Even a Serb Dictator Can't Censor the Internet

While images of Serbians marching in Belgrade fill the TV airwaves, another wave of dissent is playing out in cyberspace. Just as fax machines played a pivotal role in the downfall of the former Soviet Union, the Internet is now serving a vital role in providing information to the citizens of Serbia protesting the rule of president Slobodan Milosevic. While the local evening TV news in Belgrade offers sanitized accounts of visits by foreign dignitaries and official government pronouncements, activist energies are brewing online, as dissidents coordinate their movements electronically -- by e-mail, homebrew Web sites, even radio over the Net.Traditionally, independent radio station B92 has been the primary source of unfiltered information about fast-breaking political developments in the country. Research conducted by Belgrade's Institute of Social Sciences showed the station ranked in fifth place, just behind the country's three state-owned TV outlets and a daily newspaper, as the most influential medium among the population. ÊFor a few days late last month, B92 -- whose transmitter is located on a site owned by the state -- mysteriously went off the air.In response to the silencing of B92, international radio stations such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe expanded their broadcasts with B92 news programs, and the station itself promptly took to the Net with audio transmissions that can be heard by anyone with a basic soundcard on their computer. ÊAlthough strong international pressures eventually forced Milosevic to restore radio B92 to the airwaves, the cybercasts continue.Today, working around traditional barriers to free expression, these online activists have forcefully entered the electronic domain, via both audio and the printed word. Slick is not the word to describe these sites, some of which are very slow, others confusing to navigate around, with the odd missing link or typo. ÊThe opening page of the Protest Of 96 site is low on graphics. But there are the latest updates on the rising tide of dissatisfaction with the current government, serving as a gateway to a whole network of subversive sites full of information about anti-Milosevic demonstrations. ÊIt's been set up by the students of Belgrade University, who take pains to insist their efforts are not motivated by any political party. Even CNN's online news service has provided a link to the Protest Of 96 homepage, which received over 2,000 hits on its first day online. ÊProtest pagesProminent features on the site include a Declaration Of Decency, in which the students demand that the authentic electoral will of the citizens be respected as a basic democratic right. Also listed are statements of support from professors and teaching staff at various other universities, some of which have set up their own home protest pages, like the faculties of mathematical and natural sciences, which boasts a particularly spirited collection of photographs from recent street protests, as does http://galeb.etf.bg.ac. yu/~protest96/pictures.html.Press Now provides current updates and links to regional media covering the situation in the former Yugoslavia, as does Yugoslavia.com News. There are independent press organizations as well, such as Medienhilfe Ex-Jugoslawien founded in December 1992 by a group of journalists committed to the struggle for independent media.Broader overviews of the Serbian conflict are available at sites like the Dutch Balkan Media & Policy Monitor, and for a historical perspective on the current crisis in this region, there's the more conventional Yugoslavia -- On The Internet Web site, which offers various news updates, providing highlights from daily Serb newspapers as well as background information about Yugoslav people, places, language and food.Want to write your own message expressing solidarity? There are e-mail addresses of key protest leaders, who are reportedly receiving an avalanche of electronic support from well-wishers around the world, many from former Serbs who have emigrated to distant lands. You can also get phone numbers to fax your protest to Milosevic yourself.Real ChatEven a "chat" channel has been set up -- at irc.rcub.bg.ac.yu, channel #protest -- enabling online activists to communicate with each other in real time, as events unfold.Belgrade students have anticipated potential shutdowns by arranging to have their own sites "mirrored" on foreign servers, ensuring the continued free flow of information. Web site owners who are interested in providing a secondary means of accessing pages only have to download one large file, out of which an entire alternate site can be assembled.

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