Support free media and education in Serbia now

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 51 – November 23, 1998

Originally published here.

 

“The law on information, on the universities and the prepared law on NGOs should be strongly opposed by all international organisations, governments and NGOs.”

Jiri Dienstbier, Special Rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights

 

“Serbian authorities commit gross human rights violations through new draconian laws that will further undermine free media, education and civil society in Serbia. Given its seriousness, we have heard deplorably few and low-voiced protests from top diplomats, politicians, fellow intellectuals and media people in the Europe and the US. Dienstbier’s is an important exception” says TFF’s director Jan Oberg.

The situation is appalling. After media and education, NGOs will probably be targeted. People in Serbia are in a double cage – that constructed by their own authorities and that constructed by the international community since 1991. Just look at how the Kosovo conflict is now “managed” through the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement and you’ll see how the two cages reinforce each other. The losers? Ordinary citizens – like in Bosnia under Dayton.

All citizens of Serbia – including the 650.000 forgotten refugees from Bosnia and Croatia – have suffered enough inside these cages since 1991. Shuttle diplomats, NATO, OSCE, EU and the US display a profound and disastrous lack of any strategy for civil society support. Much more must therefore be done by European peoples’ organisations everywhere to show solidarity with and assist independent media, education and movements in Serbia – and urgently,” says Dr. Oberg.

This is the background. In May this year, the Government of Serbia passed a new university law without consulting universities, teachers or students. It effectively reduces academic independence, the autonomy of academia. The government now controls the appointment and firing of professors, deans and university governing boards and may close faculties. The law further limits the influence of professors on the curricula. Many professors refuse to sign a new contract required by the law as they perceive it as a humiliation. 43 professors have already been suspended; a dean has promised to punish anyone who accepts research grants from the Soros Open Society Fund!

A new law on Public Information was passed on October 20 by the Serbian parliament. The severest restrictions of this law is Article 27 which is taken over from the Government of Serbia’s Decree on Special Measures in Circumstances of NATO’s Threats with Military Attacks against Our Country, that is no longer relevant. Article 27 (1) of the law prohibits any relay of either whole or parts of radio and television political-propaganda programs produced by foreign broadcast organisations whose founders are foreign governments or their organisations. The law also requires publishers to forward copies of each issue to the public prosecutor and the Ministry of Information.

Article 67 stipulates fines to the – grotesque – amounts of 400,000 to 800,000 dinars (35,000 to 70,000 US$) for publishing “information calling for a forcible overthrow of the constitutional order, violation of the territorial integrity” and other violations that, one suspects, can be used to stop any dissident publication in the future. But it is an innovative method of combining authoritarian control with money-making in a bankrupt economy! The law is imprecise and self-contradictory as e.g. Articles 3, 4, 7 and 8 guarantees freedom for the media! This is the legal foundation of hostile actions taken against independent media, including the closure of Danas, Dnevni Telegraf, Nasa Borba, the magazine Evropljanin, Radio Index in Belgrade, and Radio Senta in Voivodina and fines against Glas and Monitor .

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, directed by internationally esteemed professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, has issued two statements on the appalling human rights situation in the media and at the universities. Here is an excerpt that speaks for itself:

“Nikola Vasiljevic (19), Dragana Milinkovic (22), Marina Glisic (22), and Teodora Tabacki (22), students at various faculties of the Belgrade University, were sentenced to 10 days imprisonment on 4 November. Writing slogans against the University Act and Serbian Law on Public Information, they, in a magistrate’s opinion, “expressed civil resistance to the government – and by insolent and delinquent conduct jeopardised the peace and quiet of citizens and the public peace and order”.

For the time being, the police is not arresting other students at the faculties of Electrical Engineering, Philology and Law in Belgrade, but para-police forces, brought in by the government-appointed deans, prohibit them to use the faculty premises and threaten them with physical violence. Armed thugs at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering do not allow 11 professors who have not signed the employment contract (called “the declaration of loyalty to the ruling party”) to enter the building.”

You can read them at TFF’s website athttp://www.transnational.org/features/dimitrijevic.html. or get them and other press releases from the Centre by writing to <bgcentar@EUnet.yu>. You may also want to want to write to Milos Vasic <mvasic@merkur.bits.net>, President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia who is an outspoken critic of the information law.

Dr. Oberg continues: “At least four factors operate here and bode ill for the future. The clampdown on human rights and civil society is probably 1) a sign of the government’s feeling of rapidly decreasing security and legitimacy; 2) a revenge for the huge civil society demonstrations almost two years ago initiated by the students; 3) related to the Kosovo conflict and the recent deal(s) between by FRY President Slobodan Milosevic and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke; and 4) the incredibly counterproductive policies of the international so-called “community” since 1991.

1) No government that is confident about its own legitimacy and strategy seeks systematically to prevent its citizens from knowing what goes (media) on and thinking about it (education). Fortunately, it won’t be possible either. There is human interaction and there are alternative media that the government can’t control such as satellites, e-mail, faxes and Internet. Independent media and universities are two forces which can threaten the system. The third is popular movements, civil society organizations, or NGOs. So, we should expect them to be next in line as a NGO law is being drafted. Around the time of the bombing threat against Serbia, deputy prime minister Vojeslav Seselj demanded that the USA should “withdraw their quislings like members of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Belgrade (Intellectual) Circle, Women in Black, and not leave them as hostages. Maybe we can not reach every airplane but we will grab those that are close to us.”

2) The energy of the civil society mobilisation has disappeared. There is widespread apathy – not even a million of people in the street could change anything, so what can? Well, they could have but what started out as a genuine autonomous movement for democracy was co-opted by power-gaming male opposition politicians who fought each other. Thus, for instance, Mr. Vuk Draskovic is – quite predictably – once again loyal with the system.

In addition, the Serbian economy is down the drain as a result of the sanctions and the lack of a strategy for economic reforms. As if this was not enough, Serbia also has Europe’s largest refugee problem, 650.000 from Croatia and Bosnia – conveniently forgotten by US and European human rights groups and European governments. People in poverty who have to fight for their minimum existence day-by-day in a society that pays – if at all it does – its professors 200-400 DM a months are so humiliated by their leaders and foreigners alike that it requires superhuman efforts to also struggle for democratic change. But the guide below shows that people miraculously do, in spite of all.

3) It looks like one aim of the new laws is to prevent citizens from realising that vital parts of Serbia’s governance is now in the hands of the US, OSCE, and NATO – in military as well as civil, political terms. For years, president Milosevic who always claimed that Kosovo was an internal matter, took no steps except a) increasing repression and b) suggesting a referendum in which practically all citizens expressed their resistance to foreign mediation. That is exactly what they’ve got now and will have more of in the future.

It’s my judgment that the Milosevic-Holbrooke deal is the first step in saying goodbye to Kosmet-Metohija. That’s what intellectuals, media and popular movements in Serbia have understood long ago could happen anyway given the self-defeating stubbornness on both sides – and they never cared too much about Kosovo anyhow. But the regime can’t have them saying aloud to the rest of the people that Kosovo will be lost sooner or later (although not won for the Albanians, for sure). Neither can you have an open debate about the fact that Serbia has been deprived of vital aspects of the control it is supposed to have over its affairs as a sovereign state. So, since the international community got what it wanted, why should it protest human rights violations?

4) Finally, since 1991 international government circles have largely ignored the support to dissidents, small opposition parties, youth, women, human rights people, peace movements etc. in the republics of ex-Yugoslavia. The effects of the sanctions in Serbia is to strengthen the non-peoples’ organisations (the government) and undermine the peoples’ organisations. What an injustice it is that Serbian intellectuals – young and old – are practically prevented from receiving government grants, scholarships, project support and in general take part in international academic exchanges and programs because of the policies of the EU, the US and NATO.

Jan Oberg concludes: “Pressure creates counterpressure. I believe the internal and external cage makers will eventually help civil society to come together in civil resistance, for democratisation. There is already an alternative university in the making, there is a new “Belgrade Open School” formed by some of the finest intellectuals and educators. There is a students’ “Resistance Movement” and there are excellent NGO helpers and grant-makers such as Soros Open Society. The Serbian society has great human and cultural potentials.

Perhaps one day even Serbs and Albanians will come together in an understanding that the lack of peace in a structural sense, the lack of democracy and the “double-caged” erosion of the Serbian civil society is their common problem.

But intellectuals, media people and NGOs throughout Europe must wake up. The EU and other government organisations must open up for media and academic co-operation, for joint NGO projects. And if we mean business by democratisation and humanism and democracy, all sanctions must be lifted; they’ve been a mistake since 1991 and a violation of human rights. In short, let’s help citizens of Serbia to free themselves from both cages and shape their own future!”

 

G U I D E

Acquaint yourself with the situation and ask what you can best do to help:

• MEDIA CENTER <mediac@opennet.org> and <mediac@opennet.org>http://www.mc.org.yu and http://www.mediacenter.opennet.org.

• CAA, Centre for Antiwar <caa@caa.org.yu>

• CAA Council for Human Rights <council@caa.org.yu>

• Group MOST <most@caa.org.yu>

• Radio B92 News, one of the best independent sources <b92eng@opennet.org>http://207.10.94.56/opennet/b92inet.html/

• Write to Father Sava, the “Internet Monk” in Decani, Kosovo and ask to be included on his listserv for news from Serbia, including Kosovo, at “Fr. Sava”<decani@EUnet.yu> http://www.egroups.com/list/kosovo/

• Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade <hlc@EUnet.yu> http://www.hlc.org.yu

• Civil Alliance of Serbia, Vesna Pesic <vpesic@EUnet.yu>

• Democratic Party of Serbia, Vojeslav Kostunica <dss@dssrbije.org.yu>

• Women in Black, Belgrade <awcasv@eunet.yu>

• Belgrade Open School <bos@opennet.org> – website http://www.bos.opennet.org.

• The Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Jiri Dienstbier’s reports are UN General Assembly Docs A753/322 of September 11 and Addendum of Oct 30, 1998. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Genevahttp://www.unhchr.ch/. Office in Belgrade headed by Barbara Davis <davisb@un.org>

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