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Yugoslav newspapers pack a punch. Brash new generation of journalists is testing limits of press freedom

When Mikhail Gorbachev took glasnost to communist Yugoslavia earlier this month, he might have been surprised by a bit of browsing. In bookstore display windows, copies of his ``Perestroika'' are stacked next to translations of Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca's autobiography. In newsstands, official publications reported Mr. Gorbachev's visit alongside lengthy articles about the Armenian demonstrations back in the Soviet Union.

``Gorbachev and glasnost are just cosmetics,'' sneers Robert Botteri, editor of Mladina, the official journalist of the Slovenian Socialist Youth Alliance. ``I don't think any leader in the Soviet bloc could stand our type of press.''

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To brash Yugoslavs, glasnost means not just openness about government actions, but challenging them.

In an edition last month, Mladina savaged the once sacred Army, denouncing Defense Minister Branko Mamula as ``the merchant of death.'' The magazine advised the minister, who recently visited Ethiopia, to sell food, not arms, to hungry Ethiopians, and wrote an editorial calling for his resignation. Its title: ``Mamula go home.''

``Find me any country in Western Europe where officials are so criticized,'' challenges Bozidar Dikic, a journalist at the Belgrade daily Politika. ``And find me another country where public opinion becomes so electrified by the newspapers.''

Indeed, the Yugoslav press packs a punch. Last autumn, journalists from the Belgrade party daily Borba uncovered a financial scandal concerning the Agrokomerc agricultural firm. They pursued the story, revealing illegal ties between the firm and eminent politicians. The charges forced Vice President Hamdija Pozderac to resign.

``Without the press, there would never have been an Agrokomerc,'' a Western diplomat said. When journalists begin holding unelected functionaries accountable for their actions, ``it's an important advance for civil liberties.''

No one dictated the increased freedom of the press. No new law enshrined it. Rather, the free-wheeling journalism results in large part from the power vacuum that followed the death in 1980 of Yugoslavia's longtime leader Josip Broz Tito.

``Ten years ago, if a newspaper said something Tito didn't like, then there would be a telephone call to the newspaper and it would stop,'' recalls the diplomat. ``Now there is nobody who can make the call.''

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Tito bequeathed Yugoslavia a decentralized political system, with each communist party in the six republics and two autonomous provinces running its own newspaper and television station. He also bequeathed his country an economic mess.

``After Tito's death, we were left with his disastrous legacy - a $20 billion debt, high inflation, high interest rates,'' explains Moyca Murko of the Slovenian weekly magazine Teleks. ``Journalists couldn't help but notice these unhappy circumstances.''

Gradually, the press began breaking down once restrictive self-censorship. Mita Mersol, a journalist at the Slovenian daily Delo, remembers his first impulsive article. Angered by the construction of an enormous statue of Tito, Mersol condemned it as ``obscene, glorifying a person as a half god.''

``I expected at least to be reprimanded, at most to be prosecuted,'' he recalls. ``Nothing happened. When I saw that, I became bolder little by little.''

Armed with such experiences, a new generation of journalists is growing up unwilling to accept old rules. The average age of Mladina's courageous, combative staff is 25. Amateurs from Belgrade University's student union produce Index 202, the country's most hard-hitting and popular radio program.

``When I graduate, I know I won't be able to get a job and an apartment,'' says Alexander Zigic, 23, Index 202's program editor. ``In such a situation, why should I be crazy and just give sweet talk?''

Even Zigic and his youthful colleagues, however, must accept some restrictions. According to the unwritten rules governing the press, the local communist party must approve the appointment of program chiefs.

Political interference varies from republic to republic. Here in Slovenia, officials tolerate almost anything. In Serbia, a tough-minded national party chief has replaced the editor of the daily Politika and changed the anchorman on the nightly television newscast.

In extreme cases, the authorities sometimes still resort to their old weapon: prosecution. After Mladina published its angry attack on the Army, the federal prosecutor in Belgrade instructed the local prosecutor to start proceedings against the magazine. The charge: verbal abuse, punishable by a fine or up to three months in prison. The local prosecutor refused to press charges, but banned a more recent issue.

``We won't stop firing our verbal artillery and fighting the politicians,'' responds Mladina editor Botterri. ``That is our role.''

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