Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia Media Conference

Delegates to IWPR round table discuss problems bedevilling the region's press.
By IWPR staff

IWPR brought together more than 50 key players in the Bosnia and Herzegovina, BiH, media, foreign diplomats and representatives of international NGOs for a vigorous round table discussion in Sarajevo this week about the challenge print, radio and TV journalists and editors face reporting objectively in a society as divided and impoverished by war as BiH.

After Gordana Igric, IWPR Balkan project coordinator, opened the March 4 debate, Mehmed Halilovic, deputy media ombudsman for BiH, listed some of the glaring ethical weaknesses in local journalism.

In spite of a comprehensive ethical press code, reporters still resorted to attacking people on a highly personal or national basis, using offensive terms such as "Shiptar" for Albanian or "gypsy" for Roma, for example.

Other examples of sloppy journalism were routine failure to check sources and an addiction to tabloid-style sensationalist headlines and so-called exclusives, some of which did not contain a single proven fact.

However, Senka Kurtovic editor of Oslobodjenje was one of several participants to recall that media shortcomings had to be located in a chronic lack of resources - inevitable in an impoverished society. With more than 200 media outlets serving a country of 3.7 million, she said, relatively few people could even afford to buy newspapers.

Journalists were left fighting over a small market, and high standards - such as abstaining from naming families involved in rape or suicide cases - were hard to uphold in an intensely competitive atmosphere.

Sanja Pejcinovic, information specialist at the US embassy, reinforced the impression that many journalistic faults were linked to the country's poor economic state. Her own research had revealed that time and financial pressures on media outlets meant few investigations were given more than two weeks to complete.

Fact-checking was difficult, she added, in a country where official sources were often non-existent, in spite of the law obliging the authorities to answer queries. Pejcinovic cited a recent attempt to extract relatively basic information from government sources. Of 70 questions addressed to official structures, only 30 per cent ever received an answer.

Senad Avdic, editor of Slobodna Bosna, said it was absurd to expect the media to be much better than the society around it. Highlighting the discredited and compromised political leadership, he listed several former top politicians who were now in prison or on their way there.

Avdic said it was wrong to condemn local journalists for their failure to check the facts surrounding the Macedonian president's plane crash, for example, when the internationals who effectively ran BiH treated the local media like children - preventing them from even coming close to the area where the Macedonian plane came down.

He also remarked that while the round table had brought together many actors on the BiH media stage, the conspicuous absence of any representative of the biggest circulation daily, Dnevni Avaz, reduced the worth of any agreement on improving standards that the participants in the round table might reach.

Julian Braithwaite, director of communications for the OHR, said the international community had to admit they had unintentionally hindered the development of a free media in the region. Recalling the situation of the media in Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, he said the internationals had made a strategic error in offering financial aid to a host of different organisations - many of which folded after funding ceased - rather than a few. This had merely splintered the opposition to Milosevic in the media, he said.

Referring to the OHR's expression of support for Dnevni Avaz last year, which had created a media furore, owing to its close links with the leading Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA, Braithwaite said the OHR had no permanent friends in the media.

The OHR was entitled to use the largest circulation organ to get its message across to the widest possible audience. This should not be taken as an expression of OHR support for the editorial policy of this or any paper, he said.

Addressing the continuing divisions that plague the journalistic corps in BiH, Charles Northrip, of USAID Media, said his organisation was one of the few that remained ready to contribute to the media profession in the country - but not while the reporters were as divided into six associations, not one, he said USAID would not contribute "one cent, one pffennig" to while such a state of affairs continued.

Marcus Tanner, Balkan editor and trainer for IWPR, reminded the audience that whatever failings they highlighted in the current media, standards had still improved hugely since the 1990s when any discussion about media objectivity would have been a waste of time.

The round table closed with agreements on the root causes of many of the fundamental failures of journalism in the region. The participants also agreed there were no quick fixes.

Nerma Jelacic, IWPR Sarajevo project director, said, "In the light of recent events that have highlighted the bitter divisions in our media, I felt it was the right time to make a new attempt to start a dialogue between people who often cannot agree on the media's problems."

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