Nato Intervenes In Bosnia Media War

A hard-line Bosnian Croat television station has been closed as part of international attempts to promote more balanced and objective reporting.

Nato Intervenes In Bosnia Media War

A hard-line Bosnian Croat television station has been closed as part of international attempts to promote more balanced and objective reporting.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2000

NATO troops last week seized the transmitters of a hard-line Bosnian Croat television station, Erotel, taking the diet of ethnic hatred it used to serve up off the air.

An experimental programme produced by Bosnia's new federal television station is now being broadcast in its place.

The move is part of international efforts to reform the media, which has arguably been the most potent weapon in the Yugoslav conflict. It followed more than a year of fruitless negotiations between the station and Bosnia's Independent Media Commission (IMC), a part-international, part-local body established by the High Representative.

Erotel, which was financed and controlled by hard-liners within the ruling Bosnian Croat HDZ, refused to comply with IMC guidelines for balanced and objective reporting. It continued to fan the flames of ethnic hatred with nationalist rhetoric and thus undermine the peace process.

Erotel's demise comes a month and a half after the defeat of Croatia's HDZ, the party of the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, in ground-breaking parliamentary elections which many analysts believe heralds similar changes among Bosnia's Croat community. Municipal elections are scheduled to take place in Bosnia in April.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most media in the former Yugoslavia came under tight political control and were deliberately used by nationalist leaders to whip up national hysteria and stoke the flames of conflict.

When the Bosnian war ended in late 1995, almost all newspapers, radio and television stations represented exclusively the interests of the political party and ethnic group which controlled them. The handful of independent journalists and media outlets faced systematic harassment.

Four years on, conditions have improved, most notably after NATO troops seized the transmitters of Bosnian Serb television, SRT, in October 1997 and the establishment of the IMC. However, politicians retain tight control over most media and independent journalists continue to face danger.

In a recent incident, for example, Zeljko Kopanja, the editor-in-chief of Banja Luka-based Nezavisne Novine (The Independent), narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded under his car. He lost both his legs. The murder attempt followed publication of a ground-breaking series of articles detailing atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims.

The IMC has sought to curb nationalist media by introducing a system of licensing for radio and television stations and insisting on minimum journalistic standards. At the same time, international organisations have helped finance and build independent media, including the independent television network, Open Broadcast Network, or OBN, which has affiliates throughout the country.

Most Bosnian media have toned down their reporting in response to IMC pressure. However, Erotel, which had transmitters throughout Bosnian Croat-held territory and whose signal covered most of southern, central, northern and western Bosnia, decided to call the international community's bluff.

Another point of conflict between Erotel and the IMC has been the use of Erotel transmitters to rebroadcast Croatia's state-controlled channels, HRT1, 2 and 3. Last year the station rejected the IMC's request to reduce the coverage of its signal and hand over most transmitters for the new federal television.

Despite Erotel's refusal to comply with IMC wishes, the NATO-led peace-keepers in the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) were reluctant to intervene against the station for fear of triggering violence in Croat-held territory. Attitudes changed after the HDZ's defeat in Croatia’s elections.

Two weeks ago, the new Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino Picula visited Sarajevo on his first official trip abroad. During his stay, he met Wolfgang Petritsch, Bosnia's leading international mediator, and discussed Erotel among other issues.

In the wake of Picula’s visit, SFOR and the IMC moved last Thursday to take Erotel off the air permanently. Although the station continues to broadcast on a satellite channel rented by HRT, its terrestrial transmitters are now being used to air federal television programmes.

The IMC has made it clear that Erotel will not receive a new broadcasting licence and that future broadcasts of HRT1, 2 and 3 from Croatia, whose quality has improved dramatically since the demise of the HDZ, will have to be regulated by bilateral agreements between Bosnia and Croatia.

"Politicians in these countries believe that through the control of information systems, they can remain in power," says Deputy High Representative for media, Simon Haselock, in an interview with Sarajevo daily Vecernje Novine. "The aim of this battle is for politicians and political parties to realize that they have no right to control public media."

The "battle" that Haselock referred to is equally acute in Serb and Muslim-held parts of Bosnia and is expected to intensify in advance of the municipal elections. Indeed, even the otherwise moderate Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has sought to bring all media in Republika Srpska under his control, rather than encourage pluralism.

In Muslim-controlled territory, the ruling SDA also seeks to keep a tight grip on most media. As part of the current reform programme, however, it will be expected to relinquish control over Bosnia's main radio and television station, BHRTV, which will be disbanded and its assets divided between two radio and television stations: the state-run Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and federal television.

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a regular IWPR contributor from Sarajevo.

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