Milosevic's grasp appears to slip Serbian president losing his control of the media


BELGRADE, Serbia -- For the past few nights, Serbian television viewers have been treated to a new show: demonstrators being chased down Belgrade streets, kicked, bludgeoned and hauled away in police vans.

Demonstrations like these have been taking place for 2 1/2 months, but such scenes used to be reserved for news programs in other countries. Now, for the first time, television coverage has been bringing the fury of Serbia's political crisis into Serbia's own living rooms and bars.

By midweek, there was something else to report -- a promise by President Slobodan Milosevic to relent and recognize the victory of opposition parties in municipal elections last fall.

Of course, Parliament must still decide on Tuesday whether to hand the contested city halls to the opposition as promised, and one can never be sure of such an event in Milosevic's Serbia. But something more fundamental may have happened anyway. Those news clips on television are the best evidence yet that power has begun to slip from Milosevic's grasp.

The power to control Serbia's news and entertainment outlets has always been a key to maintaining power for Milosevic. And the decision by an increasing number of television and radio stations in recent days to defy the government's tight control highlights several devastating defections from the president's inner circle.

Until now, Serbia's independent media have consisted of three newspapers, two news magazines and a weak radio station called B-92. All are based in Belgrade, lack a national audience and have long had trouble with the government.

At the height of the protests, B-92 was shut down for three days until international pressure, and a promise by Radio Free Europe to begin broadcasting the programs over its own frequency, impelled the government to let it back on the air.

The independent papers, with a combined circulation of some 500,000 in a country of 10 million people, frequently have trouble getting advertisers and are charged exorbitantly for newsprint and distribution. Meanwhile, the leading government daily, Politika, along with the state television, RTS, have done their best to ignore the protests or label the demonstrators "terrorists" and "pro-fascists."

The opposition press doesn't have much of a record in challenging Serbian nationalism, but attacking Milosevic's rule and publicizing the protests is now another matter, and this can be expected to continue.

When local television and radio stations in cities where the opposition had won the elections began defecting from the government line in recent days -- they had been emboldened, no doubt, by the endless protests -- the government reacted by trying to seize control of them.

But local courts, also emboldened by Milosevic's inability to end the protests, ruled against the government.

The most important defection came at the start of last week, when the national station BK Television, owned by a 42-year-old businessman, Bogoljub Karic, broke ranks with the government. The station's news reporting, until recently, was as biased and slanted as that of the four state-run television companies, because Karic was a friend and confidant of Milosevic.

But now he appears to have decided that Milosevic is a lost cause, and he has thrown the considerable weight of his multimillion-dollar financial and media empire against the president.

Karic has amassed a fund of $50 million to launch his own bid for power, according to associates.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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