Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, condemns your government's ongoing attempts to restrict the independent media in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).
The open bid for temporary radio and television frequencies, announced on February 6, only complicates the matter. Like the laws regulating the electronic media, the legal procedures for the open bid are confusing, inconsistent, and in contradiction with other Serbian and Yugoslav laws. For example, only companies that are registered with the Ministry of Information and the Commercial Court may submit a bid. But this requirement contradicts Serbian law since, according to the Law on Radio Television, a company first needs a frequency in order to register with these bodies. The cost of participating in the bid, the technical conditions required, and the documents needed from other government-run agencies are insurmountable barriers for the private radio and television stations that exist in FRY.
Human Rights Watch views the most recent open bid as a continuation of the government's policy to deny, through complicated and unduly burdensome legal procedures, frequencies to those radio and television stations that do not conform to the state's narrow definition of "acceptable information." These stations are allowed to operate, thereby demonstrating to the international community an apparent respect for free speech. But, as the past has demonstrated, the government may close down a private radio or television station without a licence at any time. An estimated 300 private radio stations and 100 private television stations in FRY are currently in this precarious position. In contrast, government-run stations or commercial stations with close ties to the government, like Radio Kosava or BKTV, have consistently obtained licences and are free to broadcast without interference.
In mid-1997, for example, the government closed seventy-seven independent, opposition-run or commercial television and radio stations on the basis that they were "illegal." Many of the stations did not posses the proper licenses, in fact because the government consistently refused to grant licenses to stations that broadcast critical views of the state.
Human Rights Watch therefore calls on the FRY government to:
To prepare new media laws and regulations, in full consultation with the independent media in Yugoslavia, that guarantee freedom of expression in television and radio. Concrete changes in the Serbian Law on Radio Television, the Serbian Law on Communication Systems, the Serbian Laws on Public Information, the Federal Law on Communication Systems, and the Federal Law on Public Information should guarantee that broadcast licenses are distributed and regulated by an independent body without regard to political considerations.
Until a new series of federal and republican laws are introduced, permit all currently licensed, and all unlicensed but currently operating, radio and television stations to broadcast without interference. No regulation of the airwaves should take place until Yugoslavia has a new set of media laws and regulations that guarantee free expression in accordance with international standards.
Consult with the independent media and its organizations, such as the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), on a regular basis about ways to protect and promote the independent media.
Human Rights Watch will continue to monitor the development of FRY's media legislation and its application. We note that freedom of the media is a fundamental requirement for lifting the outer wall of sanctions currently in place against FRY and reintegrating the country into the international community.
Europe and Central Asia Division
cc: Richard Miles, United States Embassy in Belgrade
Robert Gelbard, U.S. Special Envoy to the Balkans
Bronislav Geremek, OSCE Chairman-in-Office
Robin Cook, E.U. Council of Ministers
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the former Yugoslavia
Human Rights Watch Background
The Electronic Media in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
The broadcast media in Serbia is regulated by five laws: the Serbian Law on Radio and Television, the Laws on Connection Systems (Serbian and federal), and the Laws on Public Information (Serbian and federal). In addition, a number of state bodies are involved in regulation, including the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, the Ministry of Information and the commercial courts. Many of the relevant laws and regulations are contradictory and allow the government to grant or deny licenses to those stations it desires. For example, under current regulations, the Yugoslav Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications requires applicants for a broadcast license to provide proof that the station has been registered as a public media outlet at the Ministry of Information and at the appropriate commercial court. But these documents cannot be obtained without first having a license from the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications. Even taken individually, Serbia's broadcast laws do not guarantee that licenses will be allocated on a non-discriminatory basis. Article 5 of Serbia's Law on Radio and Television gives the government a very broad discretional right to grant licenses, while article 10 (6) of the same law allows the government to revoke licenses under vague terms. Article 7 of the law obliges the government to hold an open auction for frequencies once a year, but the last auction was held in 1994.
As a result, since 1989 independent radio and television stations (like Radio B-92 or Radio Boom 93) have been repeatedly denied a license without an explanation even though they apparently met all of the criteria, while stations that were either blatantly pro-Milosevic or, at least, commercial and wholly uncritical (like RTV Pink or BK TV) easily obtained licenses for large parts of Serbia. The most extreme example was Radio Kosava, run by Milosevic's daughter, Marija, which obtained a frequency by government decree without even submitting an application.
The independent broadcast media was, therefore, severely limited in its effectiveness, leaving the state controlled television and radio to disseminate government propaganda unchallenged, as in the past. Many people in Serbia and abroad blame the state media for encouraging the war in former Yugoslavia by distorting facts and promoting xenophobic, extreme nationalist views.
Despite these barriers, Serbia's independent radio and television stations played an important role during the 1996-97 demonstrations by disseminating information, often directly from the streets, that offered an alternative to government propaganda. Unlike during the war, which was never fought inside Serbia, audiences could contrast the state media's coverage with their daily experiences at home. The daily audience of the larger stations, specifically Radio B-92 and Radio Index in Belgrade, rose to over one million. Smaller stations throughout Serbia rebroadcast B-92's transmission, thus providing many people in the countryside with an alternative to the state-run media, which was misrepresenting the purpose and scale of the demonstrations. In acknowledgment of their effectiveness, the government attempted to ban or close a large number of radio stations, including Radio B-92 itself, which responded by sending daily news over the Internet.
Most often, the state justified the closures by claiming that the station in question did not have the proper license to broadcast. In most cases, this was true, a consequence in large part of the government's persistent refusal to grant such licenses to independent radio or television stations. Many of the stations that were closed following the November 1996 elections, all of them either independent or oppositional, had been operating without interference for the past three or more years, suggesting that they were closed strictly for political reasons.
In May 1997, the Serbian Minister of Information, Radmila Milentijevic, promised that there would be democratic reform in the electronic media and that no private television or radio station would be shut down before the September 21 elections. Despite this, on June 2, the Yugoslav Minister for Transport and Telecommunications, Dojcilo Radojevic, announced the need to "establish order in the broadcast media." All "pirate" radio and television stations, he declared, would be permanently banned if they failed to apply for a temporary broadcast license by June 30, 1997. However, the ministry did not clarify which documents were required to apply for a temporary license or on what criteria applications would be considered. According to journalists and the Association of Independent Broadcast Media, a local network of independent radio and television stations, the procedure at that time for submitting the application was confusing and contradictory.
Shortly after the June 30 deadline, and in some cases before the deadline, the government initiated a coordinated campaign among the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications, the criminal police, the financial police and various government agencies to shut down more than seventy-five radio and television stations across Serbia and confiscate some of their equipment without warning, even though some of the stations had submitted all of the necessary documentation. All of the closed stations were either independent, run by the opposition or commercial and unconnected to the government.
On February 6, the government announced another open bid for temporary radio and television frequencies, even though it had never replied to the bids submitted in June 1997. To apply for a bid, stations must meet a number of criteria, such as be registered at the Ministry of Information and Commercial Court, have the proper licences for electronics and construction, and provide an as-yet undisclosed fee.
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