When public interest and community interests clash: A case study of Bosnia and Herzegovina
by Francis Plourde July 4, 2008
Reached on November 1st of 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement is known as the agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The agreement created an institutional ethnic division in Bosnia through the creation of the Republika Srpska, a Serbian republic and the Muslim and Croat federation, both regions being loosely connected. Last fall, in the hope of helping the country move forward, Miroslav Lajcak, the High Representative of Bosnia – a diplomat acting as a watchdog from the international community – made a proposal to change ethnic voting. Serbs feared the proposal would lead to a loss of influence of the Republika Srpska within Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On November 1st, 2007, Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric resigned over reform measures pushed by he High Representative of Bosnia – the international community’s watchdog – that, according to Spiric, would have infringed on the autonomy of the Serbs of Bosnia.
During the following month, newspapers would cover every step of the political crisis, from protests in the streets to international reactions. Banja Luka-based Nezavisne Novine, for instance, would tell the story from a Bosnian-Serb perspective, and Sarajevo-based Dnevni Avaz would tell the story from a Muslim (or Bosniak) perspective.
On November 15, the former Bosnian Prime Minister Spiric scheduled a meeting with the UN Security Council in New York, to reiterate that it was “necessary for BiH to respect the Dayton Peace Agreement and Constitution.” But Spiric could not be received during the official meeting of the Security Council, as he did not have BiH Presidency approval to address the council. Under the insistence of the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Spiric managed to talk at the closed part of the session. Media consumers of Bosnia, however, depending on their newspaper, would perceive the visit differently.
Dnevni Avaz, the Bosniak daily, published an article titled “Who sent Spiric to New York?” questioning his authority to speak in New York, without conveying his message. The Nezasvine Novine, on the other hand, released a two-page spread on Spiric’s visit to New York. The report focused on the message the politician had to convey, and did not mention the reluctance of the Security Council to meet him in the first place. As a result, neither the Bosnian Serbs nor the Bosniaks shared the same understanding of the issues surrounding the visit of the politician to the UN.
Throughout the political crisis, as newspapers were offering different narratives for the events taking place, the national public radio and television network, BiH Radio-Television, provided citizens of Bosnia living in Tuzla, Sarajevo, Mostar, and Banja Luka a similar storyline that could be heard regardless of their origin. Its coverage showed the importance of the media in framing the public discourse. It also proved the value of a public broadcaster in facilitating public debate.
A journalist’s main duty is to report on what is in the interest of the public in making informed decisions. But defining “the public” can be controversial and subject to interpretation. In countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprised of three major communities - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - who were involved in the worst civil war in recent European history, the notion of public good can become complicated by felt allegiances between the State and the ethnic community the newspaper or broadcaster is part of.
Bosnia’s media has been characterized by a history of nationalist rhetoric. During the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, which led to the death of approximately 100,000 Bosnian citizens and the partition of the State into two regions (the Republika Srpska and the Muslim and Croat Federation), many media turned into tools in the hands of politicians. Only a handful of media, among them The Dani, a weekly, and The Oslobodenje, a daily, kept their independence and survived throughout the conflict.
Director of BiHR1 Senada Cumurovic worked as a radio reporter during the war. “It was terrible period and it was mad period for journalism in Bosnia. Some of my colleagues promoted hate, intolerance, and they were part of war politics,” she says.
Ever since the end of the violence in Bosnia, nationalist tensions between ethnic communities have severely slowed the peace process and threatened the future of Bosnia as a united State. These tensions have also been felt in the media.
Tarek Jusic acts as program director at the MediaCentar in Sarajevo, an NGO funded by the Open Society Institute.
“You can imagine what a mess it was at the time! There was a lot of work to be done", he said. "In the most extreme forums, it was very extreme propaganda.”
The problem was not freedom of speech, but the overcrowded media landscape.
“These media prevented the opposition parties to enter the public discourse,” he said. In 1996, more than 280 radio and television stations – twice the number of radio and television stations per capita of the United States - many owned by political parties, had a voice in the country.
In 1997, during the elections, NATO troops took control of the official television station of the Serb entity, after it was accused of being used as a tool for the nationalist rhetoric of Radovan Karadzic’s – a Bosnian Serb leader now indicted for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Following that incident, the international community pushed for regulations on broadcast media and for more training for reporters. Several media-oriented projects started up, with limited success, according to a report by the Organization for Stability and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
By 1999, the international community established the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and framed basic rules that suppressed the few remaining sources of hate propaganda. Even today, most print media show ethnic biases. “But there is no hate speech in the media in any way,” says Jusic.
The impact of a public and independent broadcaster
BiH Radio 1 aired its first national newscast in May of 2001, and has since developed a faithful audience in the whole country. It’s been the most important success in terms of media initiatives.
The network is considered one of few reliable sources of information in the country. “At the beginning,” says Senada Cumurovic, “people knew only for information in their entities, and we offered something new compared with the war period.”
Cumurovic admits her task is not without challenges. “People can listen to the same kind of music that’s no problem, if they’re from Banja Luka, if they’re from Sarajevo, no problem,” she says. “But if they listen news, they are more sensitive.”
Since the creation of the public network, she’s seen more open discussions on what remain controversial issues that various listeners, depending on their origin, remember differently. “Now, we don’t have so sensitive topics, war criminals, Srebrenica, corruption, everything is open. Of course it’s problem how to be objective, but we’re open to everything.”
Public broadcasters usually play a role in terms of state building, and act as unifying forces within a country. The BBC in the UK states six public purposes “that set out the way in which the BBC is expected to serve the public interest.” Among them, “sustain citizenship and civil society”, and “to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities.” The BBC is clearly being asked to do more than to “inform the public.”
In Canada, CBC/Radio-Canada promotes similar goals, and remains the only broadcaster to present news in both languages across the country.
In Bosnia, the role of the public broadcaster is even more critical, considering the strong presence of nationalist forces in the political sphere, and the biases of some mainstream media.
Nerma Jelacic leads the Bosnian activities of the <a href=”http://www.birn.eu.com/”> Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a small media-oriented NGO. Prior to that, she worked as a print reporter in the U.K., where newspapers, either left-wing or right-wing show strong opinions. But the Bosnian media are different, she says.
“The story is published in a way that supports a message that is preconceived by the editors. And the message is usually parallel with the message the politicians want to say,” says Jelacic.
Program director of Sarajevo MediaCentar Tarek Jusic is not surprised by the way the local media handled the story of Spiric’s resignation and visit to the UN either. He says it’s common for journalists to “adapt” their stories according to their public. “Look at Fox news, in the USA,” he says. “It’s the same all over the world.”
The question, though, is whether these biases influence the readers and viewers. “The audiences are guided toward reaching certain decisions which are not based on full information, he admits. Whether it works in terms of influences, that’s another question.”
Jusic also points out that the political climate plays a role in the way reporters can handle a story. Bosnia’s <a href=” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4225449.stm”> long awaited police reform (the abolition of the two ethnically divided police forces to created a united police structure to fight against organized crime), has been described as a matter of Serbian sovereignty by politicians from the Republika Srpska. Journalists have to report these statements and concerns, no matter if they agree with it or not. According to Jusic, the least they can do is to offer alternative views. “What the media can do is at least not put oil on fire. And at least try to offer an alternative interpretation,” he says. “If the leaders can’t agree, it doesn’t mean the population can’t live together.”
A difficult climate for journalists
Reporters also suffer from the political climate. The international community acknowledges the power of nationalism that still holds sway in the region. According to a 2008 report on media in the Balkans by Reporters Without Borders, “political and ethnic divisions continue to interfere with the work of journalists in a region still struggling to recover from wars and its politicians dislike editorial independence and criticism.” Nationalist political parties pose threats to journalists who are doing fair and researched work.
From Feb. 5 to 7 of 2007, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, visited Sarajevo to enquire about the media landscape in the country. The visit followed a decision by the Republika Srprska President Milan Jelic to boycott the public broadcaster, BHT-1, and BiHR1, three weeks earlier.
Haraszti stressed the importance of government officials to use the legal complaints mechanisms in place to settle their grievances. “A public broadcaster could not be exposed to any sort of political pressure and limitation to media freedom,” he said. “It had to fulfill its role, vital in a democratic society, to inform all citizens regardless of their social, political or other affiliations, in a timely and impartial manner.”
Cumurovic agrees with that statement. “It’s very important to offer people to hear different kinds of positions and of opinions. Problems for young people in Bosnia, are same, never mind where they live, and old people have same problems too.”
Emir Habul used to work for The Oslobodenje, the Sarajevan daily that became famous during the war for reporting fairly and independently.
Habul moved to BiH Radio 1 when the project started. He says he found the spirit of The Oslobodenje in the offices of the new public broadcaster. “The mission of The Oslobodenje to work for the whole Bosnia and Herzegovina is now the mission of BiH Radio 1,” he says. “It’s important, because we address to citizens of Bosnia as citizens, and not as members of national groups.”
On December 10, 2007, the crisis surrounding Nikola Spiric’s resignation ended when he was nominated again as president of Bosnia. The crisis would not be the last one the country would have to go though in the road toward a sustainable peace. But the coverage by the public broadcaster shows how non-biased key reporting can be in reaching that goal.