Bosnia's Struggle To Build Trust In The Media
by Natasha Hunter
Establishing a fair and independent press corps in former Yugoslavia
is proving difficult in the face of divisive and ethnocentric media
outlets that consider pluralistic values an act of betrayal.
Bosnia's Struggle To Build Trust In The Media
Natasha Hunter is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. Her
reporting in Bosnia was made possible by a grant from the German
On a sunny day in June last year, 180 young Bosnian journalists
gathered at the home of the British ambassador to Bosnia to
celebrate six years of the BBC School of Journalism in Sarajevo. As
the alumni arrived from various regions and ethnic centers of
Bosnia, they immediately sought out their classmates and clumped
into groups according to their respective graduation years. This
phenomenon might not seem odd to an American observer, but to Boris
Kontic, BBC school director and head of Sarajevo's Soros Media
Center, it was one of the most hopeful signs he had seen on the
Bosnian media landscape in recent years.
Ethnically divided publics have already grown accustomed to buying
and reading only "their own" press.
"I could see them splitting into the groups they attended with, not
ethnic groups," he said. "So many young bright beautiful boys and
girls, all chatting."
But, Kontic adds, that was on one day, and in a friendly
environment. The next day these young reporters would return to
their local communities, where pluralistic or civic values are often
mistaken for betrayal, and the pressure to maintain loyalty to one's
own ethnic group can be grimly intense. In such an atmosphere of
distrust, in a country whose economy is on the brink of collapse,
Kontic and other journalists in Bosnia often wonder: Can there ever
be a universal media, a source that most educated people feel tries
to be fair, thorough and relevant? And if so, what would be needed
to achieve it?
In the Western world, where media ownership falls into fewer
corporate hands every day, and where ever more people view
traditionally respected sources with increasing suspicion, the
question of how to create trusted national-coverage media outlets
may seem anachronistic. These are the days, after all, of designer
news, Web browsers and satellite TV. But very few Bosnians have
Internet access or cable, so what they hear on the radio or read in
the papers may be their only information -- and too often that
information is slanted toward the views of ethnic groups.
A recent study of media outlets in Bosnia-Herzegovina found
that "there are practically no physical or political obstacles to
press distribution throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, but ethnically
divided publics have already grown accustomed to buying and reading
only 'their own' press." Which explains in part why Sarajevo alone,
a city of only 200,000 people, is home to at least four newspapers
and two news magazines, and why Bosnia, with a population of 4
million, has almost 300 radio and TV broadcasters.
Before the wars that ripped through Bosnia and the surrounding
regions in the 1990s, the Communist state ostensibly controlled all
media in Bosnia, then the republic of in the country of Yugoslavia.
Leading up to the violence, nationalist groups led by Milosevic took
over media outlets and began to spread virulent Serbian nationalist,
anti-Bosnian rhetoric, fanning the flames of nationalist pride and --
probably more importantly -- fear. Most Bosnians blame this hate
speech, at least in part, for the siege of Sarajevo beginning in
1992 and resulting in the deaths of 10,000 people, mostly Muslim, in
a three-and-a-half year saga of brutality, hunger and exhaustion.
The international community, horrified witnesses of the powerful
effects of this propaganda, funneled a significant portion of the
money that flooded the region after the 1995 Dayton Accord into
media rebuilding. As a result, media outlets -- especially radio and
TV broadcasters -- began to crop up on practically every block.
Media companies, which in 1995 stood at half their prewar numbers,
quadrupled to in the year following Dayton. Some increase would
certainly be expected; Bosnia was now a separate state, so bureaus
from international media like BBC or Voice of America, which had
been housed in Belgrade, now needed separate Bosnian offices and
Bosnian staffs. But this certainly didn't explain the media
explosion; many more companies were run by Bosnians who would have
been hard pressed to string together a sentence in conversational
English, but who had mastered the English of the grant proposal and
were now receiving foreign aid to work as journalists -- regardless
of prior training.
Public v. Private
The international community, or IC as it goes by in Bosnia, is so
widely viewed as a monolith in Bosnia that it even occasionally gets
quoted in the newspaper. But in the area of media one can observe,
if not tension, then differing emphases. Somewhat predictably,
European nations have pushed harder for public media, while the
United States has generally invested its funds in the private
sector. Both strategies present difficulties.
Charles Northrip directs a U.S.-backed NGO in Bosnia, IREX Pro-
Media, which partners with USAID in implementing media projects. He
says IREX has tried to identify candidates that could possibly
develop into statewide media outlets for a multiethnic audience.
"IREX Pro-Media works with all independent media who meet a certain
set of criteria," Northrip says. "Those are ownership transparency,
the goal of objectivity, and the goal of commercial sustainability."
Senada Cumorovic, head of public radio B-H Jedan, thinks investing
haphazardly in private media was one of the biggest mistakes the
international community made after the war. By producing more media
outlets than the population could support -- many of them small and
easily influenced by local politicians -- it essentially undermined
any efforts to create a quality, multiethnic media source.
"Really the problem is that there is no vision. There's no vision in
the international community, rather individual interests and
individual views," she says, "and there's no vision on the other
hand among media professionals in Bosnia-Herzegovina."
Indeed, as international interest in Bosnia wanes and funds dwindle,
many broadcasters are now joining larger firms or tanking. And owing
to Bosnia's stagnant economy, the ones that survive can barely
afford to program Mexican soap operas and Baywatch reruns. One or
two, however, like the network Mreza Plus, have joined finances and
crossed ethnic boundaries to provide entertainment -- as yet not
much news -- to a broadening audience, which is heartening. As for
print media, Bosnians have never been heavy readers, so the papers
that survive do so with heavy subsidy from NGOs (and, some whisper,
party funding), and by hiding their actual circulation figures from
While hopes remain high for at least some high-quality private media
surviving and becoming profitable, legislative discussions currently
revolve around the public broadcasting service. Lawmakers recently
passed a PBS law, designed to create a service in Bosnia based on
the European model, where each taxpayer pays a
mandatory "subscription fee" to fund the programs. This, too has
sparked controversy, with Croats refusing to pay the fee for a
service they say is biased against them and not even available in
some areas where they live, and others questioning how the managing
counsel will be selected and who will have influence, among other
The public service stations as yet broadcasts only one half hour of
national news, and journalists admit privately that even this isn't
exactly news in the strictest sense; rather, it's more of a
noncontroversial scenes-from-around-Bosnia program. Which, in Kontic
and Cumorovic's minds might not be such a bad thing in Bosnia, where
the airwaves are saturated with political debates. A little small
talk might be just the thing, they say, to make people begin to
"We need normal people talking about normal things," Kontic
says. "Like money, and how they are going to get it, which book is
good, which movie they're going to see."
Whether any of these efforts will result in a media that the
majority of Bosnians trust remains doubtful, at least in the short
run. First, the atmosphere is too charged with suspicion. During the
Tito era, some kind of ethnic balance was maintained in all power
centers, including media. If the editor of a paper was Serb, the
managing editor might be Croat, the features editor might be Muslim,
and so on. And if a story criticized a member of a certain ethnic
group, someone from that same group was usually enlisted to write
it. Kontic says this has not changed -- in fact, it has worsened, as
Bosnians now have vivid wartime memories to fuel their suspicions.
In fact, few Bosnians would actually call themselves Bosnian; rather
than citizens of a civic nation, they identify first as members of a
certain ethnic group, and assume that others do as well. Which, of
course, complicates reporting immensely.
"If someone hears my name they can say I'm a Serb, or maybe a Croat.
People here think if you say your name, they can recognize in a
moment what you are thinking, and that is a problem," Kontic
says. "That's not a good position to be in, especially if you're a
serious journalist. And it's one of the reasons we don't have a
[universally trusted news source]: the mental structure of the
audience doesn't accept people from another ethnic group writing
from a principled position, and not a from national one."
Investing haphazardly in private media was one of the biggest
mistakes the international community made after the war.
Take, for example, the newspaper Oslobodenje ("Freedom"), which was
the only Sarajevo-based paper that managed to keep printing
throughout the three years that Sarajevo was under siege. The
paper's offices were located on the front line, and saw some of the
bloodiest battles and heaviest shelling. Editor-in-chief Senka
Kurtovic, who was a reporter at the time, recalls how the question
came up when the war first started: Are we for Bosnia as a nation,
or will we pick a side?
Most journalists opted for Bosnia, and any who felt uncomfortable
with that editorial stance left. The others stayed on, sometimes
reporting from the bomb shelter without heat, electricity or running
water. In fact, Oslobodenje is still housed in the lower section of
the same building; the demolished high-rise portion looms behind it
like a giant exploded machine.
While outsiders might see this determination to publish as a
dedication to civic values, to many Serbs in the region the paper's
wartime experiences only bias it against their interests. Kurtovic,
speaking with weariness about the ethnic distrust of the press,
describes how impressed the staff were when they received two
subscriptions from Foce, in the Serbian region of Bosnia-
Herzegovina, and a city famous in Bosnia for wartime atrocities.
"That's like someone in Auschwitz after World War II ordering the
delivery of a daily Jewish newspaper. It's very brave to have a
Federation newspaper arrive at your doorstep every morning," she
says. "Of course, we're sending it to them for free."
Professional Standards -- and the Hazards of Having Them
But the problem doesn't end with the lack of Bosnian civic-
mindedness. The fact that the horrific events that the world watched
in the 1990s were spurred on in large part by vicious ethnic
propaganda often eclipses Bosnia's deeper history -- that political
media in Bosnia, as in most former Communist countries, has never
been independent. "Political" reporters (mostly Communist party
members) in Communist Yugoslavia did little more than recite state
press releases. Real investigative journalism, Kurtovic says, didn't
develop in Bosnia until the 1990s. So it is no wonder that, as
IREX's Charles Northrip puts it, "What some [here] consider free
investigative journalism is unsubstantiated vitriol. We're pointing
out to clients that there are still libel laws, that you have a
responsibility to be fair."
In light of this, IREX as well as Kontic's BBC school and others are
putting a great deal of emphasis on journalist training. Sarajevo
University's journalism program until recently taught a dusty,
Communist-era version of journalism, and although the program has
made strides, it still lacks basic tools like up-to-date computers
or Internet access. More modern, Westernized programs attempt, like
the BBC school, to bring young people together from various ethnic
backgrounds and teach them basic journalistic skills and values,
hoping that these stick when the young graduates return to their
But the final fly in the ointment is that the truly independent
investigative journalists are also independent from any form of
protection. Instances of intimidation and outright violence have
seen a downturn in recent years, but they still remain fairly
common. For instance, after publishing an article on war crimes in
1999, Zeljko Kopanja, the editor-in-chief of a Banja Luka newspaper
Nezavisne ("The Independent") lost his legs when a bomb planted in
his car detonated. Most cases are not that extreme, but the mere
possibility of such an event surely carries a chilling effect, and
probably prevents many threats from being reported. Moreover, when
journalists do choose to report cases of pressure or intimidation,
they usually do so to international, not Bosnian, authorities.
Hands On Uncle Sam
Media in Bosnia has also seen changes since September 11, as a
result of changes in American foreign policy. Although the United
States insists that its support of Bosnian media remains unaltered,
some journalists are accusing the U.S. Embassy of exerting the same
sorts of pressures it once trained reporters to ignore.
Senad Pecanin is the editor of Dani, one of Sarajevo's most popular
weekly political magazines, and he claims the embassy retracted an
offer to fund a Hague correspondent after Dani criticized the United
States' handling of six suspected Algerian terrorists early last
year. Although the letter the embassy sent to Dani states only that
it understands the publication is no longer interested in U.S.
support, Pecanin says the message was clear: say nice things about
the United States or we pull the plug. In a country as economically
strapped as Bosnia, where organizations compete fiercely for a
steadily dwindling flow of international cash, a company that loses
foreign funds could easily fold.
Pecanin says the news came as a personal as well as a professional
"The independent media and independent press in this country, as in
many surrounding countries, exists mostly thanks to American support-
-financial, educational, technical, and--perhaps most importantly--
political," he says. "Some of us even owe our physical survival to
previous US ambassadors' pressure on Bosniak leaders to protect our
lives." So he felt blindsided, he says, when he got word that the
United States had decided not to fund the Dani correspondent. "It
was disappointing. This pressure came from a side we really didn't
The embassy firmly denies that the decision not to grant money to
Pecanin's magazine had anything to do with a Dani cover last January
depicting Uncle Sam urinating on the Bosnian constitution. The issue
contained several scathing editorials denouncing the transfer of a
group of six Algerians suspected of terrorist activities from a
Bosnian jail into U.S. custody, despite a Bosnian high court's
ruling against it.
The mental structure of the audience doesn't accept people from
another ethnic group writing from a principled position, and not a
from national one.
"At no point was there any discussion in which the two things were
tied, and at no point have they [Dani] been threatened or sanctioned
as a result of any editorial line" says a U.S. embassy official. The
embassy, he explains, had provided a business consultant for Dani,
but no grant support and no guarantee that the United States would
help Dani carry out the plans the consultant laid out.
"With Dani we had an interesting situation," he says. "We had
suggestions about improving their journalism. They weren't receptive
to our ideas. Had they been, we were ready to provide some
But while the embassy denies the accusation and points to its long
history of unequivocal support for free press, its own internal
policies sometimes cause image problems. IREX Pro-Media cannot grant
interviews to journalists without allowing the U.S. embassy to vet
the questions first. If the queries are judged to focus too heavily
on U.S. policy, the interview request is denied or the journalist is
asked to direct those questions to the embassy. And for some in
Bosnian media, this arrangement seems puzzling at best for an NGO
that exists to support an independent press.
The embassy as well as IREX director Charles Northrip claim Bosnians
too often equate IREX and the embassy, and that this rule keeps them
each operating in their own bailiwick.
"IREX is a recipient of U.S. government funds, and we have to ensure
that we coordinate voices speaking on behalf of the U.S., that they
are speaking in tandem," says the embassy official. "It's an
interesting line to walk."
The Waiting Game
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the future of
Bosnian media depends on how well its infrastructure develops in the
coming years -- infrastructure to collect subscription fees, to
protect journalists, to regulate hate speech, to provide at least a
faint hope for a stable economy.
In the meantime, Westerners would perhaps do well to keep in mind
that in Bosnia the crucial transition to a so-called free media is
still a work in progress. The United States, for example, has the
perspective of 200 years of struggles with free speech; we can
browse millions of pages of court opinions and media criticism that
continue to shape our vision of what the First Amendment means.
Bosnia is trying to make that leap in an incredibly short period of
time, and to make it while satisfying the demands of the so-called
international community, which remains the ultimate source of power
and funding in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It's far too early, then, to give up hope, say the advocates of free
press in Bosnia. "I don't despair that there will never be a
national media voice to whom people would look with a fair amount of
confidence," says Northrip. After all, he adds, "It's not like
you're bringing back something they all had confidence in before."
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Published: Nov 08 2002
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