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

Bosnian Broadcasting Overhaul

Western officials face an uphill struggle in their bid to transform the Bosnian broadcasting network
By Amra Kebo

Western officials are seeking to create a nationwide, impartial television and radio system in Bosnia to replace the rival stations which still pump out programmes reflecting the ethnic and political bias of their controllers.


Nobody doubts this will be an uphill task. And now the High Representative, Wolfgang


Petritsch, has stepped in to settle a problem which four years of fruitless negotiation between rival Bosnian groups has failed to solve.


His plan announced on October 23 called for one public state TV and radio system for the whole of Bosnia and separate systems for the two regional entities, the Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska, formed under the Dayton Accord which ended the war.


Until now there were three radio and TV systems. RTV BiH, controlled by the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA, broadcast from Sarajevo. Serbian National RTV, based in Banja Luka, only covered Republika Srpska. And, until February, a Bosnian Croat station rebroadcast programmes from Croatia.


Petritsch wants to replace them with a nationwide service called the Public Broadcast Service, or PBS, and two regional services, Bosnian Federation RTV and Republika Srpska RTV.


Petritsch's aim is to depoliticise and professionalise the media. But various political parties as well as international experts have already raised objections.


One objection is that the moment is not right for such far-reaching changes so close to the general elections scheduled for November 11. Another complaint is that the Petritsch plan runs counter to a ruling by the Bosnian Constitutional Court.


This ruling established that all three national groups - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - are constituent nations, entitled to equal rights - which in effect runs counter to the concept of a national television station.


Petritsch's response is that forming state TV is a matter of urgency in combating the nationalist fragmentation of broadcasting. "I think that we have the potential and the preconditions for a multi-ethnic public broadcasting system in BiH," said Petrtisch.


"We want to ensure that the people of this country have excellent public television while leaving room for commercial TV and radio stations. Now, we should concentrate on step by step measures to bring in this system which, together with other independent media, will implement the Dayton requirement for a multi-cultural democratic state."


The process of reconstructing RTV BiH has already started. In July this year, its entire leadership was changed because it was perceived as too partisan towards SDA politics. An editor of TV news resigned in protest at the changes after which nine prominent TV journalists wrote an open letter criticising the new board and expressing support for the former editor-in-chief.


In common with other former Yugoslav republics, Bosnia's media has long suffered from poor professional and ethical standards. The problems are multiplied by the shortage of cash.


Cheap old films of poor quality are a mainstay. News programmes showing every sign of being crudely cobbled together in haste are about the worst of the output. The best employees are leaving for better paid jobs. And all this is happening at pre-election time.


Bringing in a new broadcasting system will be hampered by outdated equipment, lack of financial resources and huge debts. And the future of Bosnia's electronic media will be greatly influenced by the political situation in neighbouring countries, especially Croatia and Serbia.


Bosnian media suffers not only from the ravages of war but also from 50 years of subservience during the old Yugoslav Communist regime, when all media were under strict party control - journalism was confined solely to supporting the one-party system.


An independent media started to emerge during the eighties in the final years of the Communist system. When Yugoslavia broke up at the beginning of the nineties, the nationalist parties took over the media in their various republics, especially in Serbia and later in Croatia and Bosnia.


They used the media to increase ethnic tensions and promote war propaganda.


This process in multi-national Bosnia had its own characteristics. At the beginning of the Bosnian war, the media was divided along nationalist lines. Bosnian Serbs and Croats formed their own radio and television stations, depending on Serbia and Croatia for financial and political support. The media was employed mostly to spread nationalist hatred.


RTV BiH in Sarajevo, although more objective than the others, became the instrument of the ruling SDA party. After the war all three national groups preserved their own television stations.


Croats had Erotel, which transmitted Croatian RTV programmes from Zagreb, then ruled by the late Franjo Tudjman and his nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party


Serbs had Serbian Radio and Television, SRT, under strict control of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, run during the war by Radovan Karadzic, now a war crimes suspect.


And Bosniaks had RTV BiH, an institution battered and impoverished by war and controlled by the ruling SDA party.


After Dayton, international representatives entered the Bosnian media scene. Supervisors were appointed for SRT and RTV BiH. During this period, the former's hard-line rhetoric was subdued. The latter made some improvement in its programme output, although it was still following the SDA line.


The High Representative's Office formed the Independent Media Commission in June 1998. Its task was to regulate frequencies, award broadcasting licences for the electronic media and ensure observance of basic journalistic standards.


The Former High Representative Carlos Westendorp announced on the day of his departure on June 30, 1999, that a decision had been made to reconstruct the Bosnian TV system. But initial resistance to change was too great.


Meanwhile, under pressure from the international community, SRT changed its name to Radio and Television Republika Srpska, but changed little else. And after the change of government in Croatia, Bosnian Croats could no longer relay broadcasts from Zagreb.


The fact that public TV systems will be free of party control represents a positive step. However, many things remain to be done and the path to impartial, unfettered nationwide TV is already fraught with problems.


Amra Kebo is an IWPR contributor