Protesters pull the plug on Milosevic's cosy vision of Serbia

Battle of the airwaves: As the regime crumbles, the nation is rejecting the state media's diet of lies
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The Independent Online
"I want to live in the land of RTS," says a slogan on the streets of Belgrade. Certainly, the Serbia portrayed by Serbian Radio and Television (to give RTS its full title) seems a charmingly cosy place. Watch the television evening news and you will learn: the economy is blooming; international links are flourishing; the President is a calm and confident hand on the tiller, bringing peace and prosperity to his country. There are occasional fleeting references to the story that has dominated front pages worldwide - mass protests which have threatened the regime as never before. But the protests appear small, and the views of the opposition are never heard.

According to Belgrade, the demonstrations are, in any case, a foreign virus. Last Friday night, coverage of the protests consisted largely of a report attacking The Independent's guide to people power, published earlier in the week. The news said that publication of The Independent's "Ten Commandments" showed the demonstrations were not homegrown, but deliberately stirred up abroad.

Radio Belgrade is sometimes even more imaginative: one report talked of how a branch of the CIA hypnotised the demonstrators with black magic. The pro-government daily Politika ignores the demonstrations, or gleefully confines itself to quoting evidence of the splits in the opposition.

The style of the television news is reminiscent of old-style Communism: lots of meetings and ceremonies and few glimpses of reality. Many who once supported Slobodan Milosevic talk bluntly of "terrible lies". Every night at 7.30pm, Belgrade echoes with clangs and whistles for a full half- hour, as Serbs hang out of their windows banging pots and pans to drown out the news. "It's a nice feeling," said one Belgrader. "It helps people to feel solidarity."

Side by side with the "regime news", however, alternative voices can be heard with increasing clarity. Broadcasting from some scruffy rooms on the fifth floor of an apartment block in Belgrade, the B92 radio station has gained both fame and influence, thanks partly to the authorities themselves. The authorities last month took B92 off the air for three days, describing its broadcasts as "illegal".

B92 complained, and casually referred to domestic and international interest in B92's problems and a planned press conference. It miraculously turned out that the closedown was an unfortunate accident caused by a technical hitch.

The broadcasting authority explained: "The broadcast was stopped due to a misfunction of the transmitter. Penetration of water into a coaxial antenna cable created some interference of the transmitter and antenna system... The transmitter and antenna system are now fully operational". "Coaxial cable" has more or less become a synonym for "ludicrous excuse" in a newly sceptical Belgrade.

B92's transmitter allows its output only to be heard in part of Belgrade. Within that limited area, its audience has tripled from 300,000 to more than a million. But B92 is no longer alone. A student radio station, Index, has become enormously popular. New newspaper titles, like Demokratija, are eagerly devoured. An opposition news magazine, Vreme, once read only by a tiny minority, has doubled its circulation to 60,000. Previously timid papers have become bolder.

Veran Matic, editor-in-chief of B92, is convinced that the changes in people's thinking can no longer be rolled back, even by the violence that some still expect. He notes the contrast between the reaction to the takeover last year of Studio B, an independent Belgrade TV station, and the recent closure of B92. "When the government took over Studio B, 500 people protested. When we were forbidden, the whole world protested ... The last two months have meant more for the citizens of Serbia than the past 40 years."

B92 has also become involved with publishing, for example, translations of The Death of Yugoslavia (an authoritative history of the conflict by Laura Silber and Allan Little, to accompany the BBC series of the same name), and an account of the Srebrenica massacres in 1995. Neither book makes easy reading for Serbs; they are painfully generous with the truth.

Mr Matic acknowledges that such tough reading will not immediately be popular. "Most people here still think Serbs didn't bomb Dubrovnik and Sarajevo isn't badly destroyed, and Srebrenica was an accident. It will be difficult to change. There won't be de-Nazification here, because the Hague tribunal has not done very well. They only get the little fish."

He is sure that changes are on the way, but that state television will be the last thing to change. "It will be the last thing Milosevic will give up. He's the first East European ruler who understood the power of TV. He realised he can control society better with the TV than with the police."