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Free press vies for ratings share

Serbia's opposition media, a key to change in the country, are dogged by problems.

From Belgrade's tallest skyscraper, in offices that have the typical bustle of a newsroom, Studio B reaches 3.5 million viewers with a different brand of news from the state-run competition.

The TV station has covered demonstrations that have sprouted up in southern Serbia. And the economic woes besetting Yugoslavia have been given ample air time, too.

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But despite Studio B's efforts to tell what's really happening in Yugoslavia, the TV station has its own image problem.

Studio B is widely viewed by Belgraders as being "Vuk Draskovic's station" - Mr. Draskovic being the well-known leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, which is the primary party in a municipal government that owns Studio B. In its broadcasts, Studio B tends to ignore Draskovic's political rivals, such as the Democratic Party or the Alliance for Change.

This is one of several problems dogging Serbia's opposition media, seen as key instruments for providing communication among opposition members and building sentiment for change in the country. While they are robust and feisty, the opposition media lack market penetration, especially in Serbia's hinterland. And financial worries are never far away.

Access to independent media

Dragan Kojadinovic, the managing editor of Studio B, estimates that some 40 percent of Serbs don't have access to independent media - in either print or electronic form. That layer of population is left with Radio Television Serbia, or RTS, which is known as pro-regime in its political orientation.

Much of independent media reaches a small audience. Vreme, for example, is a respected independent weekly that has created waves with articles such as one about the growing movement for Milosevic to resign. But the publication has a circulation of only 20,000.

Many say the biggest problem is that a self-financing, capitalistic model of independent media does not exist in Serbia. Advertising culture is still in its infancy compared with the West because Serbia has still not undergone privatization.

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"Right now, we don't have one ad in our paper," says Philip Shvarm, managing editor of Vreme.

A commercial is still a rare and short-lived event on Serbian television.

Without advertising, independent radio and television stations are dependent on government for financing - in this case, opposition-controlled municipal government instead of republic or federal government.

Editorial policy at municipal-controlled stations is subject to who wins elections at the municipal level. For example, Osenia Batakovic, managing editor at Radio Pancevo outside of Belgrade, was fired from her job in 1992 because her editing vision "did not please those in power. When the opposition won, I was called back."

Another source of financing is NGOs that support free and unbiased media. A number of opposition papers, such as Danes and Vreme in Belgrade, are partially funded by The Fund for Open Society, an organization financed by George Soros, an international financier.

Foreign influences?

"We have been accused of catering to foreign interests and even of being traitors for receiving this money, but there's no other way for us to survive," said Mr. Shvarm of Vreme.

Shvarm and others say the biggest legal obstacle to reporting in Serbia is the notorious "Information Law," passed last October by the ruling coalition in Serbia made up of Socialists, Communists, and hard-right nationalists.

"The law holds the media responsible for statements made by third parties," explains. Shvarm.

If a newspaper, for example, quotes a politician accusing another politician of being corrupt, the accused politician can bring the media that broadcast the statement to court. The newspaper in question then bears the burden of proof to show that it is innocent.

Media have been fined as much as $40,000 under the Information Law, an astronomical sum for independent media in Serbia.

Limits to pushing envelope

Even independent media can only push the envelope so far. There has been very little coverage of what Serbs did in Kosovo aside from a stray article.

"There are things which are simply still too dangerous to print," said one editor. As an example, one editor offers, "which paramilitary units did what, where, and when."

The wartime assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor of the now defunct weekly The European and a popular Belgrade figure, still serves as a reminder to other journalists. Mr. Curuvija was gunned down near his home after he was accused by a Belgrade columnist of being a traitor. The column was read on state-run television, and Curuvija was killed the following day.

Another tactic is for the government to raid a station on some technicality, according to Veran Matic, director of the Association of Independent Electronic Media.

Mr. Matic was also the director of the highly respected Belgrade radio station B-92, which was shut down immediately after NATO's bombing campaign began, ostensibly because its signal strength exceeded that allowed by its license. "They had already tried to shut us down three times in seven years, but the war provided an excellent opportunity," Matic said shortly after the station was shut down.

The station is back on the air, but with a government-friendly editorial policy and new staff. In an unusual move, Studio B is providing the old B-92 crew with a frequency, and the station will soon return to the airwaves as B292 in competition with B-92.

Still missing in Serbia are local broadcasts of foreign news programs, such as exist in Montenegro.

"Unlike in Serbia, we in Montenegro can hear 'Voice of America' and other foreign broadcasts, and we have a liberal press law," said Ljubisa Mitrovic, editor of Vjesti, the largest daily in Montenegro. "Montenegro's media, like Serbia's, are financed by the government, but the difference is that the government does not tell us what to do."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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