From Bosnia and Herzegovina
OHR Media Development Strategy In Post-Dayton BiH
By: Chris Riley
The history of international community involvement in all aspects of media development in post war and post Dayton Bosnia and Hercegovina has been a controversial one from the very beginning, and remains so to this day. There are many understandable reasons that explain why this is so, and it is worth articulating some of the parameters faced by the first of those to undertake the task in 1996.
The first and foremost problem faced by the IC was the lack of a specific reference to media in the original Peace Agreement signed at Dayton. Many armchair observers have criticised this lack of foresight by the international leaders charged with achieving a lasting peace. Given that there was a clear appreciation by local and international participants and observers of the negative role played by the media in fuelling the hatred, and of the blatant manipulation of the media by nationalist political leaders, this frustration is understandable. However, anyone who has read either Richard Holbrooke's or Carl Bildt's fascinating and painful accounts of the negotiations at Dayton will appreciate the mammoth task faced by all parties who took part in it. It is a matter of fact now that the extensive negotiations were bogged down in detailed discussions over territory well beyond the 11th hour. It is neither fair nor helpful to blame those at Dayton for the omission of detailed agreements as to how the media should be reshaped in a post war BiH.
It must also be recognised that not only is there no specific reference to media in the final agreement, but that Dayton, due to Bosnia and Herzegovina's recent history, had to provide for a complicated constitutional design which sets certain parameters to what the international community can do in the media environment. Many critics of OHR media policy disregard this fact. It is perhaps one of the hardest tasks of the international community to press forward with implementing the best solutions in a difficult environment, and to develop solutions from the basis that the Dayton agreement provided for. The harsh reality is that the alternative would be failure - a recognition that the ethno-centric and authoritarian nature of BiH politics would continue to dominate the media environment and that only a tacit effort should be made to institute a thorough and sustainable reform. Such a surrender has never been, nor is now contemplated.
To their credit, the first post-Dayton internationals quickly recognised the desperate situation of the media and set about redressing the most glaring problems. Principally, this focused on the virtual triopoly of the leading nationalist parties over the main means of mass communication. In 1996 and early 1997, there was little discussion of "European standards" and "self sustainability". Primary emphasis was placed upon breaking political control; in creating alternative voices; in promoting ethnic tolerance; in fighting the rhetoric of hate (a primary characteristic of the BiH media at that time) and developing pluralism. In extremely difficult circumstances, with much obstruction and obfuscation, this policy was largely successful. Our predecessors, and the brave local media professionals who created alternatives to the party controlled outlets deserve recognition for the vital role they played in grasping the problem during this most sensitive and difficult time.
Many things have changed since then. The international community quickly recognised that a political system that had utilised and abused the technological developments in mass communication to foster and fuel hatred and intolerance for their own selfish political ends were unlikely to relinquish such control easily. A powerful and broad international consensus developed to grasp this problem. The High Representative was granted powers at the meeting of the Steering Board at the ministerial level in May 1997 in Sintra, Portugal, which lead to the deployment of military force against the most egregious media manipulators in Pale in 1997. His powers were then broadened at the full Peace Implementation Council meeting in Bonn in December 1997. It is worth noting that although we have moved on from those early days, this international consensus remains firmly intact and focused to this day. It has developed and evolved, but forms the continued basis for the OHR Media Development strategy. In order to design and implement a strategy that is credible, and has a chance of success, it is critically important to recognise the parameters within which such a strategy can be implemented. Failure to face harsh realities would doom our collective efforts to ignominious failure.
The word strategy is frequently misused. A strategy is not about developing a TV network, or creating a new institution, it is about identifying a unifying purpose, and focusing efforts to meet the needs of that purpose. In BiH, the implementation of any strategy is a painstaking exercise in patience, forging compromise on tactics rather than principle, and maintenance of the overall aim. This underlying focus can sometimes be lost in the maelstrom created by change - it is part of our job to maintain this focus and not be distracted by short term political exigencies. Together with our many local partners, we must find the strength to implement changes in the face of a system dogged by inertia.
The overarching principle or the strategy is to foster the development of a media sector according to the highest European standards. It should be as insulated as possible against direct and indirect political interference, it should be financially self-sustainable, and should have broadly acceptable mechanisms to ensure its adherence to international standards of human rights. To achieve this, there are three key elements to the strategy: first, to reshape the political, judicial and legislative framework of BiH to meet these exacting standards; second, to assist the development of the broadcasting sector to meet the needs of the information age; and third to assist the development of the struggling print press sector in an extremely challenging economic market. Even without continued political opposition, this would be an extremely difficult task. In BiH, such political opposition to the strategy continues. The tactics of those who believe that media control equals political success may have changed. They are more subtle and tend to focus on arguments based upon "colonialism" and "sovereignty". However, the international community has traveled a long and difficult road in this field. It knows that there is a deeply held desire amongst the media community in BiH to be freed of the controls that were an essential element of the old centralised Yugoslav system. It is faith in that belief that helps to maintain the focus of those involved in the process, both international and domestic.
Together with our close partner OSCE, OHR continues to review and encourage changes to a legislative system designed, in part, to ensure the subservience of the mass communications industry to the whims of the political system. If BiH is ever to take its full place alongside other Western nations, this is a vital element to any media strategy. Thorough, patient work was conducted by a range of local and international experts led by OSCE last year in the development of legislation for Freedom of Access to Information and to decriminalise defamation. The drafts progressed well through the complex legislative process at entity and state level. Whilst these laws are aimed at all citizens, there can be little doubt that their effective implementation will have a lasting effect on the work of journalists in BiH. It is worth noting that despite continued political opposition to media restructuring efforts from some quarters, there are positive indications that a fresh wind is blowing through the corridors of power. It must be said that amongst the new leaders who have emerged in BiH in recent times, there are signs that a consensus is beginning to develop between the executive and legislative parties on the one hand, and the international community and the media industry on the other.
Much work remains to be done in this area. Too much of the media remains in the public sector. It is thus continually vulnerable to the political exigencies of the current party in power, particularly at local level. Legislation designed to support the old Yugoslav regime does not sit comfortably with the requirements of a free modern press. There are thankfully few examples in Europe where government and parliament have such intrusive powers to affect editorial policy and staff appointments as in BiH. The interlocking and overlapping laws that control public companies are now being studied with a view to reducing the inappropriate powers of the state in the media field.
Restructuring of the print press field is an altogether more difficult task. Unlike the broadcasting sector, it would be inappropriate to develop an external regulator such as the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA). Responsibility in the press is something that must be developed through self-regulation. The imminent formation of the Press Council, through the joint efforts of 5 journalist organisations with limited international support is a much needed development in order to create the internal checks and balances required of a mature industry. OHR has traditionally played a low key role in this aspect of media development. This is partially due to a conscious focus of resources upon the broadcasting sector, but also reflects the difficulty in focusing international community support to outlets that have a real chance of self-sustainability. The slow redevelopment of the BiH economic continues to be a major obstacle to the creation of a self-sustaining press market.
Accordingly, press outlets continue to be more vulnerable to political and financial influence. OHR intends to follow the development of the press council closely with OSCE. Our principle focus will, however, identify and pursue the clear examples of political manipulation of the press. It is clear that without breathing space from political interference, the development of a professional and sustainable press will be severely restricted.
OHR involvement in the third key element of the media strategy, the broadcasting sector, evolved precisely because of the sheer weight of political interference in the sector. Well meaning NGOs could only do so much to assist the recovery of the domestic broadcast industry in BiH. This is largely because success in creating alternative voices, free of political control, sooner or later attracts the interest of the largest political players. In a system designed to ensure political control, this hampered efforts to create independent viable outlets, and continues to do so to this day. Accordingly, this element of the OHR strategy continues to take centre stage. It is based upon three pillars - the development of a self-sustainable, independent regulator; the restructuring of the public broadcasting system; and to encourage the creation of an independent, commercial alternative to the public broadcasting system.
Effective burden sharing within the international community places the focus for OHR with support to the independence of the regulator, the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA), through its efforts to shape the currently over-saturated market through the licencing process, and the restructuring of the public broadcasting system (at the start of the process, there were over 200 radio stations and over 70 TV stations in BiH). CRA must be provided with support to ensure it can carry out its difficult and sensitive tasks with the minimum of political interference.
Accordingly, OHR plays no active role in the decisions taken by CRA. OHR concentration on the reform of the public system derives from an appreciation that the temptation of politicians to replicate the information hegemony of earlier times through a dominant and all powerful public system would be too great. We share the view of other international community organisations that there is far too much state involvement in the broadcasting sector, particularly at Cantonal and Municipal level, and we are resolved to work together with our partners to redress this imbalance in order to reduce the political manipulation exercised through them.
Many Western politicians may secretly admit that if they could dominate the broadcast environment, it would be a severe temptation to do so. However, Western societies characteristically have strong checks and balances against such controls, both within the broadcasters themselves, and by effective independent regulation supported by a developed civil society. BiH must first develop these checks and balances.
It is not the intention of this article to provide a detailed description of the public broadcast reform process. The intentions are clearly articulated in the High Representative's Second Decision issued in October 2000, which was widely consulted before issue. However, it is worth briefly discussing the approach to such a key element of the strategy. Critics of the current approach frequently fail to present an alternative solution, or offer ones that are so unrealistic in terms of financial or constitutional feasibility that they are far removed from reality. Many observers of the public broadcasting system restructuring process frequently demand that PBS be immediately constructed on it's own frequency and channel, producing a full broadcasting day by imposition of the High Representative. The current limitations to the programme production capability of the public broadcasters, the desperate state of the transmission infrastructure and the financial constraints upon the entire system dictate that such an imposition would be meaningless in the short term. Such an end state remains an aspiration - but it should be appreciated that sustainable, structural reform is a process of evolution, not revolution.
Recent criticisms have also focused upon the need to be inclusive of local, domestic aspirations, and not simply the imposition of a culturally insensitive "international" solution. This is absolutely correct. By definition, this means the inclusion of all the component elements of society - not just the Sarajevo intelligentsia or the highly vocal journalist community, nor simply the representatives of a political system, struggling to free itself from a culture of centralised control. An inclusive strategy in BiH means listening to all those mentioned above, but also must include those whose voice is frequently heard more faintly. Returnees from Drvar to central Bosnia, community leaders in Brcko, teenagers in Posusje and public employees in Banja Luka all have a right to be heard and included, or the reality will be that the public broadcasting system will fail to represent the citizens of the state it claims to.
There is little doubt that programming on the principle public broadcasters is currently weak. However, those involved in programme production in RTVBiH, for example, are working extremely hard to create a new schedule for the upcoming Federation TV service due to be launched towards the end of this month. They are doing so with minimal equipment and resources as the Broadcasting Agent team, the Governing Bodies and the principle donors implement the key strategic decisions to re-equip the system so it is compatible with the digital age. This is detailed and painstaking work. It takes significant planning and implementation to get this right - donor funding is limited and cannot be wasted on snap decisions to deal with immediate problems, but must be carefully deployed to get the best value for money, and to provide the basis for an equipment base that can serve the heavy programme production requirements of the new system.
One of the most frustrating criticisms is one that domestic experts are excluded. Apart from the fact that this is not true, one cannot help seeing that this criticism comes from circles who have vested interests in the status quo, another solution that would be to their liking, or who are simply spiteful as the project has every chance of succeeding. Those that do become involved are often branded as lackeys or traitors. Fortunately, the governing bodies, management and many of the employees of the public broadcasting system are more aware than their foreign guests as to the derivation and purpose of such attacks. Some find it increasingly difficult to accept such pressure, but an encouraging core have steeled themselves to see through the huge challenge of transforming an old state system into a professional, public institution which will serve the interest of all the citizens of BiH. This alone encourages OHR more than anything to stay the course and to continue to provide the support required to enable such an essential and bold transformation.
Chris Riley is Head of Media Development Office of the High Representative, Sarajevo (BiH). Media Online runs this text without editing other than section headings and the title. ©Media Online 2001. All rights reserved.
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