'Special war' against the media

Newspapers on the meat packing paper

Teofil Pancic

WED, 19 JUL 2000

Belgrade, July 13, 2000 - Varied offer of newspapers at the Serbian news-stands has been recently broadened with a new "speciality" unknown in the rest of the world: daily papers which are not printed on web paper, but on the so called meat packing paper which the butchers once used to wrap up chicken or pork liver, etc. we bought in butcher's shops. Namely, in recent weeks, the three remaining independent dailies in Serbia - "Blic", "Glas javnosti" (Public Voice) and "Danas" (Today) - have serious problems with the procurement of newsprint for their newspapers.

Long time ago, the only newsprint factory "Matroz" from Sremska Mitrovica, reduced the deliveries of newsprint to these and other independent news organisations under the pretext that it was forced to that because of "broken machines", or "shortage of imported raw materials", and constantly promising that the situation would improve "in a few days". This would be nothing unusual in a country with a devastated economy such as Serbian, were it not for the regime controlled dailies, like the "Politika" or "Novosti" (News) which are printed in the usual number of copies and on adequate paper, and which have no problem with the procurement of this item without which there are no newspapers.

Every afternoon, people in the streets of Belgrade, for example, can see at news-stands heaps of unsold copies of the "Politika" daily, rather "fat" for present circumstances, which is persistently being published with a circulation which by far exceeds the demand for this once very respectable paper; even the fact that members of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, with a corresponding certificate, have a right to get their free copy of the "Politika" every day from the news-stand is not of much help! Journalistic cynics say that all independent papers could be printed on the Politika's "leftovers".

Even such situation could be justified with "understandable" priority which is afforded to (para)statal firms in the procurement of this (allegedly) scarce commodity, if it were not for the key piece of information: according to a decision of the Federal Government, newsprint is under the special import licensing regime, while independent news organisation are unable to obtain import licences for the required newsprint from the competent ministries. The cherry on the top is the official explanation of the Government's refusal to grant this licence: there is no need for import because there is "enough newsprint on the domestic market". This completes the vicious circle, with no way out - "Catch 22" of a kind.

According to the sources of "Beta" news agency in "Matroz", newsprint production has been stopped because of this factory's "enormous debts" which are incurred when privileged news houses, which get that newsprint in abundance, do not pay for it (or, according to other well-versed sources, buy it at a price much lower than the market price). In this way the economic and political motives form an interesting maelstrom whose victim are those media which the state is trying to shut down in every possible way.

The consequences of this planned "obstruction" of the independent papers - primarily the dailies, which as a rule have the greatest needs for newsprint - are already visible: papers come out in all sorts of formats, on the strangest kinds of paper - thick, brittle, coated, yellow, bluish, colour absorbing paper on which printed newspapers look like a collection of smeared blots.

This is how Editorial Office of the "Glas javnosti" describes the printing of a daily on the paper which "tears easily (which is why deliveries are late), varies in thickness and is full of dust (which is the reason why some pages are pale, and other dark). Operating costs with such paper are enormous: the share of reject paper is huge, printing is two times slower than usual, printing machines break down and the newspaper looks habby, etc. Naturally, all this applies only on condition that the issue appears on the stands at all: last week all three mentioned independent dailies printed a triple issue because they did not have any stocks of newsprint left; and what the discontinuity in publication means for a paper requires no further explanation.

If we add to this the fact that the only private news-printing house in the country "ABC Produkt", which in addition to "Glas javnosti" and "Blic" prints weeklies "NIN" and "Vreme", has been declared bankrupt, which in the opinion of numerous legal experts, is a pure "fabrication" which will deprive this firm of its offices and its printing machines, it becomes clear that the objective of this synchronised campaign is the definite stifling of (primarily) independent dailies which, by their circulation and influence have left the pro-regime papers far behind.

In other words, if a news house somehow manages to secure newsprint and all other necessary material, it will soon have nowhere to print its issues. Printing papers abroad would be of no use, because it is almost certain that the authorities would prevent the bringing of printed newspapers into the country and the whole process would take too long, which is unacceptable for the technology used for the dailies.

The emergence of new forms of pressure on the independent media does not mean that the old ones are no longer resorted to: enormous fines are being regularly adjudicated in "express" trials, financial police practically doesn't leave editorial offices of certain papers looking for even the tiniest irregularities, although the regime has already created conditions under which it is practically impossible to operate absolutely legally and with proper documents. Journalists are still being threatened and harassed in various ways: Miroslav Filipovic, correspondent of the daily "Danas" and the France Press Agency from Kraljevo is languishing in the Military Prison in Nis waiting for a trial on absurd charges of espionage. There is no use talking about ethics and customs in this evident mockery of justice and law.

Things have reached a point at which duly accredited parliamentary reporters of the independent media were banished this week from the building of the Serbian Parliament, and even prohibited to attend the Parliament's sessions which means the "legalisation" of a "whim" of Seselj's Radicals (SRS) who always denied access to independent journalists to all premises - state or party - "under their control".

All these and many other problems of the independent media have somehow escaped the Federal Minister for Telecommunications and the JUL official, Ivan Markovic, who in the last few days reiterated on several occasions that "the level of the freedom of the press the media enjoy in Serbia is almost incomprehensible", and that the "freedom of information is Yugoslavia is so great that we were forced to adopt the Law on Information in order to protect other citizens' freedoms and rights", as well as that "very few countries in the world would allow this degree of the freedom of the press".

Someone could respond with a paraphrase that "rarely any minister in the world of today could allow himself such twisting of the truth" without having to answer for that (in the form of, let's say, voluntary resignation). However, such "surrealist" evaluations of the state of the media in Serbia or FRY can be heard from Markovic very frequently, as well as from the Republican and Federal Ministers of Information - Aleksandar Vucic and Goran Matic. This is all followed by serious lecturing about the "world at large which doesn't allow such freedom of the press", but is still unaware of it.

Times have never been harder for the independent media in Serbia, with all prospects of becoming even worse. The elections are approaching and now, particularly after the NATO bombing, the regime has lost much of its previous popularity and has fallen into such decadence which even its numerous until-recent fans have shamefacedly and silently (because this is not much discussed in Serbia) acknowledged as a too heavy millstone around the neck of the entire Serbia that it can no longer offer its subjects any convincing illusions or "eyewash". Since the "victory" at elections and keeping the power is for the current regime the matter of survival in the literal sense of the word, it is clear that it would stop at nothing to neutralise "undesirable witnesses" which have disclosed that the king is naked. And in the case the announced Law on Terrorism, whose provisions boil down to the claim that everyone is guilty if not proven innocent, and perhaps even then, is adopted, the possibilities for enforcing repression will be practically inexhaustible.

But only until voices of opposition are silenced and the dead calm falls on Serbia, to be, only periodically, disturbed by Ivan Markovic's reminding of "the incomprehensible freedom of the press" under the large picture of the Great Leader who will watch over us from heaps of unsold regime bulletins, those worthless papers that the autumn east wind will scatter around and drag along the dirty Belgrade streets.

Original article