like Seselj, but declared that the latest moves of the regime towards the media were not an introduction into a civil war but an introduction into order. What kind of order Dr. Bojic is speaking about we shall probably see very soon.

Original article