As the year began, then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling socialists continued to resist ceding control of municipal councils and media outlets in 14 cities around the republic, where members of the democratic Zajedno coalition had won majorities in elections on November 17, 1996.

For three months last winter mass demonstrations brought unprecedented numbers of protesters into the streets to demand that Milosevic enforce the election results and hand over city-owned television and radio stations to his opponents. By January, it was clear that he would be forced into relinquishing his control over the local councils and broadcast media. He had already given up jamming the popular independent B-92 radio station in Belgrade in the face of mass rallies and international protests, including a plea in person by CPJ's Kati Marton during a special mission to Serbia in December 1996.

The pro-Milosevic, state-run press lost a large number of readers throughout the year to the independent print media. By December, the overall circulation of the independent press had surpassed that of all the state-owned publications. Diverse independent newspapers such as Blic, Nasa Borba, and Danas had become serious competition for established state-run dailies like Politika, while independent news agencies such as Beta and Fonet outpaced the official Tanjug as important news sources for the opposition-controlled municipal broadcast media.

The loss of the municipal broadcast media and the growing popularity of the independent press were clearly unacceptable to the ruling party, which faced parliamentary elections in the fall. Milosevic himself was legally barred from running for re-election as president of Serbia in the fall election and had become a candidate for president of Yugoslavia, to be elected by the Federal Assembly in July. The urgency for a socialist victory prompted his government to launch a two-pronged attack on the independent and opposition media that continued throughout the year.

The first line of attack involved the introduction of a new draft law on information in March by the Serbian Minister of Information, Radmila Milentijevic. The bill was clearly designed to restrict the independent media, by limiting the maximum broadcast audience for all non-public television and radio stations to 25 percent of the population and prohibiting any private person or organization from owning more than 20 percent of the media market.

Milentijevic boasted that the provisions were aimed at preventing the growth of monopolies. Critics, such as the Independent Association of Journalists (NUNS) and the Independent Media Union, pointed to the fact that the bill failed to address the state's monopoly on national broadcasting and its control of the three national television channels. The draft also required private newspapers to regularly declare on their front pages or covers any foreign funding or assistance they received.

Milosevic also pressed independent broadcasters on the murky issue of broadcast licenses. In early June, telecommunications officials announced a June 30 deadline for private broadcasters to submit the required documents to receive a temporary operating license, good only until the Federal Assembly adopted a new broadcasting law. As a warning to so-called "pirate" radio stations, the ministry banned most radio stations without permits during the week of June 2-6. A crisis ensued as broadcasters faced what they viewed as an impossible deadline with a procedure that was confusing and contradictory.

By June 30, not one license application was complete and soon federal authorities began shutting down radio and television stations. They confiscated broadcasting equipment and closed stations despite independent broadcasters' attempts at compliance with official demands. As of August, 77 radio and television stations had received notices that they were banned.

After Milosevic was elected and sworn in as president of Yugoslavia in July, the leader met with some opposition leaders concerned about the mass shutdown of local radio and television stations. The leader promised them equal access to media during the election campaign. On July 26, his government announced that a settlement of the licensing crisis would be postponed until after the September 21 elections for the Serbian legislature. However, station closures continued and tensions remained high over seized equipment. Eventually, all the stations managed to resume broadcasting through the elections, including Radio Boom 93 in Pozarevac, which had been banned since December 1996.

Political re-alignments may have played a greater role than international and domestic pressure in the Yugoslav leader's decision to temporarily back down from his campaign against independent broadcasters.

After the elections, broadcasters were given a new deadline of October 31 to submit all license documents. The deadline was moved again until after the Serbian presidential run-offs in December. By the end of the year, there was no word about a new deadline. But the Information Ministry announced that the government was drafting a new telecommunications law to resolve the matter and pledged that licenses would not be withheld from anyone for political reasons.

A struggle for control of republican and municipal broadcast media took place in Montenegro between outgoing president Momir Bulatovic and president-elect Milo Djukanovic, who served as the republic's premier. Following his victory in the October presidential elections, Djukanovic, viewed as a democrat, made personnel changes at RTV Montenegro, the republican channel. The new managers and editors have diversified their news sources to include independent and international agencies, and have given more air time to the opposition. The news now has a pro-Djukanovic slant and journalists tend to demonize Bulatovic. Most of the independent media in Montenegro, including the popular Radio Antenna M and Montena Fax news agency, who were often harassed by the Bulatovic administration, have taken a pro-Djukanovic line. Only the independent weekly newspaper Monitor seems to be independent. The regional state-run radio station, as well as the Serbian official press, have remained loyal to Bulatovic, who continued to refuse to recognize the election results and hand over power to his rival at year's end.

Montenegrin media have voiced concerns that any new federal telecommunications legislation that may transfer distribution of frequencies from the republican to the federal government will be discriminatory and take away their autonomy.

In the volatile, predominantly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo, the federal authorities continued to restrict private Albanian broadcast media. There is no local Albanian radio or television, but Kosovo has a variety of newspapers, chiefly Albanian-language, and some local Serbian publications.

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