This is close look to the Internet situation in Serbia, from within an organization, Radio B92, that offers Internet access. The general attitude of the Serbian public towards Internet has evolved through all the expected stages, from ignorance to worship to finally the status as a tool for spreading tolerant sensibility in the society.
ContentsThe Dark Ages and a Struggle to Connect
Radio B92 and its Internet Project
The Struggle for Content
The Regime and the Net: The Whole Circle
Conclusion: Open Access For All
The Dark Ages and a Struggle to ConnectThe story of Serbia and the Internet is long and, in detail, touching, with its share of ups and downs. In the days of former Yugoslavia, Serbia was, with all the republics, a member of the European Academic and Research Network (EARN). With EARN, the academic community was able to send and receive electronic mail. There were also bulletin boards, but none were connected to Internet. When various sanctions were imposed on Serbia in 1992, the EARN connection was cut off. As a digression, it is worth mentioning that the link to EARN was severed during huge anti-government student protests in the summer of 1992. Some professors at Belgrade University that took part in that anti-regime movement sent mail to EARN's officials with a desperate plead to leave even a tiny opening available for fresh electronic air. But EARN's administrators were silent and that window was closed.
The Internet situation became quite critical. From 1992 to 1994 , a telephone line and X.25 switch was needed to access the Internet, for those with the means to reach some machine outside the Serbia. So, only a minority, basically in the university, could experiment with the power of Internet and take a look at the horizon of computer networking. Simultaneously, there was a continuous effort by various non-formal groups to find a way to the Net, one way or the other, and to offer that possibility to the general public.
Radio B92 and its Internet ProjectBelgrade independent Radio B92 was and still is an organization with an influence that goes beyond the scope of a local radio station. A number of intellectuals were included in Radio B92 projects, including one, started in 1993, to establish an Internet site within B92. The obstacles were great, with total misunderstanding from Serbia's official agencies and departments to extreme difficulties in locating foreign partners willing to work on the project in a country under international sanctions.
A tiny light at the end of the tunnel appeared in September 1994 when the Amsterdam Internet site XS4ALL agreed to become an Internet provider for B92. It took over a year for B92 to clear all of the paperwork, locate space, arrange for just one leased telephone line to Amsterdam, and find funding for this new adventure.
OpenNet.Org,Belgrade Radio B92's Internet site, opened on November 14, 1995.
OpenNet was the first Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Belgrade, and was the only provider in Serbia until March 1996. The only organization supportive of the project with B92 was (and still is) the Fund for an Open Society. The opening of the site required more than two years of continuous effort, overcoming all kinds of obstacles. Certainly, the constant lack of support from the regime, towards both B92 and Internet, did not help. The state-controlled PTT (Post, Telegraph, and Telephone) was unwilling to sell any local telephone lines or provide a digital link to the ISP in Amsterdam. So, until quite recently, the site operated on just a 28.8-kbps leased line with seven dial-up lines rented from nearby organizations. Under very expensive terms, OpenNet has just started a 64-kbps link to Amsterdam.
The general intention of OpenNet was:
- to offer Internet access and education to the public without discrimination.To that purpose, a classroom with a few computers was set immediately so individuals could access the Internet and learn about it, too. When OpenNet started, there was a great deal of interest in the Internet, but very little knowledge about it from a practical standpoint.
- to give Internet access to the independent media, such as B92.The introduction of Internet as an everyday tool for the media work was new. The ultimate goal was to introduce the Internet to journalists and build an infrastructure that could work as a carrier for news, stories, and articles.
- to open interactive communication with listeners and fans of Radio B92, anywhere and at any time. Many young and educated people left the country when the sanctions were imposed, so the Internet became a natural way to contact them.
Other ProvidersIn the spring of 1996 two other providers appeared in Serbia:
- MrSystems (a branch office of EUnet). MrSystems is closely tied to several large, pro-regime banking corporations and operates over a two-mbps link to Amsterdam. Since its start, MrSystems has enlisted hundreds of users and established itself as the biggest commercial provider in Serbia. This development opened up possibilities for massive dial-up access to Internet.
- University link was also established in a joint project with Belgrade University and a PTT-privatized company. It operates on 256-kbps satellite link, a curiosity. Why? The Serbian legislative does not recognize satellite transmissions (VSAT or Very Small Aperture Terminal), so there is no law which defines a VSAT permit. In any case, all the departments at Belgrade University are connected to that link. Universities in other towns in Serbia are not as lucky as those in Belgrade, with only a few connected to that link.
The Struggle for ContentThe first Web site, Welcome to OpenNet, with a host in Serbia was opened immediately after OpenNet started. It contains information on B92 and its projects (radio itself, publishing, films, books, CD production, and other efforts). Due to the limited bandwidth, two mirror sites were opened in the United States (http://moumee.calstatela.edu/sii/b92, http://www2.opennet.org).
In May 1996, Web OdrazB92 and electronic distribution (subscription at email@example.com) of Radio B92 news started. News updates are provided at least twice a day. Starting in December, 1996, Radio B92 filed news updates (English and Serbian versions) in RealAudio format to its XS4ALL page RadioB92 in danger. The RealAudio information drew a great deal of attention, beyond all expectations, so OpenNet has started live broadcasts of B92 programs. People from all over the world downloaded Audio files are downloaded by individuals all around the world and then rebroadcast.
Other providers are also at work on the Web, but until recently have not been drawing much Internet attention. It is worth mentioning that student protests appeared immediately in the Internet with the Students' Protest 1996/97 Official Web Site on an academic server in Belgrade. This site was a major source of information on developments in the students' movement.
The Regime and the Net: The Whole CircleSerbian authorities seem to be ambivalent to the Internet. On one hand, they anticipate that the Internet will become the essential information carrier worldwide. On the other hand, the regime does not want the Internet to spread on a huge basis in the country. In the beginning, the authorities totally ignored the Internet, until Radio B92 opened its site. Suddenly, the Internet became a governmental task of utmost importance. As a consequence, a large private bank, BK, which at the time was closely tied to the regime, revealed its Internet presence with all of the support of the state-controlled PTT.
The events that took place during the protests of the public and students threw a new light on the Internet in Serbia. Thousands of individuals and organizations were connected to the Net. They discovered that the Internet could be a very important tool in spreading information, without state control. OpenNet, Radio B92's Internet site, spread news and audio newscasts as well as an online program. These electronic broadcasts occurred even when the Radio itself was banned. In addition, the student protest Web site started a series of actions on the Net, from soliciting letters of support to throwing eggs, via mail, at certain governmental institutions. By all means, one could observe the present situation in Serbia as an Internet revolution, introducing a standard of protest for citizens, and providing a potential for other uses of technology that still needed to be investigated.
From the beginning, the regime was aware of the fact that the Internet is open. In that field, they do not have much to offer. There were some attempts by the ruling parties to present themselves on the Web, but presentations were not very revealing. In some ways, the regime reacted to the obvious advantage and far better usage of the Net by independent media and student protesters in the only way it could, by silence and ignorance. It was clear from the start that the only way that the Internet could be controlled would have been to cut off all the telephone lines to the West. Such an extreme action would have fully revealed the repressive nature of the regime. So, they just let the Internet be, unable to react or offer arguments to the Internet audience. Simply, there was a total lack of adaptation to the new media. To many of the officials, the Internet is just a word and nothing more. Their behavior reflects their habits of working with an orchestrated media, where there was little, if any, dialogue.
As an example, examine the recent interview of the director of the Federal Informatics Bureau, Nikola Markovic, provided to the state-controlled newspaper "Politika." The topic of the interview was the state of the Internet in Yugoslavia. In this interview, Markovic provided misinformation, such as stating that Internet access was not possible in Yugoslavia during sanctions. Markovic did not mention Radio B92's OpenNet, although OpenNet was the first provider in Yugoslavia, working a few months before the sanctions were lifted. Indeed, Markovic is very well aware of this history, because he had initiated a meeting with OpenNet as, at that time, the only Internet provider in Yugoslavia. In addition, he mentioned a minor Belgrade company that is operating as a provider, even though it is working occasionally over the satellite link without a permit. On the other hand, the Federal Informatics Bureau is working without any results on legislative regulations for satellite connections. In light of these conditions, it seems odd that Markovic publicly mentioned an Internet provider that works as a pirate.
Conclusion: Open Access For AllThe present situation in Serbia shows how important the Internet can be for communities trying to reach higher democratic standards. One can push this argument to its logical extreme and judge a democratic bias in a community by the strength of groups and organizations that popularize, spread, and otherwise humanize the Internet. It is crucial that small and under developed communities need to be helped and supported by all means, in encouraging their desire to be connected. Access to the Internet for the general public should not be left just to the authorities and legislators. Perhaps access to the Internet should be recognized as a fundamental and basic human right. Such a recognition could help many organizations and individuals around the world remove obstacles that prevent or reduce access to the Internet.
The AuthorDrazen Pantic was born in Belgrade in 1956. With a Ph.D. in mathematics and a specialty in probability and random processes, he is a professor in the Department of Mathematics at Belgrade University. For the last 15 years, he has been working in various institutes and departments of the University as a researcher and professor. He started to use computers in 1981 to prepare research papers for publication. Electronic mail and the Internet followed, as a tool for academic exchange and communication with colleagues. He is also the Internet coordinator at Radio B92.
postal address: Radio B92, Makedonska 22/V, 11000 Belgrade, Yugoslavia
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