NEW YORK -- "Why aren't you in jail?" I asked. Veran Matic stiffened for an instant. Then he answered: "Serbia is a 'soft' dictatorship. Even under Milosevic there is a certain space in which you can operate."
Mr. Matic is an operator. In 1989, he helped create B92, an independent (and illegal) radio station in Belgrade, which has become the center of a loose network of 28 stations covering 70 percent of the country.
The operation also includes affiliated newspapers, a book publisher, video and CD divisions, and a cultural center -- all independent of state systems. More important than that, B92 is still there.
Every few months or weeks, the government of Slobodan Milosevic, the president of the Republic of Yugoslavia, tries to shut B92 down -- and fails. In brilliant and romantic riposte, Mr. Matic wins again and again.
When the transmitter was shut down, B92 threw open its windows and broadcast to crowds in the streets. At other times, silenced for days, the station used the Internet to send news to the BBC, the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe, which then broadcast reports back into the Serbian countryside.
When the Ministry of Information announced a "final" shutdown in four days, B92 switched to Orwellian programming praising Mr. Milosevic lavishly, saying, in Veran Matic's words, "Stay tuned: This is what we will sound like in four days."
It was a variation of the old newspaper trick of attacking censorship by leaving columns blank where true news would have been. People in Belgrade were actually throwing radios into the street and, at B92's urging, flooding the ministry with angry telephone calls, enough of them to overload government switchboards.
The government backed down again. B92 still has no license and not enough advertising, but it survives, broadcasting rock music most of the day, and undermining Mr. Milosevic's official news with five-minute reports on the hour, three half-hour news programs, and talk and call-in shows.
Meanwhile government television, controlled by the Ministry of Information, shows enormously popular American soap operas, interrupted sporadically by propaganda news -- denying, for instance, that there were anti-government protests in Belgrade.
Finally, mocked by the foreign broadcasts of B92's Internet news, state radio and television conceded there was some "vandalism" in the capital.
Great stuff! But free radio cannot work where people do not understand freedom. And "independent" journalism cannot work with reporters who do not know what the word means.
That was the message this month from Mr. Matic, who was here at the Media Studies Center on an American tour to raise money for the station and to fund training centers for "independent" journalists. He is a little older now at 35, and a little wiser about the ways of the world.
When the "Democratic" party, Mr. Milosevic's political opposition, won regional elections last year, including in Belgrade, the victors came over to B92 and other stations and said: "OK, here's what we want you to run now."
Independence, freedom, free speech, democracy, the rule of law, peaceful transfers of power -- those are just nice words to people who have lived under police repression, censorship and propaganda for generations. They don't know what to do.
None of this should be foreign to us. Americans did not know what this "democracy" was at the start. Checks and balances were instituted by the founding fathers to slow down government responsiveness to mobs in the street.
Our Electoral College was originally a device to cancel or overthrow presidential elections if men of property did not like the democratic results.
Mr. Matic, a social entrepreneur who would probably be very rich if he had been born in Brooklyn rather than Belgrade, has now formed a national Association of Independent Electronic Media of Yugoslavia. ("Yugoslavia" is now a federation of Serbia and Montenegro.) He hopes to raise money for two-week training programs for "independent" journalists.
"It takes time," he said. "You have to teach freedom first before you can persuade journalists that they do not have to support other people's ideas and agendas.
"After all," Mr. Matic continued. "We are not totally independent ourselves. We have to try to protect ourselves against our own political leanings."
What are they? "Well, we are not part of the opposition; we established 'equal time' provisions during the elections. But if police are beating students, we run the students' side." He laughed, then added: "And if students begin beating policemen, we'll still support the students."
World is watching
What next for his country? "It is almost impossible to overthrow Milosevic, but his decline has started," Mr. Matic observed. "He can try to make chaos, using the police, but that is now a dangerous strategy, because the world is watching and supporting the democratic movement."
B92 is responsible for some of that. I asked Mr. Matic what will happen to the station in a new Serbia. He answered: "The Western stations will come in with their programming and drive us out of business."
Richard Reeves writes a syndicated column.
Pub Date: 10/14/97