Tuesday, March 14, 2000Repressing the Press
Slobodan Milosevic'S Yugoslavia has been called a "media dictatorship"--a system in which raw force and elaborate manipulation of news and information function as mutually reinforcing instruments of political control. Lurid propaganda about purported genocidal conspiracies against Serbs helped whip up support for Mr. Milosevic's wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Still, he has always allowed a measure of breathing room for opposition and independent media. Now he is rapidly closing what's left of that space, seeking to choke off what little chance his Western-supported opponents might have to oust him in the already not-terribly-free elections he is constitutionally required to hold this year.
Mr. Milosevic himself announced the assault on the media in a New Year's interview in which he asserted that opposition media "are under the full financial and political control" of Western governments. These remarks were followed by a threat from deputy prime minister Vojislav Seselj, the most extreme member of Mr. Milosevic's ruling coalition, to "liquidate" opposition media. And that is what the authorities are now doing. On March 11, Mr. Milosevic's government ordered the closing of RTV Pozega and dispatched police in the middle of the night to confiscate transmission equipment and briefly detain the station's general manager. The cops had to force their way through a crowd of protesters to carry out the closure. Ostensibly, the station was shut down because it failed to pay exorbitant licensing fees called for under a Draconian press law Mr. Milosevic imposed in 1998; similar extortion-like tactics were employed to close three radio stations and one television station on March 9. Studio B radio is being dunned for about $50,000 in fees--a fantastic sum in Mr. Milosevic's impoverished realm. Other newspapers and radio stations are being harassed with government-inspired libel suits.
Mr. Milosevic preserves a patina of legality in all of this, but the essential thuggishness is unmistakable. Soon journalists in Yugoslavia will mark the anniversary of the April 11, 1999, murder of Slavko Curuvija, still unsolved. The independent editor had been fined and badgered by the government but still dared to publish a letter condemning Mr. Milosevic in the midst of NATO's air campaign. Shortly thereafter, he was gunned down on the streets of Belgrade. The latest wave of attacks on free expression has not yet included such blatant violence. But, as Mr. Milosevic undoubtedly intends to remind his opponents, no prudent publisher or broadcaster can afford to assume it won't.