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Yugoslavia; East bloc's hotbed of free expression

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A young Serb poet sentenced a year ago over a banned book finally goes to jail. An editor resigns after prolonged pressure from Communist Party dogmatists over his paper's freewheeling treatment of government policies and personnel.

A popular political satirist loses his prime slot on Belgrade radio.

These have all been happening in Yugoslavia, the one communist state where the press has long enjoyed a virtually free rein on editorial independence and literary expression.

But this general freedom of the written word is under heavy fire now. The press is being pressured by hard-liners out to muzzle candid comment on how the government is handling the country's economic troubles, which are acute. So far the press restrictions have not been too serious.

This year's leader of the collective party presidency, Mitja Ribicic, who is himself seen as a ''liberal,'' has told his colleagues that ''blaming the reporter'' will not make the problems go away. And Politika, the paper whose editor stepped down, warned that gagging the press would be politically more harmful to the authorities than leaving it free to air public opinion, even if it raised uncomfortable questions.

Politika is one of Yugoslavia's oldest newspapers. Before World War II, it had a strong liberal tradition. But even under doctrinaire postwar party controls (before the break with Stalin), Politika managed to be largely independent.

Now, despite de-Stalinization, Yugoslav journalists and writers in general have to battle to defend freedom of expression from time to time. There is a broad tolerance under the current crackdown, however, that is peculiar to Yugoslav liberalization and self-management.

An appeals court, for example, has just reduced to 10 months a 2 1/2-year term handed down some months ago on a newspaperwoman charged with ''hostile propaganda'' against local party leaders. Her defense - that the case was cooked up from private conversation after she had exposed official misdoing at the local level - impressed the court even though it decided not to embarrass the party by quashing the sentence altogether.

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