The Serbian and Yugoslav governments have consistently used repressive measures-unfair trials, harassment, and violence-against opposition politicians, street demonstrators, and independent domestic critics. But the past year has seen an increase in abuses against opposition parties, the independent media, student organizations, independent trade unions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civic activists in Serbia -in short, against anyone who potentially threatens the ruling elite's grip on power.
The abuses began to gain momentum in early 1999, as the threat of war with NATO hung over Serbia. High fines were imposed on a number of independent media outlets, while the state-controlled media labeled government critics "collaborators" with Serbia's enemies. The repression intensified during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (March to June 1999), when a state of war was in effect. Feeling under threat, many individuals fled the country or sought safety in Yugoslavia's other republic, Montenegro, which remained neutral in the war.
Government abuses have not abated since the end of the war. To the contrary, the government has increasingly used violence against street demonstrations by opposition parties and university students. Journalists have been convicted on a variety of charges and fined or given prison sentences for their writing and broadcasting.
Public prosecutors have announced criminal proceedings against opposition leaders because of their public statements. Criminal and misdemeanor proceedings have been initiated against opposition politicians and ordinary citizens who have publicly or even privately criticized the authorities. In a typical case, Biserka Apic from Sremska Mitrovica was convicted of defamation of the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic on May 26, 1999, and sentenced to four months imprisonment, for having uttered the following words in the presence of her co-workers: "Shut up, Josip; you let that jackass be the president of your country and lead you like sheep over the past ten years, and throughout these ten years we've been in war."
NGO activists and intellectuals communicating with foreign colleagues have been prosecuted, or indirectly threatened with prosecution, for "espionage." The police on numerous occasions have interrogated opposition politicians and student activists from the Otpor (Resistance) group, with the sole purpose of intimidating the dissenters.
Demonstrations organized by the opposition coalition Alliance for Change or by university students have met a violent police response. The riot police in Belgrade beat peaceful protesters on a number of occasions. The authorities engaged civilian thugs to disperse the protests and to beat or arrest dissenters.
The authorities tried to discourage criticism by arbitrarily applying the provisions of the penal code and the law on public information, resulting in a severe crackdown against independent media. The fines have been aimed at financial exhaustion of the media and at deterring public criticism of the government's policies. The latter is illustrated by a December 23, 1999, decision of a misdemeanor judge in Vranje to fine Vranjske magazine 1,000,000 (U.S. $26,000) dinars because it published a report by the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights about repression of the ethnic Albanians in Serbia's southern municipalities.
As this report went to press, the level of harassment had reached new levels, through increasing use of force by unidentified thugs against opponents of the government and intensified government efforts to close down the independent broadcast media. On February 26, 2000, short-haired men in leather jackets attacked and beat student Milos Dosen as he was taking down a poster of the student group Otpor; the event was videotaped by a neighbor and shown on local television, and witnesses identified the number plate of the van used by the perpetrators. The police failed to investigate, however, and the plate number turned out not to be registered. Zarko Korac, leader of the Social Democratic Party, was beaten up in early March outside his apartment when he returned from the inauguration of the new Croatian president, Stipe Mesic. On March 6, five men wearing police uniforms beat a technician and security guard at the Studio B Television transmitter and took away the transmission equipment; the Serbian Ministry of Interiordenied that the Serbian police had been involved, but-as with other cases outlined in this report-has failed to solve the crime. Jan Svetlik, opposition councillor in Zrenjanin, was abducted on April 5 by two unknown assailants and kept out of town for several hours during the session of the local parliament; Svetlik's absence from the session allowed Serbia's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) to retain its parliamentary majority even though two SPS members had defected to the opposition. Once again, the police failed to identify the perpetrators.
During February and March, another eight print and electronic media enterprises were fined for alleged violations of the Law on Public Information. One of them, Television Studio B, was fined 450,000 dinars (U.S. $39,000) for remarks made by a guest during a live broadcast on the station. The Yugoslavian Ministry of Telecommunications closed down six independent television and radio stations in March, and threatened to close more. The current tide of repression against the media was preceded by a threat of violence against independent journalists by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj at a February 10 press conference.1
The stepped-up repression is a sign that the ruling coalition-SPS, Yugoslav Left (JUL), and Serbian Radical Party (SRS)-feels increasingly vulnerable to political defeat, either at the polls or on the streets. Especially since the NATO war, there has been palpable discontent with policies of Slobodan Milosevic which have led to Serbia's political isolation and economic deprivation, not to mention hundreds of thousands of victims in armed conflicts throughout the former Yugoslavia. Since the war with NATO, opinion polls have shown a steady decline in support for the authorities and strengthening of the support for opposition. The government's response to popular dissatisfaction has been further attempts to silence those who organize or speak out.1 See Human Rights Watch press release, Serbian Deputy Minister Threatens Independent Media With Violence, February 11, 1999.