Casualties of War

Fellows Spring 1999

By Richard Byrne

June 08, 2009

SARAJEVO Spring, 1999 -- It's the morning after NATO's first bombs fall on Yugoslavia, and Open Broadcasting Network (OBN) anchor Duska Jurisic is talking bluntly to me about her station's performance the previous evening. Multiethnic and professional, OBN is the best TV news in Bosnia-Hercegovina today, but Jurisic is not accepting my compliments on OBN's superior performance to state television this morning.

"We both did it very badly," Jurisic says. "There is such a lack of organization."

Jurisic says that while OBN had its best new presenter in place, the station didn't have enough people or enough commentary. "If we do not make our program look better, we will fail."

Part of Jurisic's pessimism is professional pride, and part of it is rooted in the fact that OBN has two audiences to please if it is to survive. OBN is funded almost entirely by the international community (over $15 million in the last three years) as a counterweight to ethnically-controlled state television here, but it also competes against state television and smaller, private stations for the eyes and ears of average Bosnians. Failing to satisfy either the international donors or the audience could prove fatal to OBN.

Anecdotally, at least, OBN is an increasing force in Bosnian media. Almost everyone that I talk to in Sarajevo from Bosnian journalists to the family from whom I rent a room -- watches the state television newscast at 7:30 p.m., and then turns to OBN's newscast when it comes on at 8 p.m. When a local private station (TV Hayat) had success with a Mexican soap called "Esmerelda," OBN went out and got a Columbian soap with the unappetizing title "Coffee with the Smell of a Woman." OBN also obtained rights to NBA basketball games a coup in a basketball-mad country.

Noting that OBN's multiethnic slant has made it somewhat of an anathema to the hard-line Bosniak, Croat and Serb politicians currently in power here, OBN news editor Jadranko Katana smiles when I ask him about the NBA audience. "Even the hard-liners," Katana says, "watch the NBA."

OBN is a good example of the media tug-of-war between the international community and ethnically based ruling political interests here in Bosnia. A decade of blood and ethnic cleansing has proven that in this part of the world, media (especially television) can be a weapon, and NATO's controversial air attacks on Serbian television have highlighted the media's tremendous power to harm and maim in the Balkans.

Compared to the high-tech parade of bombs that are strafing Serbian media, Bosnia's media battle is pure World War I entrenched positions and little movement. Yet Bosnia's central geographic position and the massive influx of Western financial aid to the country (the U.S. alone has given $767 million since 1996) make the question of who wins Bosnia's media war a crucial one for peace and stability here.

In theory, the West should be winning this war. The Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) and its subsequent annexes give NATO and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) massive powers to enforce the peace and to implement democratic change and refugee returns in both of Bosnia's two entities Republika Srpska (Serbian) and the Federation (Bosniak and Croat). But media, strangely enough, was overlooked in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. It is an oversight that has wreaked havoc not only on attempts to create press institutions that are free of overt political influence, but also on the Dayton process itself.

The largest print media in Bosnia are still mouthpieces of ruling political parties, and kiosks in one ethnic group's zone of influence often don't stock newspapers and magazines published by other ethnic groups. State television has moved very little from the status quo that existed when Dayton was signed; each ethic group still essentially controls the TV transmitters that its armies seized during the war. The best independent media in the region television like OBN or magazines like the erudite and acerbic weekly Dani rely almost entirely on funding by the international community.

Dusan Babic, a media analyst and critic for the independent Media Plan institute in Sarajevo, says that he's a pessimist about how long international media funding will last as "donor fatigue" and new priorities cut into budgets for Bosnia's media. "The question," Babic says, "is how long the international community will give support to independent media here that is not self-sustaining."

Worse yet is the fact that there is general agreement that a great amount of money has already been wasted in Bosnian media. Boro Kontic, editor in chief at the Soros Media Center in Sarajevo, calls the country's media sector a "Vanity Fair" of unfocused international donors and local media waste. Ticking off a list of countries involved in media here, Kontic observes that "there's not many among them who understand what the position of media here really is."

That lack of savvy in picking appropriate media to fund has created not only waste, but also a dependency culture of sorts in Bosnian media. OBN's Jadranko Katana puts it best when he says that a Bosnian media outlet's greatest hope is that a donor will "give and forget."

Dan De Luce, who heads up the OHR's media development department, is equally candid about the waste, but he also sees an upside to what he calls the "carpet bombing approach to media funding. "You kill everything," De Luce says, continuing the metaphor, "but you do hit some of the targets. (The international community) created a whole hell of a lot of media. It was uncoordinated. A lot of the money was wasted. But there is some choice, and a certain flow of information. A certain amount of public debate takes place that didn't take place before. It would have been unthinkable."

The "whole hell of a lot of media" that De Luce talks about is staggering for a population as small as Bosnia's population. Media Plan identified 378 media outlets in the two Bosnian entities at the end of 1998 (170 radio stations, 60 television stations and 210 print outlets) for a population estimated in 1998 by the annual CIA Factbook at 3.36 million. The number of print outlets, in particular, is artificially inflated in light of recent studies that peg functional illiteracy in Sarajevo at a staggering 20 percent.

What makes this flood of even more staggering is the almost total absence of what the average American could identify as a "market." With average salaries in Sarajevo hovering between 300 and 500 Bosnian convertible marks a month ($168 to $280), and even lower in Republika Srpska, the economy is still on the ropes. Considering that a daily newspaper costs 1 mark, and a magazine costs 2 marks, buying a daily newspaper could cost a worker at the lower end of the salary scale 10 percent of his or her monthly salary. Low salaries also mean that Bosnians have a hard time buying what few products advertise on television here. This (and a legacy of communist-style broadcasting practices) stymies the development of viable commercial television.

"People here do not know how to run commercial television," says OHR's Dan De Luce. "They never have to live off marketing. You just ask for money from Marshal Tito or (Bosnian member of the country's Presidency Alija) Izetbegovic or Uncle Sam. It's the same phenomenon."

The lack of true market competition has created an atmosphere in which the ruling parties remain the dominant media force in the country, challenged only by internationally funded media outlets. Thus, independent media are in a race against the clock for their very existence. Can they become sustainable entities before the international donors' will is exhausted?

The OHR has taken new steps in the past year to help level the playing field and create a window for independent media. In the last year, the OHR has formed an Independent Media Commission (IMC) to license broadcast media, and even to punish media outlets (via warnings, fines and even closure) that inflame ethnic passions.

Some observers argue that even if the independent press did put out an appealing product that would draw readers and advertising, this grip of local politics still make it difficult to function. David DeVoss, who heads up the U.S. government-financed IREX ProMedia office to aid Bosnia's independent print media in Sarajevo, says that the problems range from difficulties in moving the money needed for real media investment in and out of the country to a steady tide of experienced journalists leaving Bosnian journalism for better paying jobs. DeVoss also notes that a business buying ads in an independent paper or magazine can lead to problems with the government. "It's a red flag for the financial police," says DeVoss of advertising. "If you advertise, you'll get a visit."

Even on the basic level of running a paper and filling it with tolerant editorial content, Bosnian journalism still has its difficulties. Even the best voices in Bosnian media often use their forums to poke fun at or criticize other ethnic groups. On March 5, for instance, Bosnian Serbs were dealt a double whammy: High Representative Carlos Westendorp fired the Republika Srpska president Nikola Poplasen for obstructing the Dayton Peace Accords, and an independent arbitrator kept a crucial sliver of territory connecting the two parts of Republika Srpska as an international town, rather than give it to the Serbs. Serbs were furious, but Sarajevo-based news magazines were delighted. Two of them Dani and Svijet published the same picture of Poplasen in the uniform of "Chetnik" forces in World War II. It's a highly charged image that recalls not only the wounds of that war, but of the last decade of wars in Yugoslavia as well. Lilijan a magazine close to the Bosniak ruling parties here printed a picture of Westendorp with the headline: "Gracias, Carlos."

The media in the other ethnic entities is no better, and may be worse. Media observers here note that Croatian state television beamed directly into the country in violation of broadcasting laws has a pernicious effect on the last elections here. Bosnian Serb TV ranges from aggrieved ranting to outright propaganda imported directly from Belgrade.

Boro Kontic ascribes much of the lack of change in Bosnian media to the "baggage" that he says Bosnian journalists must carry with them. In addition to the problems of shifting from Communist-style journalism, says Kontic, the wars in Bosnia added another dynamic to the struggle to establish a free press. "The bad part of our war experience," he says, "is that part of the profession was to be patriotic, and to close your eyes to what your own side was doing. That is the worst thing we have in our baggage." Fear, Kontic adds, is the other part of the baggage. "Ordinary people are scared of politicians," he says. "Politicians are still in a privileged position."

The battle between the ruling political interests and the international community over media will certainly create some casualties, and many here point to one of the beacons of journalistic integrity and courage during the war the Sarajevo-based daily Oslobodjenje as a likely victim of the media wars.

Even in the worst days of the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 to 1995 Oslobodjenje managed to publish every day. (The newspaper's building, now gutted, was targeted by Bosnian Serb forces in the siege.) The courage of its staff brought it both worldwide recognition and numerous awards, but the bill for the printing and salaries and distribution of the paper in wartime conditions and in the devastated economy that followed the war has mounted into millions of dollars. This debt has put the paper's viability at risk.

There is considerable irony in the possibility that peace might kill off a paper that survived a war. But even more to the point is that Oslobodjenje, despite a bloated staff and financial difficulties, is still the most tolerant and articulate daily in the region. It covers the most controversial events in the region with an absence of rancor and sensationalism. On sheer journalistic principle, it should survive.

Opinions differ widely on not only the reasons that Osobodjenje is in trouble, but also what should be done. Plans are in the works to streamline the paper's operations and to bring in past editorial staff to save the paper. "Some things must be straightened out," says one Oslobodjenje reporter, "but we will survive somehow. Which other newspaper can write what we write?"

Others, however, are not betting on Oslobodjenje's survival. IREX's David DeVoss says that Oslobodjenje is not on the list of seven papers throughout Bosnia and Hercegovina that his organization is helping. "The history that keeps it alive," says DeVoss, "also prevents it from being improved." IREX is instead focusing its energies on remaking the tabloid Vecernje Novine into a sleeker and more respectable organ.

The Oslobodjenje controversy also hints at bleak future for Bosnia's other independent media. Donors want results a free and self-sustaining press in a political and economic atmosphere that conspires directly against such media. Media Plan's Dusan Babic believes that it will be a generation, or maybe more, before a true market for independent media will be created. "Media companies," Babic says, "are not magically exempt from the same market that other companies in Bosnia share."

The question of whether the free press in Bosnia will survive until its market is created is a vital one for the ultimate survival of the country as a multi-ethnic state. Despite the massive Western investment in that media, alas, it is a question that still remains open.