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

Wasted Millions

Huge sums of money have been invested in Bosnia's media, with too few results.
By Zoran Udovicic

Some six years after the end of the war, the media scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to go from bad to worse. Despite millions of dollars of international aid, most media organisations lack strategies for business and professional development, and the overall reputation of the industry appears to be in decline.

Media is one of the key engines of democratic change in any country, and in numerical terms alone Bosnia may look rich. But Western-inspired efforts are now being made by the Communications Regulatory Agency to improve programme content and prune back the number of independent and other broadcasters who mushroomed during the war to champion one or other of the country's three ethnic groups.

In the print media, no such efforts are being made. There is no regulatory body with powers to set up minimum professional, management and financial requirements.

Five main daily newspapers in Bosnia have together an average circulation of between 80,000 and 90,000 copies. This is only an estimate since circulation data is considered a top business secret. The three oldest papers, Oslobodjenje, Glas srpski (formerly Glas) and Jutarnje Novine (formerly Vecernje Novine), each with more than 40 years of publishing history, are facing serious problems over funding, industrial action and the consequences of clumsy privatisation.

At the moment, there is only one newspaper with readers in the Federation and Republika Srpska. This is the Nezavisne (Independent) novine run by popular Banja Luka editor and businessman Zeljko Kopanja. All other papers seem resigned to selling only among one ethnic community.

Three weekly magazines, Dani, Slobodna Bosna and Reporter, initially prospered but, despite hundreds of thousand of dollars invested in them from abroad, have failed to achieve financial sustainability.

The only newspaper which seems to be doing well at the moment is the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz, but even that has been strongly criticised by some local and Western experts for its political shifts and questionable financial arrangements.

The newspaper was established during the Bosnian war as a mouthpiece for the ruling Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action. It shifted its political stance as soon as the party lost power to the currently ruling moderate Alliance for Change coalition.

In addition, the owner of the newspaper, Fahrudin Radonjcic, never properly explained the origin of the funds used to run the newspaper. His paper recently moved to a brand new luxury building - again without revealing where the money came from.

In broadcasting too, Western investment has had its failures. The initial priority was to build a parallel system in which independent local media operated alongside two regional networks - the TV Open Broadcast Network, OBN, and the radio network FERN. But the big local networks (RTV BiH, RTRS and Erotel) remained controlled by the nationalist parties and continued to attract the bulk of the audience.

Subsequently, the international community has ceased donations to Radio Fern and OBN, and is now concentrating on a complex transformation of the state broadcasters into public ones, both of which would draw their output in part from a planned central Public Broadcasting Service. While this process of changes is taking years to implement, Fern has been integrated into the new public radio service, while OBN has found itself in a grave financial crisis.

Meantime, due to the new and very strict regulations, more than half of Bosnia's 210 radio stations and 71 TV studios may shut down. The regulatory agency has had some success in setting professional standards for broadcasters but has itself run into criticism for being too much under Western control.

Despite all the problems, most observers feel the current state of the media in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans is hardly surprising in view of its history - the 50 years of socialism followed by a rebirth of nationalism, the wartime propaganda frenzy and post-war economic chaos.

After the war, international organisations charged with implementing the peace in Bosnia had to face fiercely nationalistic governments and politically manipulated journalists who were mostly intent on obstructing change. Because the media played such a major political role in provoking conflict in the Balkans over the past 10 years, the West felt obliged to focus on it with financial and advisory help.

According to an independent media organisation, the Sarajevo-based Media Plan Institute, Western countries have spent or invested about 135 million marks in Bosnian media during the past six years. The OBN project alone consumed some 40 million marks.

Most of the international projects were expensive and complex. Many of them were implemented without a firm, long-term strategy and based on ad-hoc decisions reflecting the conflicting interests of various Western countries.

These projects achieved some results, like cutting down inflammatory material in the media and in professional education for journalists. But according to some observers, the changes came at too high a cost. Critics complained that the international community had assigned politicians who had led the country into war to be responsible for democratising the media. They found these leaders preferred to block media reforms rather than carry them out.

In the last few years, state RTV networks have freed themselves from party pressures - in some cases with strong international intervention or oversight. However, their transition from the state to public service has been very slow. PBS has been an idea on paper for the last two and a half years.

The privatisation of local newspapers and magazines has been marred with problems and scandals.

Small local radio and TV stations are barely surviving although American donors try to prop up the Association of Independent Electronic Media which is supposed to protect the interests of small broadcasters.

According to local and foreign media experts, international projects were carried out with little understanding of local needs. Only rarely, according to these experts, did some Western official or agency enter into a real, constructive partnership with local media.

Millions of German marks were spent on numerous short training courses which were often taken up by local journalists more interested in travelling to Western Europe and tourism than learning news skills. Many journalist trainers were incompetent and came with little or no knowledge of the media situation in Bosnia.

Much remains to be done but the flow of international money seems to have dried up. This means that local media, journalists, managers, analysts and eventually the state must do the job themselves.

Zoran Udovicic, a long-time journalist and media researcher, is the founder and president of Sarajevo-based Media Plan, a media development and research institute.

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