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Bosnia's Struggle To Build Trust In The Media

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  • ummyakoub
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 25 8:30 PM
      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
      Marshall Fund.

      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?

      Media Manipulation
      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
      recognize similarities.

      "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."

      National Insecurities
      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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