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Feature: Free Radio Under Fire

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3/27/99

Standing center-stage in the world headlines right now is the current NATO military campaign against Yugoslav military targets in the province of Kosovo.  Ideology and other issues aside, information as to what's happening inside the country right now is sketchy, as all journalists from NATO countries have been expelled from the province and from other key locations in Yugoslavia where regular updates on action can be obtained.

Fortunately for the world, and not so for the Serbian-controlled government, intrepid broadcasters who've been counteracting state-controlled media influence are right in the thick of things.  And this isn't just a ragtag bunch of activists looking to make a statement, staring at official letters threatening court action or fines.

These "pirate" broadcasters have it all on the line - and the risk could be life or death.

Radio B92 has been broadcasting without an official license for a decade: it began just as Kosovo's autonomous government was thrown out of power and replaced by a military one. With three full-time employees and dozens of volunteers, it's the longest-operating politically independent broadcast organization in Yugoslavia. Long a thorn in President Slobodan Milosevic's side, B92 has been the flagship of a burgeoning network of close to three dozen independent radio stations that cover about 70% of Yugoslavia.

Since then, the founder of B92, journalist Veran Matic, has branched out into video and film production, book and magazine publishing and even a record label to spread information through the country that has not always been met with official state approval.

Milosevic has repeatedly threatened to shut down B92, and has followed through on the threat before. But the station's been able to cobble together more resources and public support to get on the air after official harassment. It's only strong enough to cover part of Belgrade, the Yugoslavian capital, and it's surprising it's been allowed to continue so close to the powers-that-be.

The first direct conflict with the Milosevic-controlled government happened in late 1996, after the Serbian President voided electoral gains made by opposition parties. B92 was the only broadcast outlet to give protesters a voice; a month after the protest broadcasts began the government shut the station down. Since then, B92's relationship with federal officials has been  on-again, off-again - both literally and figuratively. But after a couple days of silence, the station's been back on the air no worse for wear. Matic's previously said dealing with the government has been kind of like "a game."

This time, Milosevic might be serious.

Just hours before the first NATO airstrikes began, authorities with Yugoslavia's Telecommunications Ministry once again visited B92 and confiscated its transmitter. And this time, Matic was arrested and briefly detained.

But while the ultra-local radio broadcasts have stopped, the station's reach remains worldwide. Since that run-in with Milosevic in 1996, B92 has used it's burgeoning Internet service to keep the information flowing. Other shortwave stations took information from B92's web site and rebroadcast it for listeners inside Yugoslavia.

Since then, technology has improved. And while the bombs continue to fall, B92 staffers are on the job in-studio, programming sans transmitter but with plenty of listeners. Although its broadcasts aren't being relayed over-the-air locally (yet), other free media outlets in Kosovo are working with B92 to provide the most comprehensive coverage of what's really going on.

This absence from the air is different, though, because Yugoslavia's under direct military attack.  While Matic may still be a free man for now, if the attacks end up putting pressure on President Milosevic like he's never felt before, there could be consequences B92 hasn't faced before, either.

This is what free radio is all about - taking to the air and broadcasting the message even when those with authority tell you not to.  But the stakes are rarely this high. So far, B92 remains the leading source of news inside the area of conflict.  Stay tuned - and pray the signal remains strong.