AIM
Media in B&H Federation

Killing Media as the Only Trace of Conscience

Rubina CENGIC

FRI, 11 FEB 2000


Sarajevo, 31 January - The noose around the neck of independent journalism in Bosnia & Herzegovina is tightening! Due to inactivity of the authorities, independent media have put themselves in the service of the citizens and stepped out of the system. This is not the real way to a civil society, but in the situation prevailing at the moment in B&H there is obviously no other way.

"The public word has become the only conscience and now it has become the subject of someone's wish to kill and eliminate it", said recently Senka Nozica, lawyer, at the round table discussion on freedom of the media and public speech organised by the Helsinki Committee. At the same gathering Senad Pecanin, Editor-in-Chief of Dani, declared that after all the incidents aimed against journalists (especially after the attempt on the life of Zeljko Kopanja, director and editor-in-chief of Nezavisne novine from Banja Luka) it became clear that journalism, along with minesweeping, has become the most risky job in B&H: "Nowadays for journalism one needs neither skill nor knowledge, one needs only courage!" says he. Should things continue in this way - independent media and journalists are threatened by extermination or for the sake of bare survival - sale to somebody who is ready to pay. The result is obvious - in B&H there will be neither media nor a journalist who is not in the service of an ethnic party in power, and the result of this is that in B&H, in the heart of Europe, at the cross-roads of the worlds, there is no democracy and civil society, but just "one nation - one state - one daily newspaper"!

Governments on different levels pass laws pursuant which journalists are obliged to give evidence that they did not intend to lie or slander somebody, but they do not pass laws pursuant which any institution or official is obliged to give information from the sphere of its/his/her activity… While distributors are announcing a drastic increase of prices of paper, with the beginning of the election campaign political parties are generously opening their cashboxes crammed with money to the loyal media.

If "pressure" on independent media and journalists continues, as well as tightening of various circles around them, observing, registering, reacting even of the media which manage to survive, will be less and less sharp because of the struggle for bare existence of individuals and media… There are also very frequent threats by telephone: "I do not take my child for a walk after six in the afternoon even in summer", claims a Sarajevo journalist and editor of the oldest Sarajevo daily, Oslobodjenje, Mirko Sagolj, commenting on privatisation of newspapers and the beginning of the election campaign with the following words: "According to information I have, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and its media are entering the election campaign with great pressing that is aimed at shutting down Oslobodjenje and Vecernje novine even before April elections. I believe that Avaz as a branch office of SDA will fight with all its might in the market and outside it and I am afraid it will not shrink from physical threats even".

PRIVATISATION

That this could actually happen is confirmed by the fact that at a public auction, Djecija i omladinska stampa (Children’s and Youth’s Press) company was bought not long ago. It used to publish two children's magazines - Mala sveska for the first four and Male novine for the other four grades of elementary school, and it once operated as part of the big publisher Oslobodjenje. The buyer of this enterprise is Fahro Radoncic, editor-in-chief of Avaz, who is one of SDA tycoons.

Among independent media there is also a certain number of those which are partly or even completely still socially or state owned: Oslobodjenje is completely owned by the state, and Vecernje novine is that just partly.

Some, like the Sarajevo weekly Svijet tried to find money and reregister. However, the problem of self-supporting which international donors insist on, is still insoluble in local circumstances, so Svijet is not being published for more than six months now.

"The one who buys 28 per cent of the ownership which is still social will be the majority owner and our future will depend on him", says for AIM editor-in-chief of Vecernje novine, Sead Demirovic. He does not eliminate the possibility that the purchaser will be one of SDA tycoons: "Anything is possible!" claims Demirovic. In the meantime in institutions of the international community which are dealing with media they are trying to find a donor of money with which the workers and the journalists themselves could buy their newspapers, because, as Demirovic claims, this would not be a large sum of money. But there are no results. The same fear prevails in Oslobodjenje, but they hope that with the collected 1.5 million German marks, though in securities, they will become owners of 51 per cent of the company and the remaining 49 per cent should be bought by a B&H businessman who is living abroad at the moment and who is inclined towards the oldest daily newspaper in B&H.

CLOSED SOURCES

At this moment there are 30 cases in court against journalists of B&H newspapers and magazines. For example, Senad Avdic, editor-in-chief of Slobodna Bosna, has twice already been sentenced to prison and then released on parole. Should the court once more decide on account of an appeal against him (and there is a large number of them) that he is guillty, Avdic will really end up in prison. It is true that what Avdic has written might have been different had the institution or an individual from the administration who was asked to give a statement or a commentary wished to speak.

President of the management board of Slobodna Bosna, journalist Asim Metiljevic comments as follows: "This is a great stratagem of the bureaucratic mind which consists of evading independent media when offering information. For every piece of information, a journalist is forced to address some secretary and then submit a request for an interview or for just a single answer to a question or a statement, and then wait for the answer for days and then finally - a kind secretary tells him that her boss was so busy that he has not been able to even read his mail for days! Their stand is that a problem does not exist as long as nobody writes about it. Such a case are machination in the National Bank of B&H when it was transformed into the Central Bank of B&H. It was a matter of 78 million German marks and until Slobodna Bosna wrote about it, it was as if they had not even existed. Even now, when protagonists in this machination are interrogated in court, they admit that they tried to hush it up. And this was a large sum of money, mine and the money of my neighbours, of every tax payer in the country, and their stand is that it is just necessary to "hush up" two or three media which are investigating some things…."

In one of his decisions, former High Representative ordered that B&H judiciary initiate proceedings against journalists suspected of presenting lies and libel as a civic litigation and not like before as a criminal act which journalists could be sentenced to prison for. He also ordered that until the end of last year laws on publicly stated slander be prepared, but also the obligation of institutions and agencies to give all relevant information from their jurisdiction to the public, therefore to the media. And indeed - OSCE and the Office of High Representative established a consulting legal group which until 31 December last year - met only once!

DOMESTIC LAWS

While the working group of the OHR and OSCE met this once, the government of B&H Federation passed draft law on compensation for the damage done by publicly stated slander and lie and sent it to the federal parliament for adoption in an emergency procedure. The draft law prescribes high fines for journalists and publishers, but what is the most controversial is the fact that the journalist himself is trying to prove that he meant no harm (!?) At the same time, the government of Tuzla canton is sending to its parliament according to the same procedure the draft law pursuant which a media shall be punished with the fine of five thousand German marks if it refuses to publish the integral text of a statement of any institution of the administration, and an institution shall be punished to pay a fine of 1500 German marks if it fails to give information to the public, that is to a media, within seven days or if after seven days it refuses to give an acceptable explanation of the reason why there had been no information.

"Such laws are a total aggression against the media, it is an attempt to shut down everything that is not controlled by the ruling parties. I am sure that this is a wish of the ruling structure", says Mirko Sagolj, and Sead Demirovic adds that Bosnia & Herzegovina in fact needs "a good and honest law on public information which is obligatory for journalists and media, but also for the source of information. "Representatives of the authorities are nowadays acting as directors of privately owned enterprises, and not as individuals who are discharging a public function and whose duty is to give the public information about their work", says Asim Metiljevic. At the same time, the editor-in-chief of the youngest Sarajevo magazine, START, Dario Novalic, believes that such a draft law "contains just the tip of the iceberg of the worst laws in the world and the only one that applauds to it is the government of the Republika Srpska because it is the same as theirs. Pursuant this law, for instance, Radovan Karadzic would in a short time collect an enormous sum of money - he could lodge an appeal against everybody who ever called him a war criminal or wrote that and take 100 thousand marks from every such person. Indeed, such a judgement about Karadzic still has not been confirmed in a relevant court and for as long as it is not it is just - slander and untruth". In the meantime, the federal government withdrew the draft law from the parliament and announced amendments, but only in the part referring to the height of fines. And what the new government of Croatia will do is still not known.

CONTROLLED MARKETING

Enterprises which are controlled by the ruling parties through the management boards nominated by these parties address their marketing demands mostly to regime media which leaves independent media without the fresh money necessary for their survival. "In order to make a newspaper self-supporting they must make more than 50 per cent of their income from advertising and marketing. But the media in this country do not seem to be aware of this, and the economy even if it were not controlled by the ruling parties would not be able to sustain it", says Novalic. Demirovic shares this opinion: "Energopetrol from Sarajevo will never publish an advertisement in Vecernje novine. Because, once on the occasion of a change of management of this enterprise, Vecernje novine wrote that the one who was suspected of having robbed the money should be taken to court and if it was established that it was the truth, he should go to prison and not be given another director’s post… ".

"It is a fact that the regime has established relations in which advertising is the exclusive right of the regime media and every attempt of ours to establish co-operation with enterprises which are mostly controlled by the regime ends as a failure. For three years already in our quarterly campaigns we sent proposals for advertising among other to the Sarajevo tobacco factory (FDS), but only after the article published in our newspaper that this factory, by order of somebody from the government of B&H Federation had paid for arms, FDS suddenly remembered an advertising contract worth a considerable sum of money which could be offered to Dani. This just shows the manner in which party levers are trying to exert influence on editorial policy of newspapers because the ruling parties are aware of financial position of the media here", Vildana Selimbegovic assesses and adds that Dani tried to promote their marketing activities even with the help of American government agencies: "USIS has even supplied us with a team, but in our conditions this is very difficult. As concerning the local political scene, a long time will be necessary to establish a market of the kind necessary for independent media".

Demirovic expresses fear for operation of independent media and journalists in B&H in the year 2000:"The year that lies ahead will be just mere struggle for survival and this struggle blunts the edge of independent journalism. This forces us to take great care how we will write about somebody who is ready to spend on advertisement in our newspaper a sum of 100 thousand German marks of more. Controlled marketing is much more pronounced inside B&H than in major centres such as Sarajevo for instance".

The additional aggravating circumstance for printed media is the existence of a large number of electronic ones: there are more than 270 of them in B&H which are much more efficient and successful in collecting money from marketing. In its rules for permits for work issued for five years, the Independent Media Commission (IMC) has introduced limitations when advertising in the program is concerned. The rules are different for public and commercial media - there will be limitations for the public media (financed from the budget on one of the levels) in order to leave enough space for the commercial ones (which are self-supporting). At the same time, as requirements for long-term permits are somewhat more severe, considerable reduction of the number of electronic media is expected which could significantly make survival easier for the media of any kind.

PRINTING WORKS AND NEWS-PRINT

In one of the issues of START magazine practically not a single advertisement was legible, but this did not stop the printing works (which is not their property) from sending a bill for printing. A few days later Vecernje novine were published on a reduced number of pages because preparation of the newspaper was delayed and the printers were in a hurry to go home - it was on the eve of a holiday!

"One of the limitations of independent media are the printing works, obsolete technology, equipment… below the quality of their content" says Metiljevic. Novalic reminds that international agencies are promising for five years already that independent media would get their own printing works: "We are all tired of these promises and nothing is happening". Sagolj claims that he has recently heard that an international organisation has bought printing equipment for B&H media, but it is the equipment which has been exploited for a few years already in Romania". "If it is ever going to be mantled, it will be on commercial grounds and somebody will profit again, but not independent media", Sagolj expresses doubt. They claim in Dani that starting of printing is directly blackmailed by purchase of paper, so once even USAID (American organisation for infrastructure and development) reacted by purchasing large quantities of paper.

According to what people from printed media say, in B&H paper is sold by everybody who has it, but also by printing works, Dnevni avaz, certain individuals… Paper enters B&H through various channels, from the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Serbia, Russia.

How big a problem paper and printing can be is illustrated by the case of Sarajevo Svijet whose printing has been interrupted for the second time in the past five years. "We tried to make a somewhat more luxurious magazine in order to show that this can be done in B&H. We had it printed abroad by foreign partners and had to pay for it issue by issue. At the same time, we got money from the distributor every three months or even more rarely. With controlled marketing and dead economy, this was a rhythm which was impossible to endure", says for AIM deputy editor-in-chief Muhamed Demidzic.

LARGE NUMBER OF MEDIA

Well informed sources claim that only in Peru there are more media per capita than in B&H. IMC is trying to introduce order by setting standards which amateurs will not be able to adhere to. "We had media registered just in order to collect donations", claims Metiljevic.

A large number of media brought about fragmentation of the cadre: "It would be important to reduce the number of the media in order to create a surplus of journalists and healthy competition. Now we have a lack of people, they all think they are stars, nobody is doing anything to become more skilled, and due to small salaries people are leaving media, especially the independent ones, for the controlled ones or international organisations where salaries are much higher and arrive regularly", says Demirovic.

Although they are more numerous, it is much easier to maintain electronic media and to keep them alive, they are more influential… People from printed media experience them as a threat. Local electronic media are under surveillance of local power wielders and they are allowed to speak against those who are opposed to local extremists or groups, and even independent media. Such media, they agree in independent media, build public opinion by talking well or badly about people, about various phenomena, customs or newspapers. Electronic media are present in every home, and in order to get a printed media, it is necessary to go out, spend money in order to buy them, say people from independent printed media.

On the other hand - among electronic media there are those which do not broadcast any program at all or not a program they themselves produce. Some of them just carry program of television stations of neighbouring countries, Croatia and Serbia and Yugoslavia, and transmitters of some are at a complete standstill, but they nevertheless occupy channels and have permits.

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

In Slobodna Bosna they say that they have entered year 2000 without a single application for support, and they will not try to enforce payments of the allocated but never paid ones either. Dani has applied for support for certain projects which it would not have been able to work on on its own, and independent dailies are awaiting privatisation: sale of Oslobodjenje and Vecernje novine should soon be publicly announced. "The international community should mark a few media in B&H through which it would be able to promote Dayton policy and assist them in every possible way until they are able to stand on their own feet, become economically independent. There is no other way out of the situation we are in", says Sagolj. Many also believe that the international community has no concept: "Only that can explain the replacement of key persons on certain projects in crucial moments for the projects. Dzemidzic believes that, for instance, if it had ensured aid for two years ahead, after that Svijet would have been a successful self-supporting enterprise.

The international community as the most objective observer of the situation is having difficulties in solving the burning problems in the country where hardly anything is becoming self-supporting. B&H media are fighting a difficult battle for survival on the domestic market without sufficient means to even cover the whole territory of B&H.




Original article