Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today is World Human Rights Day. It is therefore symbolic that it is today that we are opening this conference focusing on one of the basic human rights freedom of speech and expression. This unalienable right will be a cornerstone of the changes that we intend to make in our country. It is a right that has been abused in recent years, and many journalists suffered in their struggle to gain it.

In spite of that, a large independent media scene has managed to survive and develop in Yugoslavia. It helped bring about the non-violent changes that occurred on October 5th. If we fail to understand the necessity for profound reform, we could be led into new and dangerous crises.

The independent media which represented the parallel Yugoslav society and kept its bridges open with the outside world is one of the few valuable assets from previous years which will help enormously in the change to democracy. In December 1998, again in co-operation with the Council of Europe, we organised the very first conference on Media for a Democratic Europe here in Belgrade and so launched the process of our integration into European institutions. We in the independent media felt ourselves to be part of those institutions. Today, this process is being mirrored at state level in Yugoslavia. This conference should help us find the way forward for all the changes that must be implemented in the field of the media, to help our country choose democracy for once and for all and to become an equal partner in all international institutions. Changes are necessary throughout the media and not just in the sector we will discuss in the next two days, the reform of the state radio and tv systems and the distribution of broadcasting frequencies. Other changes must also follow in the other large state media companies, in commercial media and in independent media. So far the roles have been mixed, with independent media playing the role of public media, state media playing the role of political party media and commercial media promoting a cultural model that represented the very foundation of the repressive regime.

By applying international standards and building on our good reputation, I hope we can manage to develop media systems that would, along with other state mechanisms, help us forever avoid the situation in which one person, one family or one party can be in a position to cause so much evil, like the regime led by Slobodan Milosevic was.

We from the independent media want to draw on our established contacts and existing expertise to help our governments, ministries, and all those committed to the swift implementation of democracy in the country through reforms in the field of media. This conference, as well as future projects we have in the pipeline, should be understood in this sense.

It is clear that we cannot do it all at once. Such processes will often be painful for society. Therefore I think we all need good will, tolerance and a wish to negotiate; we need debates, expert opinions and interim solutions that would help prevent conflicts; and we need a willingness to dedicate ourselves over the long term in order to build a healthy society.

At the same time, we have to prevent the events that usually happened in other countries in transition: the disappearance of the very independent media and non-government organisations that are the only guarantors of the balanced development of civil society. We must avoid the mistakes in the media systems of westerm societies the globalisation of media systems and brutal commercialisation. Unfortunately, we had to deal with both the brutality of the indoctrinated local media, and the frequent failure of the western media to break free from their own constraints of superficiality, stereotypes, and the trap of commercialism. I would like to welcome all of you who came to help us in these efforts.

Veran Matic