Belgrade in media darkness after TV seizure

BELGRADE, May 19, 2000 -- (Reuters) Belgrade has been plunged into media darkness after the authorities' takeover of an influential television station which housed other non-government media, independent editors said on Thursday.

The government on Wednesday seized Studio B television, effectively also closing down two independent radio stations, B2-92 and Radio Index which operated out of the same building.

The surprise move, the harshest crackdown yet on non-state media by the internationally isolated government of President Slobodan Milosevic, also hit operations of the daily Blic, one of the biggest newspapers in Serbia which was also based there.

Blic staff were allowed back into their offices on Thursday afternoon and a spokeswoman said nothing appeared to have been touched, but radio and TV workers were still barred.

Another radio station in nearby Pancevo said its main transmitter was cut off on Wednesday, in effect silencing the last non-government radio or television station heard in the capital.

"Several alternative voices were shut down in one move which must have been carefully prepared," said Ljubica Markovic, editor-in-chief of the independent Beta news agency.

"Belgrade is in the greatest darkness, it has been completely cut off," she told Reuters.

The Humanitarian Law Center, a non-governmental organization based in Belgrade, took a similar line, saying in a statement: "From May 17, we can no longer hear or see in Belgrade a program of any non-government electronic media."

Belgraders could hear only music on all the non-government radio stations on Thursday. Blic appeared with eight pages compared to its normal 20, other independent dailies Danas and Glas Javnosti appeared normally.


The takeover of Studio B drew strong condemnation abroad.

The United States called it an act of "desperate Bolshevik-style oppression."

In Brussels, European Union External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would ultimately lose his battle with the independent media, adding:

"Only a state which is terrified of the truth resorts to sending men in masks into television and radio studios; only a regime determined to try to cut Serbia off completely from the rest of Europe could conceive of behaving in this way."

The seizure followed a series of recent fines and lawsuits over the independent media's reporting.

The government accused Studio B of repeatedly calling for the violent overthrow of the authorities. The Yugoslav Left of Milosevic's wife Mira Markovic said the move had put an end to the "propaganda aggression against our country."

Veran Matic, head of the Association of Independent Electronic Media, said the regime's insecurity was behind the clampdown.

"I think the authorities will go towards further narrowing of media space," Matic said. "There is no possibility for Milosevic to extend his stay in power in any democratic way."

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