Yugoslavia's ruling Communist Party, trying to blunt increasingly critical newspaper reporting, warned the country's news media today against "certain unacceptable tendencies" and told the press to adhere more closely to the party line.
The action came at a meeting of the party's Central Committee. The high-level session, devoted to media policy, capped months of mounting attacks by regional party officials who have accused several leading papers of attempting, in effect, to become independent power centers and mouthpieces for political provocateurs.
"It is necessary to give even more space to party ideology, the revolutionary traditions, patriotism, brotherhood and unity, and the successes to date," Dimce Belovski, a member of the party's presidium, declared in an introductory report.
Behind the party's ideological offensive is a national economic crisis, which has brought exceptionally tough coverage and critical judgments in the press against governing officials. There is evident concern in party circles that such a trend could lead to excessive criticism of Yugoslavia's Communist leadership.
"Even when dealing with weaknesses," Belovski said of the press, "we must take care not to fall prey to one-sided or generalized criticism."
Editors of the papers that have come under heaviest attack, mainly in the large republics of Serbia and Croatia, say they have muted their coverage recently so as not to provoke more aggressive party action.
"We are being more careful in order to avoid more unpleasant developments," said one senior Belgrade-based editor who asked not to be named. "They could still push us further. They really are afraid, and behaving like bulls in a china shop. Out of fear, anything could happen."
Editors already have been shuffled under party pressure at the Zagreb-based weekly Danas, a lively new paper that has been a focus of official attacks. In an apparent warning that similar shakeups could come, Belovski said: "In some environments concrete responsibility has been established for weaknesses and an incorrect orientation in editorial policy."
Several months ago, the Belgrade-based correspondent for the Croatian paper Vjesnik was jailed for 2 1/2 years. She had written a hard-hitting series about a farm credit corruption scheme in a village, but she was imprisoned not for what she wrote but under the broad charge of "hostile propaganda" for what she had been overheard saying about the Yugoslav system and leadership.
While the case itself drew protests from other Yugoslav journalists, what really sent a chill through the press was the later airing in the Federal Assembly of a police record of other offhand remarks that the journalist, Ranka Cicak, had made earlier in her life. The disclosures were seen by reporters here as a signal that Yugoslav authorities have similar extensive files on each of them.
Replying forcefully to party attacks, the leading Belgrade daily Politika last month said that journalism loses its role unless it can speak openly about life. Acknowledging that the press is part of society, the paper argued that as such it must reflect both positive and negative realities.
For the most part, journalists here are operating on the assumption that the current party offensive will not do lasting damage to their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Western diplomats, whose governments are completing the details of a $1.4 billion loan package to Yugoslavia, also tend to dismiss the uproar over the media as more noise than substance.
The Yugoslav press generally has enjoyed more freedom than other media in the communist world. There is no overt censorship, though most journalists are party members and have tended not to question the basic principles of Yugoslav domestic and foreign policy.
The limits of that self-censorship, however, have been stretched following the death of president Josip Broz Tito in 1980 as major papers have given more prominence to bitter nationalist unrest in the province of Kosovo and, more recently, to allegations of corruption and mismanagement in high places.
Lately, Yugoslav papers have intensified efforts to locate responsibility for the country's economic troubles--including a $19 billion debt, shortages of some essential goods and high inflation. To avoid an unchecked threat to their collective authority, party officials evidently have decided to spell out certain limits and standards for the media.
At the same time, the party's disciplinary drive has extended beyond the media to other cultural fields. A handful of books face official censure.