KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 30 July 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

I. SERBIA: VISHNU COMMUNITY DENIED RIGHT TO REPLY. Keston
News Service has made repeated attempts to ask two of Serbia's leading
media organisations about charges levelled by the local Vishnu faith
community that they have been unable to gain the right to reply to what they
regard as slanderous coverage of their community. No response has been
made either to written or telephoned questions. A member of the board of
the Independent Journalists� Association of Serbia told Keston that a media
campaign against �so-called ''sects''� is underway, reflecting �rising
nationalism and xenophobia� in Serbian society.

II. SERBIA: `INTOLERANCE' OBSTRUCTS VISHNU COMMUNITY
ACTIVITY. Serbia's Vishnu faith community complains that it faces not just
slanderous media coverage to which it cannot respond, but that popular
sentiment against it has hindered other public activity, including practical
help to refugees. Since its Belgrade temple was demolished by thugs in 1993
it has been unable to acquire a permanent meeting-place.

I. SERBIA: VISHNU COMMUNITY DENIED RIGHT TO REPLY

by Branko Bjelajac and Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Despite repeated attempts, Keston News Service has been unable to gain
responses from two of Serbia's leading media organisations to charges
levelled by the local Vishnu faith community that they have been unable to
gain the right to reply to what they regard as slanderous coverage of their
community. Bozidar Nikolic, editor of Serbian state television RTS, and
Vojislav Tufegdzic, editor of the Belgrade daily paper Blic, failed to respond
to Keston's written questions sent to each on two separate occasions over the
past month. Neither was available by telephone on any of the times Keston
called and no-one else either at RTS or Blic was prepared to tell Keston why
they had not been prepared even to discuss complaints about specific
coverage with the Vishnu community, why they had refused the Vishnu
community the right to reply and what policy each had laid down as editor
about coverage of the activity of religious minorities.

`There is a media blockade of small religious communities in Serbia,'
Atmabhu, a spokesman for the Yugoslav Vishnu Faith Community Veda,
told Keston in Belgrade on 25 June. `The situation is just becoming
unbearable.' Atmabhu, a Yugoslav national who prefers his family name not
be used, complained that his community is being denied the right to reply to
`an orchestrated media hate campaign against us' after a rash of what he
claims are inaccurate and often slanderous newspaper and television features
about his community. `We do not know why this campaign is underway and
public sentiment is going from bad to worse.'

Filip Mladenovic, a member of the board of the Independent Journalists�
Association of Serbia, told Keston such a campaign was underway, adding
that it reflected the mood in society. 'The media in Serbia are only following
popular sentiment, in its rising nationalism and xenophobia.' The chairman
of another leading media freedom organisation in Belgrade, while also
admitting privately that such a campaign existed, and deploring it, declined
to make any on-the-record comment.

Atmabhu reported an article in Blic in May about a man in the city of Nis
who committed suicide. `The article claimed he was our long-standing
member and indicated that this might be the reason for what he did, as his
parents asserted. Following this very disturbing news, we contacted our
members in the area and discovered that this young man had never been our
member. He only acquired a couple of our books. We heard that he was
under medical treatment in the local psychiatric hospital.' Atmabhu reported
that the Vishnu community contacted editor Tufegdzic, asking for an
opportunity to explain this and to stress that the faith opposed suicide. `The
editor was kind but adamant that he would not let us deny what had been
stated about us in his article. So, public damage was done to us again and we
were unable to respond and deny what had been reported.'

Atmabhu had even less success with RTS. `RTS is broadcasting a serial of
one-hour long programmes every Friday night where they attack many small
religious communities,' Atmabhu continued. `We were their target in two
programmes at the end of February. About three years ago, their crew came
to our meeting and very kindly asked to record our meeting and talk to our
members. We agreed. But the programme they produced was a perversion of
the truth. They twisted what our members said, took statements out of
context and made us look very bad. What they showed in their programmes
is not who we are.'

Atmabhu said he tried to see editor Nikolic, but his secretary never even let
him speak with him. `They have been avoiding us for months, giving all
kinds of excuses, from a sick child to a business trip.' In May the community
faxed an open letter to his office, asking for the right to reply, but received
no answer. `They spent almost two hours of their programme accusing us of
various lies, and now even the editor is not available for months. How are
we to achieve our legal rights?'

He cited another programme broadcast early in the year on a different state
TV channel, RTNS, in the northern province of Vojvodina which invited two
`deprogrammers', Zoran Lukovic and Alexander Senic, to a discussion on
`religious sects'. `They told very many lies about us and our religion and
philosophy.' No community members were invited onto the programme. `We
tried to react to this act of public violence. I was not permitted to even see
the editor, the guard in front of the building stopped me. I spoke on an
internal phone to some unidentified person, who said they just recorded what
others said, and that if we want to sue them, we should sue those who said
it.'

Mladenovic views the attacks on minority faiths as part of the nationalist
mood. 'Nationalism has brought us to this point of increased xenophobia,' he
declared. `The media coverage of so-called ''sects'' is just the continuation of
the same agenda.' He told Keston his association is `open to help' and is
inviting Veda representatives to approach us with their problems. `We will
contact the media editors in question and use our position and authority to
seek redress.' (END)

II. SERBIA: `INTOLERANCE' OBSTRUCTS VISHNU COMMUNITY
ACTIVITY

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service

Serbia's Vishnu faith community complains that it faces not just slanderous
media coverage to which it cannot respond (see separate KNS article), but
that popular sentiment against it has hindered other public activity.

Atmabhu, a spokesman for the Yugoslav Vishnu Faith Community Veda,
who declined to allow his full name to be published, told Keston News
Service in Belgrade on 25 June that such `intolerance' has on occasion hurt
those in need. In 1999 his community contacted the Radinac refugee camp
near Smederevo, a city 45 kilometres south of Belgrade. `We offered the
Red Cross a gift of one thousand cooked meals and we agreed to hold an
action day in the camp. Our members collected 1,000 US dollars, and for a
day and a night cooked and prepared good quality vegetarian food and went
to the camp. As soon as the food distribution started, someone called from
the Smederevo municipal office and ordered a halt to the food distribution
with no explanation. We were forced to throw the whole meal to fish
nearby.'

He cited another instance earlier this year when, after ten months of
meetings in a public restaurant in the former synagogue in Zemun, a part of
Belgrade, the owner cancelled further meetings. `He said someone had
called from Zemun municipal office and urged him to cancel our meetings.
We heard that one political party, the DHSS [Demo-Christian Party of
Serbia], was involved.' (The president of DHSS is the Minister of Justice in
the new Serbian government.)

The Veda community has been registered as a religious community in Serbia
since 1989, and was reregistered in 1995 when they changed the office
address. After a 1993 incident when a group of young men entered their
temple in Belgrade, beat ten members, destroyed the furniture and
demolished the temple, Veda has been forced to rent space for their irregular
meetings as they are unable to acquire a permanent meeting place. Recently,
they registered a local community in the northern city of Subotica (near the
Hungarian border), where relations with officials are `normal'.

According to Atmabhu, the Veda community in Serbia has about 400
members and up to 2,000 supporters and friends. No formal membership is
needed. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.