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Independent Serbian papers dent state media’s news monopoly

January 29, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Djordje Todorovic is working on faith alone.

The young reporter hasn’t been paid since November, when he defected from another paper to found the independent Demokratija daily, which has just four other reporters.

With President Slobodan Milosevic dependent on the state news media to wage his propaganda campaign against pro-democracy protesters, staff members of Serbian state TV and pro-regime papers always get their salaries _ even when other wages and pensions are delayed for months.

But Demokratija is on the other side. It tells the story the state media twists or ignores _ how Milosevic’s Socialists annulled opposition election victories in Belgrade and 13 other cities, sparking daily street protests for the past nine weeks.

Newsprint and printing are expensive, and the cover price of Demokratija is half that of government-run dailies. It stays afloat only because the staff works for nothing.

``This paper is fueled by enthusiasm, not money,″ Todorovic said, parking his coffee cup amid overflowing ashtrays, an empty bottle of whisky and scattered newspapers.

Demokratija and a handful of other independent newspapers are the only alternative to state news media that Milosevic’s Socialists seem prepared to tolerate.

State television, intensely pro-government, remains the main source of news, particularly in rural areas, home to most of the 43 percent of Serbians considered functional illiterates.

Newspapers are not overtly harassed. But independent journalists interested in reporting both sides of the story are not welcome at government news conferences. None can use state printing or distribution networks.

The only choice is delivery outside Belgrade by private car, bus or train. Radovic says about a quarter of his newspaper’s daily 80,000 copies are distributed outside the capital.

Two independent dailies, Dnevni Telegraf and Nasa Borba, have been around for some years _ the government apparently has tolerated their limited circulation rather than risk international condemnation by shutting them down.

Demokratija and Blic, both tabloids, are newcomers, launched around the time of the current turmoil. Demokratija’s masthead proudly proclaims ``ab ovo″ _ Latin for ``from the egg,″ an allusion to the thousands of eggs thrown by anti-Milosevic protesters at buildings housing the state news media.

The four independent newspapers report what government dailies don’t _ the daily protests drawing tens of thousands to Belgrade streets; the fight over who runs television; the foreign pressure on Milosevic to make him give up all the cities the opposition won.

Fed by the need to know in times like these, circulation is healthy _ together, the four dailies sell more than 300,000 copies a day, and their staffs estimate readership is at least double that. The newcomers sell for one dinar _ 25 cents _ and grab readers with splashy layouts.

``By getting this large circulation and creating a large audience, we’ve dented Vecernje Novosti and Politika,″ said Blic’s chief editor, Manojlo Vukotic, referring to two major state-run dailies. ``We are opening people’s eyes.″

As evidence, Blic has letters from the countryside.

Vladan Spremic, from the small town of Jagodina, urged Blic to ``fight, in the name of truth and justice.″ From the southern town of Istok, four readers urged Vukotic ``not to cave in.″

Managers of the independents acknowledge that the turmoil has helped them, but they expect to survive and compete in what they hope will be an opening news market.

``The truth will still need to be told,″ said Vukotic, who was chief editor of the Borba daily newspaper until it was forced to toe the government line. ``The elections are just one farce that need to be exposed. There are so many other frauds.″

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