The Battle for Objectivity

Rescuing Bosnia's media from nationalistic prejudices is proving harder than the West expected.

The Battle for Objectivity

Rescuing Bosnia's media from nationalistic prejudices is proving harder than the West expected.

Wednesday, 29 August, 2001

The propagandist nature of the Bosnian media was hardly mentioned in the Dayton treaty which brought peace to Bosnia in 1995. In the West, there was marked reluctance to embark on anything that smacked of interference with press freedom.

It soon became clear, however, that democratic political order could never flourish in a climate where unregulated media spouted nationalistic hate propaganda against fellow Bosnians.

But it was not until nearly two years after Dayton that the Sintra Peace Implementation Council, PIC, met and established regulatory authority over the Bosnian media. The PIC authorised the country's top Western mediator to oversee the licensing and frequency spectrum of the media. However, the Independent Media Commission, IMC, conceived at Sintra, did not begin issuing licenses until 2000.

With no reforms in place, the international community soon ran into conflict with Republika Srpska, RS. The entity's government-run broadcaster, SRT, had been spewing hatred at Western agencies during and after the war and was disinclined to stop doing so. The Office of the High Representative, OHR, the West's chief authority in Bosnia, stepped in and seized control of SRT transmitters.

The first big crisis for the IMC came in November 1999, when the IMC ordered the closure of EROTEL - a front company for Croatian Radio Television, HRT, operating illegally in Bosnia-Herzegovina. SFOR troops at first showed reluctance to enforce the IMC decision. Not till March 2000 was SFOR persuaded to seize the transmitters and stem the flow of EROTEL's nationalistic tirades.

In the early years, the OHR failed to make good use of its resources. A high proportion of donor funds was devoted to setting up an independent television system known as the Open Broadcast Network, which failed to attract a large audience or sustainable advertising, which ultimately led to project funding being cut off.

However, not all Western media projects failed. One positive example was the Free Exchange Radio Network, FERN, which managed to establish a nationwide network of multi-ethnic correspondents who delivered a first rate, award-winning news programme. FERN was recently merged into the Public Broadcasting System, PBS.

In 1999, the OSCE established the Free Media Help Line, the first mechanism for dealing with journalists' complaints and providing legal assistance to reporters suffering from harassment. The OHR hammered out a comprehensive policy document on reforming the broadcast media, outlining a new state radio and television station modelled on European public broadcasting practice.

This document should have served as a policy blueprint but its announcement coincided with the onset of donor fatigue in Bosnia and further confusion among donors and aid agencies.

Since 1997, USAID has played an increasingly significant role in funding media projects. It was the principal donor behind the establishment of the IMC. Subsequently, in September 1999, USAID awarded 14.5 million US dollars to the International Research and Exchange Board, IREX, to support the development of independent media in Bosnia

Despite the big grant, IREX was hampered by the confused policies of two successive heads. This weak leadership has consigned IREX, despite the large funds at its disposal, to the margins of the media reform programme.

Its most significant effort was to get the former Sarajevo-based daily Vecenje novine to publish in Banja Luka. In the course of this project, IREX consultants assumed significant editorial control under controversial circumstances. The paper's then editor-in-chief complained vigorously to the international community about its heavy-handed approach.

Vecernje novine has since ceased publication. It reopened as Jutarnje novine under new editorial direction of an individual known to be affiliated with the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action. IREX has since withdrawn from the project.

While donor funds are being cut, it remains imperative that the international community works even more closely with Bosnian media to ensure that the process of media reform continues.

Tanya Domi, a former OSCE spokesperson in Bosnia, is pursuing post-graduate studies at Columbia University in New York.

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