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In 1998, Yugoslav President Milosevic instituted far-reaching controls on both the independent media and the university community. Although the subject of this report is the law on universities and its consequences for academic freedom and free expression in Serbia, the crackdown on the campuses should be understood as part of a larger campaign by the government to rein in independent inquiry and silence independent voices. This section begins with an overview of the government’s crackdown on the media in 1998, and then discusses the genesis of the campus controls.

The Milosevic government has long implemented a variety of restrictions on Yugoslavia's independent newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations.2 Censorship is not always blatant, but often is applied through financial controls, legal manipulation, and police harassment. The complex and contradictory set of media laws in Serbia and Yugoslavia has made it difficult for most independent radio and television stations to obtain frequency licenses. At the same time, stations that are either blatantly pro-Milosevic or, at least, wholly uncritical have regularly obtained licenses. Despite numerous promises, the government consistently has failed to introduce legislation that would allow private stations to obtain broadcast licenses in a fair and apolitical manner.

In March 1998, five independent newspaper editors were charged with disseminating misinformation because they referred to Albanians who had died in Kosovo as "people" rather than "terrorists." The charges were later dropped, but the state's action had a chilling effect on the press. On May 16, 1998, the results of a public tender to obtain temporary broadcast licenses were announced: the vast majority of independent radio and television stations that had applied for licenses were denied them, while numerous stations with close business or political ties to the ruling elite were granted permission to broadcast, including a radio station owned by Milosevic's son, Marko, and a television station for his daughter, Marija. In July, Mira Markovic, the head of the Yugoslav Left (JUL) party and Milosevic's influential wife, accused Yugoslavia's independent press of treason, a theme echoed the same month by Milosevic coalition partner Seselj, who asserted: “All you journalists working in outlets which you know for sure get money from abroad should be aware that you are working for Serbia’s enemies and against Yugoslavia, [that] you are working for the foreign intelligence services.”3

The government crackdown on independent media intensified when NATO forces were threatening intervention in Kosovo in late September and early October. In a Serbian parliament session on September 29, Seselj said: “If we cannot grab all their [NATO] planes, we can grab those within our reach, like various Helsinki committees, and Quisling groups.” In a press conference in Belgrade on October 1, he proclaimed: “To those who we prove have participated in the service of foreign propaganda and those are the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe, Radio France International, and the BBC radio service et cetera. If we find them in the moment of aggression they shouldn't expect anything good.” The heightened rhetoric culminated with an emergency decree setting forth vague new restrictions on the media announced in early October. Many of the provisions of the decree were embodied later the same month in a new law, the Public Information Act.

Under the new law, the government gave itself broad powers to ban foreign radio and television broadcasts that it deemed to be “of a political-propaganda nature,” and provided for exorbitantly high fines for domestic media that violated the law. On October 23, the owner of Dnevni Telegraf and Evropljanin magazine, Slavko Curuvija, wascharged with publicizing information “jeopardizing the territorial integrity and independence of the Republic of Serbia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” for, among other things, publishing an open letter to Milosevic strongly criticizing the government. He and the magazines’ editor and publisher were found guilty and fined 2,400,000 dinars (U.S.$230,000), an enormous sum in Yugoslavia even for a major publisher. In November and December, a number of other publications were fined similarly devastating sums.

Throughout 1998, the government also maintained direct control of state radio and television, which provided news for the majority of the population. State programs continued to glorify the government’s accomplishments, conceal its failures and, most importantly, manipulate the fears of the population and spread disinformation about Kosovo. The government’s control of the media also limited the public’s access to information about violations of civil and political rights in parts of Serbia outside Kosovo, including the government’s politically motivated takeover of the universities which is the subject of this report.

Serbia’s campuses were a center of protest during Tito’s rule and have continued to be centers of dissent under Milosevic. Although, as elsewhere, universities in Serbia are home to a spectrum of political views, significant anti-Milosevic rallies have taken place on the campuses since the early 1990s. Today, there are six public universities in Serbia—two in Belgrade, and one each in Nis, Kragujevac, Novi Sad, and Prishtina—enrolling roughly 100,000 students. Private universities are few, with the largest, Brothers Karic University in Belgrade, enrolling only about one hundred students. The center of academic life in Serbia is the University of Belgrade. It is the largest university, with roughly 60,000 students at thirty faculties and over 4,000 professors, researchers, and lecturers. It is also where protest activity has been strongest and where the government crackdown has been most pronounced.

In response to major protests in 1991 and 1992, the Milosevic government enacted legislation increasing government representation on faculty councils at public universities. Although there had been some government representation on such councils prior to 1992, the new legislation expanded the membership of the councils so that the government controlled one-half of the seats. At the University of Belgrade, the membership was expanded to seventy-six: thirty-eight seats for the government to match the thirty-eight seats already held by representatives of the teaching staff (one representative for each of the thirty faculties at the university and one for each of the eight research institutes that at the time were affiliated with the university). The new legislation thus gave Milosevic effective veto power over major decisions at the university.

In late 1996, notwithstanding increasingly direct government involvement in academic affairs, the University of Belgrade emerged as a nationally prominent center of anti-government protest. For 119 consecutive days at the University of Belgrade, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets after the government annulled the results of local elections that were won by the opposition coalition. The coalition, called Zajedno, consisted of three parties: the Serbian Renewal Movement, the Democratic Party, and the Civic Alliance. On some days, crowds at the rallies in support of the coalition reached 150,000 people.

Student leaders at the University of Belgrade demanded recognition of the local election results and removal of the rector (who had supported police actions against the protesters). 3,450 professors, assistants, and researchers, some two-thirds of the staff at the university, signed a petition supporting the students’ demands.4 Protesters from diverse political backgrounds, from nationalist critics of Milosevic to anti-war groups, united in the opposition.

In February 1997, the government finally acknowledged the opposition’s electoral victories and in March the University of Belgrade rector stepped down. A major split emerged between two of the parties that had formed Zajedno and the coalition disintegrated. Likewise, the creative and spontaneous student movement gradually fellapart. The Democratic Party, the Civic Alliance, and ten other opposition parties then boycotted several rounds of Serbian state elections in 1997 due to what they saw as state control of the media, discriminatory election laws, and gerrymandering of election districts. In April 1998, Milosevic entered into an alliance with Vojislav Seselj, leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. This was significant because, in the second round of the 1996 local elections, Seselj’s backers had supported the Zajedno coalition rather than Milosevic’s SPS party, and, as swing voters, had provided the margin of victory for the opposition coalition.

As a result of these developments, Milosevic and his ultra-nationalist allies emerged in firm control of the government. At the time the new law on universities was enacted in May 1998, the opposition was in disarray and the campuses were quiet. With international attention in the region focused on Kosovo, Milosevic took the opportunity to crack down both on the independent press and on the universities, particularly the University of Belgrade, that had served as centers of the 1996-97 protests.

Institutionally, the universities had already fallen on hard times prior to the new law, the effect of years of war, international sanctions, and slashed budgets. Faculty interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the war and sanctions had slowed the flow of goods and information into the country, including textbooks and scientific journals, to a trickle. Many of the best and brightest students and graduates left the country. Milan Kurepa, a retired Yugoslav physicist, said that at the physics research institute that he had once headed, eleven of fourteen researchers who hold doctorates have left the country in recent years, most for the United States and Canada, and that laboratory equipment has stopped working, or is antiquated and deteriorating.5 Nikola Tucic, a geneticist, said that of the last ten graduating classes in biology, only a handful of students have remained in the country.6

Early in 1998, there had been some hope at the universities. Although government officials had threatened to enact stringent new legislation to control the campuses after the 1996-97 protests, no such action had been taken. Even though the government had reserved for itself 50 percent of the places on university councils, faculty members had managed to use quorum requirements and the 50 percent of the votes still in faculty hands to defeat government efforts to punish professors who had been politically active. Milan Milutinovic, president of Serbia, had promised that new legislation on the universities would be drafted in consultation with faculty leaders. On May 9, 1998, however, without prior warning, the government announced that it had drafted a new law on the universities for consideration in parliament later the same month.

2 For an overview of the crackdown on the media in 1998, see Free 2000 (The International Committee to Protect the Independent Media in Yugoslavia), “Restrictions on the Broadcast Media in FR Yugoslavia,” September 1998. The report, together with other material on media restrictions in Yugoslavia, can be found at: See also Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, “Discouraging Democracy: Elections and Human Rights in Serbia,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 9, no. 11(D), September 1997. 3 Free 2000, “Restrictions on the Broadcast Media,” p. 21. 4 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, “Discouraging Democracy: Elections and Human Rights in Serbia,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 9, no. 11(D), September 1997. 5 Human Rights Watch interview, Belgrade, November 11, 1998. 6 Human Rights Watch interview, Belgrade, November 12, 1998.

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