16 February 1998

Alert

HRW writes open letter to authorities regarding broadcasting regulations


Incident details

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(HRW/IFEX) - The following is an open letter sent by Human Rights Watch on
16 February 1998 to the leaders of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
(Serbia) regarding the recent announcement on 6 February 1998 of an open bid
for temporary radio and television frequencies, and other laws regulating
broadcasting in Serbia. It was sent to Yugoslav President Slobodon
Milosevic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, Yugoslav Minister of Foreign
Affairs Zivadin Jovanovic, Yugoslav Minister of Transport and
Telecommunications Dojcilo Radojevic, Serbian Minister of Information
Radmila Milentijevic, and Yugoslav Secretary for Information Goran Matic.





***Updates IFEX alert dated 12 February 1998***



"Dear Sirs,


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). Your consistent
unwillingness to establish a clear and democratic set of laws to regulate
the electronic media violates your government's obligations under Serbian,
Yugoslav, and international law to guarantee freedom of the press and
freedom of expression.


The open bid for temporary radio and television frequencies, announced on 6
February 1998, 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 license 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 licenses and are free to broadcast without interference.


In mid-1997, for example, the government closed 77 independent,
opposition-run or commercial television and radio stations on the basis that
they were "illegal." Many of the stations did not possess 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.


    Yours,


    [signed]

    Holly Cartner

    Executive Director

    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


    Background Information


    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 30 June 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 30 June 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 6 February 1998, 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 licenses for electronics and construction,
    and provide an as-yet undisclosed fee.





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