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Feature: Radio B2-92 - The Fourth Crackdown

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5/21/00

The biggest threat to any totalitarian government is not the armed potential of its disillusioned citizens; it is the ideas of those citizens infecting others.

One of the first things Nazi German conquerors did when taking over territory was to silence any media not controlled by the state; doctrine told military commanders to take control of radio stations.

That strategy remains true today, and nowhere else is it more prevalent than in the embattled Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where tensions between the Serbian-controlled central government, still led by President Slobodan Milosevic, and dissidents from a broad spectrum of ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds continue to simmer.

A major thorn in the Yugoslav government's side has been the country's independent media. It began flexing its muscle back in 1989, when journalist Veran Matic and various colleagues began Radio B92, an independent radio station in the capital city of Belgrade. B92 was one of the first high-profile attempts by journalists, academics and activists to test the power of the weakening Communist regime in the country.

It took two years before Radio B92 had its first public clash with the Milosevic-led central government and was forcibly shut down in 1991 after denouncing the federal policies that led to the breakaway of the republics of Bosnia and Croatia. It resumed broadcasting a day later thanks to widespread protests by the people.

But it remained touch-and-go for Matic and his still-fledgling radio station: while it expanded its radio signal's coverage area and broadened into television coverage of the country's political situation, federal officials kept a wary eye on Radio B92 and its allies, intimidating and harassing everyone with tight surveillance and the confiscation of equipment.

The Milosevic regime attempted to shut Radio B92 down again in 1996 following the station's criticism of tainted elections, but again relented in the face of massive public outcry.

By this time, other Yugoslav republics were testing the strength of the central government. Matters again came to a head in the province of Kosovo, where Serbian troops were accused of ethnic cleansing against the Albanian populace there.

Such claims brought focused attention from the international community - particularly from Western NATO member nations. As a military response was being prepared, Radio B92 drew on the coverage of a network of independent radio stations that it had helped to create in the province.

Shortly before NATO bombs began to fall in April of 1999, the Yugoslav government again attacked Radio B92, claiming it had broadcast at a power far above what was warranted by its government license. This time, the government took over the station's facilities, fired its staff, and temporarily arrested Matic.

B92's original staff refused to remain silent; it kept its voice of dissent alive on the Internet, criticizing the Milosevic regime for its heavy-handed actions against the country's independent media. It also opposed NATO's "bombs for democracy" campaign.

Months later, when the military attacks subsided, Veran Matic and the B92 staff got back on the air in Belgrade, broadcasting the same views as before - only now under the name Radio B2-92.

Now, the internationally-recognized symbol of Yugoslavia's independent media is again under serious attack.

B2-92 Gets Boot - Again

Since a coalition of U.S.-led countries stopped dropping bombs on the Yugoslavia last year, internal tensions have resumed growing; the flashpoint for the latest crisis was the last-minute cancellation of a major rally on May 9 in the central Serbian city of Pozarevac against the government's sudden dropping of plans for open and democratic elections there.

Ironically, the only independent radio station in Pozarevac - the hometown of President Milosevic - was closed down by government authorities just two months earlier.

The demonstration fell apart when dozens of key activists, journalists and opposition politicians were arrested in what B2-92's coverage calls the "Kristalnacht for the Serbian resistance."

Just days before the aborted protest, Studio B - the only independent television station in Belgrade - and two newspapers had been fined 930,000 dinars (nearly $80,000) for broadcasting commentary and writing articles about the planned opposition rally.

Fuel was added to the fire on May 13, when ruling Socialist Party official Bosko Perosevic was gunned down in public in the southern city of Novi Sad. The official line from the Federal government claims the murder was perpetrated by members of Otpor, a student activist group that has become a major unifying force in the opposition effort against the Milosevic regime.

The Yugoslav central government used these incidents as the basis to begin a general crackdown. Since the assassination, leaders and activists with other non-majority political parties in Yugoslavia have been regularly beaten, arrested and imprisoned, and journalists - including one from B2-92 - have been attacked.

Two days later, 20,000 protesters marched on Belgrade in a demonstration organized in large part by the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists, of which B2-92 editor-in-chief Veran Matic is a member.

But the worst was yet to come. Before dawn May 17, Yugoslav government troops - masked and dressed in full battle armor - raided the facilities of Studio B.

The blockade of the station building actually began at two in the morning. Once the troops secured the station, a short message was broadcast, informing the public that the station was nationalized because it had been calling for the overthrow of the government.

Also taken off the air by the raid were two of Belgrade's independent radio stations, including Radio B2-92, who share a building with Studio B. Officials called B2-92's closure "collateral damage" in the raid.

Uncertain Future

The situation remains dangerous in Yugoslavia: again, the citizenry has responded to the attack on the country's independent media with open protests. This time, though, the opposition has begun to get violent, and the government does not appear to be backing down.

Firebombs and stones hurled by Belgrade protesters are met by the rubber truncheons of police, who are indiscriminately beating people. Dozens of citizens, both protesters and bystanders, have been hurt. Two of Radio B2-92's own reporters were injured covering the action.

In the city of Nis, 14 members of Milosevic's Socialist Party were attacked leaving a meeting to discuss the media crackdown. Two had to be hospitalized.

So far, at least 50 people have been arrested in the melees, many whose whereabouts are unknown because they're not allowed to contact legal representation once locked up in jail. Members of various political opposition groups in Belgrade and other major cities are being rounded up and interrogated.

In the midst of all this, Radio B2-92 has again shifted into crisis mode. While police continue to occupy its regular facilities, the station broadcasts emergency news over the Internet and via satellite from a secret location. Regular news updates are being posted on its website, although its e-mail address is being inundated, making direct contact with the station unreliable.

Nevertheless, protests continue, and a more organized response to the Milosevic regime's efforts to silence Yugoslavia's independent media is in the works.

Dozens of independent media outlets in the rest of Yugoslavia are broadcasting Radio B2-92's audio and video feeds, keeping the rest of the country more informed about the situation than citizens in the capital are - until they, too, face silencing, which is something B2-92's Veran Matic expects to happen.

President Milosevic himself has been incredibly quiet throughout the controversy.  All statements being made are coming from deputy ministers and other government functionaries - although the bloody fingerprints of Milosevic are all over this.

Since Veran Matic and his colleagues originally began speaking out some 11 years ago, 26 members of the media have been killed or died in "accidents;" several journalists have been arrested, with at least six given prison sentences ranging from 10 days to one year; at least seven journalists have been beaten; and 178 public requests for radio station licenses have been refused.

But Matic himself remains undaunted in the face of all the bloodshed and barbarism. On an interview with a French radio station this week, he said, "It appeared media representatives were bearers of the changes much more than the democratic opposition parties, but I hope the oppression will become the catalytic factor for the changes which will unite the opposition.

"That's easier now than later, when Milosevic has established a real dictatorship, and changes will be much harder to achieve."

Time will tell if Matic is right. Unfortunately, time is something the independent media in Yugoslavia does not have. The Serbian Assembly is poised to rush though an "anti-terrorism bill" designed to make the current state of emergency more permanent.

Radio B2-92 represents only a sliver of the struggle Yugoslavia's independent media has undertaken. And while the latest round of oppression is savage, it is nothing new.

But it does again drive home the fact that the freedom to speak one's mind is more dangerous to those in power than any gun can ever be. While many of us around the world are engaged in similar struggles - albeit not as violent as those taking place in Yugoslavia - the reaction the free media has provoked there goes to show that our tactics work.