BELGRADE -- Media bias on a scale that no longer exists in post-Communist Eastern Europe remains a fact of life here in Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's six contentious republics.

Ethnic scare headlines -- "Hellish Police Hunt on Serbs," "Fascist Terrorists Sent to Subjugate Serbs" or "Croatian Police Throw Serbian Infants Around" -- are daily breakfast fare in Belgrade, capital of Serbia as well as the Yugoslav federation. An article on the Yugoslav government's attempt to bring market reform to socialist Serbia carried this headline: "Serbian Economy Knifed in the Back."

Over the past three years, the government-owned press in Belgrade has been an invaluable prop in the populist staying power of Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia and one of Europe's last surviving socialist strongmen.

Milosevic, who won a resounding 65 percent victory this month in Serbia's first multi-party election since World War II, is widely blamed by Western governments as the individual most responsible for inflaming ethnic tensions in this patchwork country.

In the week before Milosevic was reelected, journalists from the Belgrade daily Politika and from the capital's main radio and television stations crowded in front of the Serbian legislature building to deliver a written demand for the immediate firing of their editors.

"They use editing and {layout} not as a method of presenting the news, but as a way to falsify the truth," said Rade Radovonovic, a journalist from Radio Belgrade and leader of the group. "The simplest way to put it is that they are lying." The demonstration culminated an in-house revolt by many well-known journalists against editorial policies that the journalists say are manipulated daily by Milosevic.

By giving Milosevic screaming headlines and fawning air time, Western diplomats say, the press has frightened other ethnic groups and helped push Yugoslavia to the brink of disintegration.

Responding to media bias in Belgrade, newspapers and television stations in the rival western Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia have noticeably lowered their standards of objectivity. Distorted reporting -- pro-Serbian in Belgrade, anti-Serbian nearly everywhere else -- no doubt played a role in persuading Slovenian voters last Sunday to approve a referendum that authorizes their republic's independence from Yugoslavia.

Editors at the main daily newspaper in Croatia, Vjesnik, acknowledge that they are taking an increasingly tough anti-Serbian line this year and point to what they describe as constant provocations in the Belgrade press.

Foreign journalists based in Belgrade said that while ethnic rivalry has eroded the objectivity of journalism across Yugoslavia, the media that Milosevic controls remain far and away the most hysterical and inaccurate. Politika, Belgrade's largest daily, relies on unnamed sources as authorities for its frequent stories about how Slovenia and Croatia are allegedly running guns to ethnic Albanians in the troubled Serbian province of Kosovo.

When Croatian police tried to recover guns stolen last summer from government armories by Serbs living in that republic, stories in Belgrade complained about the recruiting of "fascist terrorists" to harass Serbs. The stories were not substantiated.

The final week of the Serbian election campaign offered up what Yugoslav journalists describe as typical "Milosevision." The Serbian president delivered a brief and carefully choreographed speech in Novi Sad, about an hour's drive from Belgrade. Workers from state-owned factories around Serbia were given the afternoon off and bused in for the rally.

The crowd dutifully filed into the town square just minutes before Milosevic appeared. They cheered wildly during the 20-minute speech, waved banners praising "Slobo," then returned sullenly to their buses. Journalists at the scene estimated the crowd at about 15,000. Serbia's state-owned media reported it at 75,000 to 150,000.

More remarkable than the crowd estimates were the camera angles. In live coverage and in two subsequent full-length reruns of the speech, Serbian TV managed to make the smallish crowd look vast and feverishly excited. Politika gave the speech, a lackluster rehash of well-known views, four full pages of coverage, comment and photographs.

"I quit Politika in October. I had enough," said Milos Vasic, a well-known political writer. "First they cut my pay in half because they didn't like what I was writing. . . . Then they wouldn't publish anything that I wrote."

In the past two months, several television news anchors who are household names in Serbia quit after signing an open letter calling for the resignation of their editor in chief, Dusan Mitevic.

Mitevic, along with the chief editor of Politika, Zika Minovic, meets almost daily with Milosevic to plan political coverage, according to a well-informed government source here. Both of these editors, who have held their jobs since shortly after Milosevic rose to power in 1987, were named in the letter that journalists gave to the Serbian legislature.

Asked why it took them three years to complain publicly about manipulation of the news, journalists said they had been afraid or had been bought off.

"The majority were silent, and they were getting big salaries," said Slobodanka Ast, who worked for several years at Nin, a magazine owned by Politika.

Ast and six others from Politika publications recently founded what they describe as the first privately owned, for-profit magazine in Serbia. Called Vreme (Time), it has attracted a weekly circulation of about 55,000. Journalists in Belgrade describe it as the most reliable and well reported magazine in Yugoslavia.

Vreme cannot afford to pay anything close to the salaries paid at Politika, which is exempt from many Serbian taxes and is one of the most profitable publications in Yugoslavia. Ast said it is common for Politika reporters to get about $15,000 a year -- about three times more than reporters at other large Yugoslav dailies. "This was a lot of money for doing nothing," she said.