Border robbery frustrates TV's dissenting voice

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The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS did not come to Studio B this year. The present that the independent Belgrade television station had been eagerly awaiting - an American gift of new cameras, lenses and video monitors - has been stolen, apparently by Serbian nationalists. The story of the theft, if true, does not bode well for the future of dissent in the former Yugoslavia.

It all started with a gift from the International Media Fund, a US-sponsored agency created to help former Eastern bloc countries to develop a free press. But sanctions against Serbia were an obstacle to delivery. So when the United Nations voted last month at Washington's urging to exempt the dollars 238,000 (pounds 150,000) of television equipment from sanctions it was meant as a small gesture to facilitate pluralism in Yugoslavia.

Studio B was the first independent television station in Yugoslavia and has been an outspoken critic of Serbia's hardline nationalist President, Slobodan Milosevic, during its two years on the air. The effort to strengthen Studio B became even more crucial in the run-up to Serbia's presidential elections, in which state-run television played a controversial role, broadcasting pro-Milosevic, anti-opposition propaganda all day.

To radical Serbian nationalists, it was an act of aggression. 'After the UN vote, we started receiving anonymous phone calls accusing us of being fifth columnists and traitors,' said Dragan Kojadinovic, the managing director of Studio B. 'It was then that we were told 'that equipment will never reach you traitors'.' Since then Mr Kojadinovic said several employees of the station had been threatened. Last week he went home to find a funeral wreath nailed to his door. He now carries a 9mm pistol and wears a flak jacket in the street.

On Christmas Day Mr Kojadinovic received a call from the director of the Yugoslav Commerce Company, an importer, to tell him that the equipment had been stolen. On the night of 18-19 December, two days before the elections, two trucks from the Yugoslav Commerce Company cleared Yugoslav customs on the Hungarian border with the equipment. Outside the border town of Subotica the trucks were overtaken by two cars which then had an accident, forcing the trucks to stop. Armed men surrounded them and forced the drivers out of their cabs. They were drugged and awoke five days later in a house near Indjija, in Vojvodina.

Studio B immediately wrote to the police and to Mr Milosevic informing them of the theft. Mr Kojadinovic went on the air to report what happened. So far there has been no official reaction, but on Sunday the pro-Milosevic daily Becernje Novosti reported that the story was 'probably fabricated'.

Then on Christmas Day a so-called Citizen's Group of Vojvodina announced that it had presented 'patriotic' Channel S in Pale, the TV station of Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Republic of Bosnia, with new equipment. 'It is probably just a coincidence,' Mr Kojadinovic said with a smile.