Informing Citizens in a Highly Restrictive Environment Using Low-Budget Multimedia Communications: A Serbian Case Study

Article excerpt

Introduction

Beginning in late 1980s, and formalized by the enactment of the restrictive Serbian Law on Public Information in 1998, the independent media in Serbia had been suppressed, persecuted, harassed and attacked by the former Yugoslav government led by Slobodan Milosevic. Using tactics, ranging from the bureaucratic takeover of media outlets, state-controlled broadcast-licensing competitions, to the brutal, still unsolved murder of independent newspaper editor Slavko Curuvija, the ruling regime created an environment hostile to the free press that alarmed human-rights groups around the world.

During this period, newspapers were seized, media outlets shuttered and journalists murdered. In response, the Association of Independent Electronic Media (hereinafter ANEM), the largest nongovernment radio and television network in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now Serbia & Montenegro) decided to develop a system for exchanging of news between TV stations the members of ANEM. The normal method for exchanging information, using expensive digital microwave transmitters, was not an option since due to the regime, ANEM's stations did not have the required financial resources.

The first decision of the ANEM's management was to establish the Technical Committee--an expert's body, aimed to do research and application of novel low-budget technologies to ANEM's stations. Several months before the Yugoslav federal elections on September 24, 2000, ANEM Technical Committee proposed a "Project on standardization of acquisition, information and communication systems in TV stations members of ANEM" (Nesic, Spasic, & Jovanovic, 2000). The project proposed the application of digital standards for video acquisition, non-linear video editing and communications in the local TV stations members of ANEM. This project offered a suitable solution for the exchange of news described in this paper.

To estimate the importance of such a system, two aspects have to be considered. The aspect related to the political constraints lies in the fact that the violent reactions of the regime against the media and citizens in the eve of democratic changes were real threat. Complete banning of free media and banning of public rallies were expected. Such action of the regime would have caused dramatic events, including clashes of police with citizens resulting in a number of injured or even dead. Dark forebodings related to the total suspension of the freedom of thought, expression and the press encouraged the ANEM's management to prepare its stations for forthcoming events. The Technical Committee seriously faced the following assignment: establishing of a system for production and the exchange of urgent news, with high redundancy and capability to survive in a hostile political environment, using low-budget technical solutions.

The second important aspect was technical constraint. Basic user's demand was to provide production and the reliable exchange of news packages in broadcast quality. In accordance with BBC news standard norm, the duration of each news package is approximately one minute and 45 seconds. Usual method for the exchange of video material between stations is by using the network of expensive microwave transmitters, but a lack of funds in the independent media as well as the state-controlled licensing of transmitting equipment excluded this solution. Other technical possibilities had to be considered, and there was nothing left for the Technical Committee to do but to propose using public communication services. Unfortunately, these services were ruined during the long period of sanctions and NATO bombing, and nothing but public telephony system was available. Very demanding user's requirements became more complex: a need for the reliable exchange of high-quality video (i.e. large video files) through devastated and state-controlled public telephony system, as fast as possible.

Because of constant financial exhausting, the independent local and regional TV broadcasters had to use the production equipment of customer instead of professional quality. …