President Slobodan Milosevic gagged the loudest voices of Serbia's pro-democracy movement Wednesday by seizing control of independent radio and television stations here in the capital.
Police from an elite anti-terrorist squad stormed an office tower in the dead of night to wrest control of Studio B television, Radio B2-92 and Index Radio from the opposition, which is trying to force Milosevic from power.
The police also padlocked the newsroom of Blic, Yugoslavia's largest-circulation independent newspaper, whose offices are in the same 23-story building in central Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia and its largest republic, Serbia.
"The scale of the amputation of public opinion here is far bigger than ever before," said Veran Matic, founder of Radio B2-92 and head of Yugoslavia's independent media association. "This is an introduction to something far bigger."
The loss of the most important outlets for dissent against Milosevic stunned pro-democracy activists, who were left wondering whether street protests alone can reverse what the opposition called the president's decision to "enter into open dictatorship."
An estimated 30,000 protesters gathered in front of Belgrade City Hall on Wednesday night after the media closures, a crowd much smaller than the opposition drew in the middle of winter. When drunken soccer fans joined in and began throwing stones and setting garbage cans on fire, several thousand marchers clashed briefly with riot police.
The opposition has called for more street protests today amid deepening publiccynicism toward opposition leaders, many of whom are widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.
"I think opposition leaders long ago lost a sense of how serious the situation which we all find ourselves in really is," Matic said.
The independent newspaper Blic is determined to keep publishing with the aid of its two main competitors, Glas and Danas, which each agreed to publish four pages of reports by Blic writers each day.
Until Radio B2-92 finds another way to broadcast locally, it will transmit three daily newscasts over the Internet, Matic said. The British Broadcasting Corp. will pick up the programs and send them via satellite to 30 radio and 17 television stations across Yugoslavia, Matic said.
In language reminiscent of Yugoslavia's Communist dictatorship of the past, the decree said Studio B on several occasions had made "a public call for violent destruction of legally and legitimately elected state authority."
The decree was signed by two Serbian deputy prime ministers. But few here had any doubt that Milosevic is the driving force behind the crackdown.
U.S., allies to meet on crackdown
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will consult with the European allies next week on the possibility of joint action in response to the Yugoslav government's crackdown on the independent media, the State Department said Wednesday.
Spokesman Richard Boucher said the crackdown represents "a major step in efforts to preserve (President Slobodan) Milosevic's dictatorship. This nighttime police raid smacks of desperate Bolshevik-style oppression."
Albright will raise the issue at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Italy.