CEOL - Serb court fines newspapers, television

BELGRADE, Dec 9, 1999 -- (Reuters) A Yugoslav court fined two newspapers and a television station a total of 970,000 dinars on Wednesday for violating Serbia's tough information law by publishing slanderous allegations by an opposition party, the media said.

The amount equals $84,500 under the official dinar rate and about $22,200 under the black market rate.

Serbian Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, both from the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, filed the charges against the media on Tuesday.

Studio B television and the Danas and Blic newspapers carried a recent statement by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, a fierce rival of the Radical party which forms part of the ruling coalition of President Slobodan Milosevic.

The statement linked the Radical Party to a car crash which killed four Serbian Renewal Movement members and injured the party's leader Vuk Draskovic on October 3. Draskovic branded it an assassination attempt against him. The Radical Party denied any involvement.

Representatives of the media said at the hearing they did not consider themselves guilty, saying they were doing their jobs carrying an official statement of a parliamentary party.

But they also said they did not believe the court would take their arguments into account, saying before the ruling that they expected to be fined.

Ruling hits opposition, editor says

"This was not a trial but a whipping of the independent media and their editors. The judge has not taken into account any of our claims," Dragan Kojadinovic, editor-in-chief of the Studio B television, told Reuters.

Kojadinovic said the ruling was not only directed against the media but also against opposition parties which will now only be able "to post their statements on lamp posts and fences".

Danas and its editors were fined a total of 360,000 dinars, Blic 310,000, and Studio B 300,000 dinars, they said. It was not clear why the amounts varied as the charges were the same.

"It is bad because they are exhausting us financially and politically," said Jelka Jovanovic, Danas duty editor.

Opposition leaders and Western officials say the media law is designed to intimidate and in some cases bankrupt non-government media. The government argues that it is meant to prevent the spread of slanderous and irresponsible allegations.

Editor-in-Chief Veselin Simonovic of the Blic daily said the ruling was aimed at scaring the media and stopping them from publishing anything critical of the authorities but said his paper would not let the authorities get away with it.

"We are not intimidated by this and will continue to publish information that interests our readers," he said.

The two ministers did not sue the Serbian Renewal Movement over the allegations, part of an increasingly shrill war of words between the government and its domestic opponents.

The opposition is campaigning for Milosevic to step down, accusing him of bringing the country to ruin.

The pro-government media regularly accuse opposition leaders of treachery for their links with the West and incompetence and corruption in the towns they control.

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