A brave fight to save B-92

Robin Hamman tells how a Belgrade radio station was able to defy Milosevic, if only briefly
Until 2 April, Radio B-92, an independent FM station based in Belgrade, had been a respected source of independent news in the Balkans, winning a number of international press and media awards, including the prestigious "Free Your Mind" award presented by MTV Europe in 1998. Its broadcasts of music and uncensored news reports were heard across Serbia through a network of local partner stations. Its signal was also picked up by the BBC World Service and retransmitted via satellite around the world.

B-92's coverage of anti-government protests in Belgrade in 1996 and recent events in Kosovo, against the wishes of the Milosevic government, meant that it has always operated under the constant threat of closure. On 23 March, with Nato bombardment imminent, the transmitter of Radio B-92 was confiscated by the authorities and its editor-in-chief, Veran Matic, was held in custody at a police station for more than eight hours. But B-92 stood its ground and continued to provide music and news via its website (www.b92.net) for 10 days. This was made possible through the co-ordinated efforts of B-92 staff and Internet activists across Europe, who launched the Help B-92 campaign.

In early March, many of these activists had come together for the Next Five Minutes Tactical Media Conference (www.dds.nl/n5m) in Amsterdam, where discussions took place on how best to organise and run campaigns using the media. Plans were made for using the Internet to develop support networks and resource-sharing among allied groups. At the conference, Radio B-92 staff had given a presentation about their work and the various partnerships they had already set up.

According to Geert Lovink, a prominent Dutch media activist, talks between B-92 and other groups throughout Europe started as early as 1992. In 1993, an organisation called Press Now! was set up to support independent media production in Yugoslavia. The Help B-92 campaign, which was organised by Lovink and other activists, is a continuation of the support network started with Press Now! In addition to providing technical support for B-92 and other independent news providers in Yugoslavia, campaign organisers set up a bank account for donations. They have been publicising the plight of B-92 and are providing a contact point for journalists and others interested in the war.

Because of the dangerous political situation and frequent crackdowns against the Serbian media, B-92 decided early on to allow xs4all, an Internet service provider started by a group of Dutch media activists, to host its site from the Netherlands. By doing this, they hoped to keep the site out of the reach of Serbian officials. The Dutch ISP also provided the expertise and backbone needed for B-92 to create its own ISP in Serbia, which was used to link independent media producers throughout the country.

In December 1996, B-92 supported political demonstrations against the Milosevic regime, in the process becoming the most listened-to station in Belgrade, before Serbian officials banned B-92's broadcasts. In response, B-92 began using technology from Real Networks to stream live audio broadcasts and short video clips from its website.

Following the government ban on B-92's terrestrial broadcasts in March, the Help B-92 campaign's Web-savvy support group was able to help the station continue to provide Real Audio streams of music and news. The campaign secured a pledge from Real Networks to provide an unlimited amount of audio and video stream connections to B-92. Anonymous e-mail lists were developed to protect the identity of those wishing to express their views about the war, and message boards linking to the campaign site buzzed with information. Encrypted e-mail services were provided for journalists and others in Yugoslavia who found themselves under threat. The campaign created a website banner in support of B-92, which is now displayed on hundreds of sites around the world, and more than 15 million visitors are reported to have accessed the B-92 site since the beginning of the Nato bombardment.

Then, on 2 April, 10 days after they confiscated the transmitter of B- 92, Serbian police entered and sealed B-92's offices. All members of staff were sent home and a new general manager was appointed by Serbian officials. The former director of B-92, Sasa Mirkovic, issued a statement through the website vowing that B-92 would "find a solution how to continue broadcasting our signal and to inform all our audience all over the world. At the end, I would like to say that we all have to keep the faith."

Although the B-92 website remains online, visitors are no longer able to access live news and music streams. Subsequently the campaign, along with members of Press Now!, has started a project called Open Channels for Kosovo (www.dds.nl/openchan nels). According to Richard de Boer, a project spokesman, Open Channels is an information service rather than just a support group. Activists are working to translate and post e-mails, messages, audio reports and other information coming from independent news sources inside Yugoslavia.

Drazen Pantic, a Serbian mathematics professor who was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation's 1999 Pioneer Award (www.eff.org /promo/ 99pioneer.html) for his work developing OpenNet and other B-92 networking initiatives, confirms that "for now there is no [risk] of the B-92 page being hijacked by the regime". However, Pantic concedes that it appears unlikely that B-92 will be able to resume providing live content online under present circumstances.

By closing B-92, the Milosevic regime may have succeeded in softening the voice of one independent news source in Serbia. However, because of the distributed nature of the Net, and the well-organised support networks of activists using it, the regime has little chance of silencing the flood of independent news coming out of Serbia and Kosovo.

"People will continue to send e-mail as long as there are telephone switches," says Geert Lovink. "But if Nato bombs them [the switches], the telling of stories by independent sources in Yugoslavia will also end."

Donations to the Help B-92 campaign are being used to provide support and equipment for the continued broadcast of independent news in and from Serbia and Kosovo. For more details, see the Help B-92 website (helpB92.xs4all.nl) or e-mail helpB92@xs4all.nl