Ashdown in Media Storm

The High Representative's perceived support for nationalist politicians has outraged the independent press.

Ashdown in Media Storm

The High Representative's perceived support for nationalist politicians has outraged the independent press.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The honeymoon is over - at least with the printed media. Lord Paddy Ashdown, the chief international envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina, has begun to feel the wrath of the press.

He has been attacked for supporting nationalist parties and not doing enough to support moderate ones; his private life has been splashed across the pages of a weekly magazine; and he has made enemies with the former head of one of the country's intelligence services.

So how has the former leader of Britain's Liberal-Democrat Party become the victim of Sarajevo's own liberal media? Where did it all go wrong?

Ashdown arrived in Sarajevo in May 2002 to take up the position of High Representative, the highest-ranking international official in the country. His powers were, and remain, massive, and, as with many of his predecessors, he was welcomed by large numbers of ordinary Bosnians who have lost faith in their own politicians.

Ex-soldier, ex-diplomat, a man of energy and commitment, this was someone who would get things done.

Of course, not everyone was pleased to see him. Ashdown received a cool reception from many Serbs who remembered his calls for western intervention against them during the Bosnian war of the early- to mid-Nineties.

And now, some of those initially welcoming voices in the Federation have begun to question whether his energy and commitment have been directed in the right place.

For six months, it was a smooth run for Ashdown. The odd murmur of criticism - nothing serious though. But round about the time of last October's general election, it all started to go wrong.

Nationalist parties came out on top, taking all three presidential positions and controlling the three parliaments, which make up Bosnia's complicated political system. The vote for the main reform party, the SDP, collapsed. Two years of moderate, reformist government was swept away. Sarajevo's liberal media wanted answers.

While the press printed headlines such as "Back to the Future" and "Forward to the Past" - suggesting Bosnia was returning to the bad old days of the early 1990s - Ashdown was insisting that the nationalist parties had changed.

He had begun to say this even before the elections. "Compare (their) manifestoes today with those of two years ago," he said at the time, "there are substantial signs now of people understanding that this country has to reform."

Three weeks after the election, Ashdown gave a speech in Brussels insisting, "The governing parties - mainly the moderate parties - did badly. But it does not follow that (Bosnia) is lurching back to nationalism."

And then, in an interview with the leading newspaper, Nezavine Novine, Ashdown said, "It really does not matter to me who is going to be in the government, because if we do not implement reforms, we will all fail."

These words were anathema to many in the liberal press who believed Ashdown at best was being naive and, at worst, actively supporting nationalist parties. They insisted the latter had not changed and blamed the High Representative for not doing more to support moderate politicians. A fault line began to appear in the relationship between Ashdown and the liberal media.

And then it got personal. In a television interview at the start of October, Ashdown dismissed the views of some Bosnian journalists claiming he did not take any notice of bar talk. The magazine Dani ran an article criticising him for insulting prominent journalists, including the respected Gojko Beric, a political commentator for the daily newspaper, Oslobodjenje.

And then came one of his most controversial decisions since arriving in Bosnia. On October 22, Ashdown sacked Munir Alibabic, the head of the Federation Intelligence Service, FOSS. The reason given was that intelligence documents had been leaked to the media and been used for party political purposes.

Not everyone was happy with the decision. Even The Hague tribunal was concerned. Alibabic had been useful to them. The chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, told this correspondent that his sacking was a great loss. She said she was never told the full truth about why he was dismissed and that she made her views clear to Ashdown.

But there was another consequence. Alibabic is believed by some to have close links to one of Bosnia's leading weekly magazines, Slobodna Bosna. Just two days after the sacking, the title began printing articles raking over Ashdown's career and private life back in Britain and accusing him of systematically lying.

More articles appeared over succeeding weeks, printing allegation after allegation. One even claimed Ashdown was sending an indirect message to The Hague's most wanted men, the former Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, telling them they need not fear arrest. Ashdown has so far refused to respond to any of the accusations, believing them to be groundless.

And more problems were to come. In January, the High Representative was voted Personality of the Year by Bosnia's biggest selling newspaper, Dnevni Avaz. In his acceptance speech, he wandered off the prepared text and heaped praise on the title, claiming it should be named newspaper of the year and that it was the clearest example of professional and business success.

This would not have been so bad if Dnevi Avaz was not so disliked by many of its rivals who see it as an unashamedly, populist title lacking high journalist standards. Dani was furious and blacked out its next front page, saying it was a dark day for Bosnian journalism.

Privately, Ashdowns officials accept that the speech was overdone and was the equivalent of waving a red rag to an already enraged bull.

And so Ashdown has felt the sharp edge of some of Bosnia's media. But it seems the furore has not had much of an impact on the public's view of him. Soundings by the High Representatives staff suggest his rating fell slightly between November 2002 and February 2003. But they are not too concerned.

A veteran of the ruthless British press, the High Representative is well acquainted with the pros and cons of an energetic media. The irony is, that he appears to be losing support from the very parts of the media that should be his natural allies. It is not easy to operate successfully in the arena of Bosnian politics. Allies come at a premium. Ashdown may be thinking that it is time for a spot of bridge building.

Nick Hawton is the BBC correspondent in Sarajevo

Support our journalists