From Bosnia and Herzegovina - ©Media Online 2001
The ‘Oslobođenje’ Left Without Journalists, Readers or
Three Causes for Crisis of the Most Reputable Bosnian Paper
By: Kemal Kurspahic
On quite a symbolical plane, however in relation with the basic role of any newspaper – particularly the one having a world-wide reputation of a paper such as the Oslobodjenje: to offer the reader full information and an intelligent analysis of the events – the real Oslobodjenje had not existed even a long time before the strike itself which stopped the paper for three days, from Monday, May 21, through Wednesday, May 23. The paper had symbolically hit the bottom even before that, which was drastically evident on Monday, May 7. On that day, in an attempt through the Islamic Community in Sarajevo to contact the people detained in the Islamic Council Building during the street riots in Banjaluka, the reporter of the most reputable Bosnian paper wrote, black on white, that “it is absolutely impossible to reach Lagumdzija”. On the very same day, the highest-rating Bosnian daily, of the typically non-Bosnian name – Avaz – even published a detailed interview with the leader of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Social Democrats whom the Oslobodjenje, according to their own admission, “absolutely” could not reach.
Why was it “the doomsday” for me as far as the news communication function of the Oslobodjenje in the Bosnia and Herzegovina of today is concerned?
Because it turned out that the long-standing excuse of the editorial and administrative leadership of the Oslobodjenje that the paper is losing the race with the Avaz due to privileges granted to the latter paper from the very start – in the form of the financial and political support of the SDA, distribution of the paper in police cars to some towns in Bosnia that were at the time ultimately inaccessible, privileged access to state information controlled by the Bosniak party, including the correspondence of Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic with the readers of the Avaz – is simply no longer enough to explain the fall in the news communication level of a “paper which had refused to die” back during the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo. If Izetbegovic and his party were raising the Avaz while destroying the Oslobodjenje, and they were, why the same thing would be done by Lagumdzija, who for year was in the opposition of the SDA? The reply, just like in the case of the unjustified protests by the former editor-in-chief Mirko Sagolj, as to that the paper had no relevant information “because they did not send us an invitation”, is quite a prosaic one: over the past year, the Oslobodjenje was persistently lagging behind in cherishing the fundamental function of any paper – news communication, as well as competency – and the latter is due to dissipation of the prominent full-time employees and free-lancers in the news communication superstructure.
All the rest is a long and complicated story in at least three relevant dimensions: the internal one – pertaining to the relations within the paper itself; the Bosnian one – in relation to the local public and market; and the international one – in relation to the many failed investments into Bosnian media, among which the foreigners could not tell the good from the bad ones.
A Newspaper Without Journalists
When in late eighties the Oslobodjenje became a “paper which conquers its own name”, as said at the time by poet Abdulah Sidran, this rise – also resulting in pronouncement of this Sarajevo daily the Paper of the Year in 1989 in Yugoslavia, in a traditional poll of the then really free “Slobodna Dalmacija” – was based on the historically verified rationale that nothing is as important in a newspaper as a good text. The Oslobodjenje at the time had an enthusiastic editorial team, in which everybody had long-standing international experience; a team of recognized and competent editorial columnists and a permanent cooperation with some reputable Bosnian public personae and, if not the best, then certainly the most read and sometimes the most controversial associates from the whole of former Yugoslavia. Market-wise, the paper was becoming one of the top Bosnian companies, thanks to the full synchronization in the editorial and business policies. Over the period in which I was the editor-in-chief, December 1988 through March 1994, the Oslobodjenje was a leader and won three historical battles for the dignity of the journalist profession: the first one was in relation to its role in the affirmation of the political pluralism, culminating in the aforementioned pronouncement of the Paper of the Year in Yugoslavia back in 1989. The second battle was won by its refusal to accept the control of the three nationalistic parties, SDA-SDS-HDZ (The Party of Democratic Action, the Serbian Democratic Party and the Croat Democratic Alliance), back in 1991, when the paper, as the sole daily in the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian triangle overwhelmed with nationalism, managed to defend its professional independence both at the square in front of the Assembly Building and in the discussion before the Constitutional Court. And the third battle was waged by daily issuance on the frontlines of Sarajevo’s defense, and I would also say – of the many centuries of tolerance nurturing culture and tradition in Bosnia – for which the Oslobodjenje was pronounced the world’s Paper of the Year in 1992 in the first place (BBC and Granada TV in Great Britain) and won the Award of Freedom in Scandinavia, the Andrei Sacharov Award granted by the European Parliament back in 1993, as well as a dozen of other most prestigious tributes of the world’s journalism.
did the paper, which was called “the Sarajevo’s daily wonder” by the
Washington Post back in the war summer of 1992, and about whom two books were
published in the US (“Sarajevo Daily” by Tom Gjelten, and “As Long As
Sarajevo Exists” by myself), in the peace times, exhausted the reputation
gained immediately before and during the war?
Its management would readily reel off a long list of obvious reasons: destruction of the almost all assets of this newspaper in the war, accrued debts from that period when there was no market or revenues of any sort in Bosnia, lack of market and economy in the post-war years and – as stated by the general manager in his announcement on the occasion of the strike – “some big investments in Germany” (the purpose of any investment I guess is to yield return instead of taking money away!). There would be more things to say.
However, all those explanations only mist up the primary responsibility within the Oslobodjenje itself. The war debt story was supposed to be finalized through submission of detailed statements of accounts at least two times thus far: firstly immediately after the end of war, and then at the time of privatization of the paper last year, if not in the form of quarterly or at least annual operations reports. The management failed on presenting the employees – naturally including the interested journalists as the most numerous group – with a detailed information and clear accounting for at least five critical business issues or decisions as well: (1) on the effects of the war and post-war operations in Ljubljana, which since issuance of the weekly selection of texts from Sarajevo with only one guest editor, hosted by “Dell”, had grown into an operation involving participation of dozens of people with paid per diems and apartments; (2) on the business effects of printing the European issue in Germany, which had its purpose only if bringing money, not taking it away; (3) on the terms under which some departments of the former Oslobodjenje newspaper house, such as the printing and marketing, had become independent companies and whether some of the invoices billed to the Oslobodjenje were in some connection with the fact that the leading people from the management were in both ethically and legally unacceptable roles of members of boards of directors for such partner companies; (4) on the results of an unusual partnership of this newspaper house with Benetton, and (5) on the ultimate extravagancy in spending on luxury cars, apartments, public events and trips without any visible results, at the time when journalists and other employees were owed 10-12 monthly salaries and were not getting paid for their health and pension insurance funds.
Over all of these post-war years, this has deepened the gap between the administrative and journalist sections of the house, thus sinking the paper deeper and deeper into preoccupation with its own survival, and fully eliminating any sort of purposeful involvement with future strategies or visions. Under such circumstances, neither the management nor editors any longer thought about how a good author and a good text are unbeatably the best investment of any paper, so numerous journalists kept on leaving, while gathering and maintaining of the paper’s recognized and competent correspondents and free lancers was completely neglected. The strike only came on as a pitiful testimony of the many years of extinguishing the memory of the good old Oslobodjenje: instead of raising its quality, the paper lowered itself down to the level of cheap tabloid competition, along with a drastic degradation of literacy and professional skills. (Here I owe the following remark to its remaining journalists: even in spite of the many years of decrease in the incentive, freshness and quality of the paper – the paper never failed on the values that had raised the Oslobodjenje high above everything else in the Balkans daily press of the past decade, primarily respect for the Bosnian ethnic and religious tolerance cherishing tradition and culture.)
Paper With No Readers
It may be exactly with the latter remark that the story began about the so-called environment in which the Oslobodjenje drama has been taking place over the recent days. Respect for the multi-cultural being of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which distinguished the Oslobodjenje from the papers with both the Serb and Croat as well as with the newly emerging Bosniak ethnic features, was no longer “in fashion”. The world praised the multi-ethnic Bosnia tradition commitment, but in spite of this they tailored the peace agreement to suit “the guys under arms”, thus separating Bosnia and leaving it to the nationalist political leaders – including the Bosniak ones in Sarajevo as well – to use their extremist ideologists to write on the pages of say the Ljiljan magazine to ridicule anyone, such as the Oslobodjenje, who was not ready to abandon the memory of the many centuries’ tradition of tolerance among the ethnic groups of differing names, religious and ethnic affiliations in the country of Bosnia.
The war violence also rooted up tens of thousands of the Oslobodjenje readers. Neither is Sarajevo, either in economic or demographic terms, the same city in which before the war up to 12,000 families were subscribed to receiving the Oslobodjenje at their home threshold and to “swallowing it up” along with their morning coffee, not to mention all the “ethnically cleansed” towns in which the Oslobodjenje – even when it was not the highest rating paper in each particular of those towns – sold regularly in some 1,000 to 3,000 copies a day – in Mostar, Tuzla, Banjaluka and Zenica – or 500 and over – in Brcko, Prijedor, Doboj, Zvornik, Capljina – and let me not rummage through the memories any further.
Paper With No Support
Let us finally have a couple of words on the so-called international factor. In a desperate search for any kind of civility in the media of the post-war Bosnia, the opportunity has been missed to recognize potential strategic projects as soon as in the early stage of the “media intervention”, which would have a major and regionally broadest effect and influence. Among those, even beyond the Bosnian borders, in connection with the Southeast Europe projects, both symbolically and based on the then potentials, the Oslobodjenje was still the most obvious solid investment. However, millions of dollars have been spent for papers, which even five years after the war have not yet spoken the full truth on what atrocities and what crimes were committed right under their windows.
Again an explanation here: I would not have expected the foreigners in the first place to bring some money into the Oslobodjenje just like that, but there were times and occasions when it was needed – even in an advisory meeting – to gather the dissipated creative potentials of this paper, including the many who had left under various circumstances, for an intellectually analytical brainstorming related to the editorial and business strategies for the post-war times; to determine both the project and its holders and only then – grant the trusted people and paper all the required material and technical assistance for the rehabilitation of the Oslobodjenje, if not as the highest rating paper then surely the most recognized, most reliable and most influential one in Bosnia and beyond. Such an initiative, unfortunately, has not been started either from inside or from outside over the recent years.
For all these reasons, the Oslobodjenje has died down and will not revive again until everybody, primarily the journalists and editors, are clear about that it is only there where the things have “gone for the worse” can it start going for the better – in the paper’s editorial office itself.
Kemal Kurspahic is former editor-in-chief of the Oslobodjenje, 1988-1994. Now he is executive editor of The Connection chain of weeklies, seated in Virginia, USA. He is the author of the book “As Long As Sarajevo Exists” and the book in preparation “Prime Time Crime: Balkans Media in War and Peace.” ©Media Online 2001. All rights reserved.
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