Serbia Under Milosevic

Repression of the Media

"You have been listening to Radio B92. You will not be listening to it any more because of technical problems."

With this terse announcement at 2:50 AM on March 24, 1999, as the citizens of Belgrade waited for the NATO bombings to begin, the city's only independent radio station was taken off the air by operatives of the Yugoslav Federal Telecommunications Ministry. Moments earlier the operatives, accompanied by ten policemen, had entered the station's offices and ordered the staff to immediately take their hands off computer keyboards, stop answering the telephones, and turn off and put away their mobile phones. Radio B92's editor-in-chief, Veran Matic, was arrested and brought in for questioning.

The Milosevic regime had silenced the last independent voice in Belgrade media... or so it thought.

B92 had been drawing the attention of the Milosevic regime since the early days if its existence, having gotten its start without being officially licensed by the government in 1989, amid the chaotic atmosphere of post-Communist Yugoslavia. The station faced numerous shutdowns and found itself the victim of police intimidation throughout the civil war that plagued the country during the early 1990s. But B92 stayed on the air as war, hyperinflation and U.N. sanctions drove the citizens of Belgrade deeper and deeper into despair.

In November 1996 the first "open" elections of the post-Communist era were held, with the opposition Zajedno ("together") coalition winning local offices in every major Yugoslav city. But citing "irregularities" in the voting process, Milosevic annulled the election results in every race where the opposition had prevailed. Protestors poured into the streets in daily demonstrations, their numbers rising to 200,000 within a week. B92 reported on the election fraud, and covered the street demonstrations almost around-the-clock. Soon the station found its signal jammed. On December 1, B92 reported "the situation has taken yet another turn for the worse as an extremely strong transmitter has been activated on a frequency which Radio B92 uses to broadcast its programs. That is why the programs of B92 can be heard only in about 40% of Belgrade's territory."

Two days later, B92's transmitter, located in the state radio and television complex, went off the air without explanation. B92 immediately began live Internet broadcasts. The BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe all received B92's RealAudio stream and rebroadcast it worldwide - and back into Serbia. Despite the shutdown, "the memorable opening jingle, 'Radio B92 - Serbia Calling,' could be heard all around Serbia and all around the world."

The December 1996 shutdown and the success in circumventing it gave new life to an old idea of creating a nationwide independent radio network. In June 1997 B92 spearheaded the formation of the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), consisting of more than 30 local radio stations from across Serbia and Montenegro. As independent media in Serbia became more organized, they became more of a threat to Milosevic, and repression increased. Over the course of 1997, 72 Serbian radio stations were temporarily taken off the air by the regime, generally on the pretext of having violated some obscure technical regulation. Two ANEM stations had equipment confiscated, and four were damaged by fire. These actions only served to deepen the broadcasters' resolve.

Milosevic's crusade against independent media culminated on October 20, 1998 with the passage of the Public Information Law, which imposed draconian new restrictions on Serbian media organizations. The rebroadcast within Serbia of foreign radio and TV programs was now prohibited, as were broadcasts that jeopardized the "territorial integrity" of the nation or that violated the "honor and dignity" of public officials. Violations of the law were punishable by massive fines, payable within 24 hours. Unpaid fines could be collected through the seizure of the media organization's equipment, property or bank accounts.

When the NATO bombings began, the regime used the opportunity to deal with B92 once and for all. Nine days after the March 24, 1999 shutdown, the telecommunications ministry installed a new director loyal to Milosevic, and returned the station to the air, broadcasting Yugoslav music and bulletins from the state news agency and the ruling party PR office. The media outlets that hadn't been shut down were ordered by the regime to act solely in the "service of the state's current interests." Among other restrictions, they were prohibited from reporting information that would "spread defeatism and panic," and were required to call NATO "the aggressor."

After 78 days, the NATO bombings ended on June 10. B92 returned to the air less than two months later, on a frequency borrowed from Studio B, the radio and television station owned by the Belgrade municipal government, which was controlled by Vuk Draskovic's opposition Serbian Renewal Movement. By the fall, the newly named B2-92 had risen to third place in the Belgrade ratings, while the state-controlled B92 had fallen to twentieth. More importantly, the ANEM network's audience reach was drawing closer to that of state radio throughout Serbia.

Milosevic renewed his attack on independent media in the spring of 2000. Radio stations and newspapers were fined out of existence, journalists in outlying towns had their cars burned and houses blown up, and B2-92 faced daily visits from tax inspectors and police. On May 17 at 2:00 am, dozens of heavily-armed police stormed into the offices of Studio B, B2-92, Radio Index and the daily newspaper Blic — virtually all independent media remaining in Belgrade. Claiming that Draskovic had called for the violent overthrow of the Government in a broadcast on Studio B, the regime seized ownership of the station from the Belgrade municipal government. That afternoon, 30,000 protesters filled the streets of Belgrade. The now state-controlled Studio B returned to the air, broadcasting government propaganda, and the frequency formerly occupied by B2-92 now broadcast only music. The station's staff continued producing programs for distribution via satellite and the Internet from secret locations within Belgrade, and made deals with stations in Bosnia and Romania to beam ANEM programs back into Serbia.

Two months later, as Matic continued to make contingency plans, Milosevic shocked the nation with his announcement of early elections. As expected, Milosevic attempted to steal the election, and massive protests brought the country to a standstill. On the night of October 4th, as final plans for the next day's decisive protests were being made, Veran Matic was given advance notice of Otpor's plans to liberate the old B92 studios in the Belgrade City Centre's House of Youth. Equipment was quietly prepared, and DJ Srdjan Andjelic was one of the first people on the scene as Otpor occupied the building. "I grabbed the mic and reminded people of our real name, which is not B2-92, but B92," he recalled. "And I invited the listeners to join us in the crowded streets on one of the most beautiful nights in the history of our country."