1998 World Press Freedom Review
The Office of the High Representative announced the formation of a somewhat controversial Independent Media Commission (IMC) this year, designed to provide a legal framework for the media in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The IMC is charged with drafting new laws to regulate broadcast outlets in Bosnia and has the power to close radio and television stations and punish - financially and otherwise - newspapers that it decides are engaged in "poisonous propaganda".
The concern, shared among some free press groups and members of the local media, was that the initiative could result in general suppression of legitimate news and opinion, and its presence would set a dangerous precedent for news censorship in Europe and elsewhere.
While fully appreciating the fragile and potentially inflammable situation, IPI made the point that authoritarian governments around the world could use the example of this board as a justification for suppressing free speech and free press in their countries.
Given the chaotic media landscape in Bosnia-Herzegovina however, a firm hand was welcome in many respects. The IMCs general secretary Krister Thelin told IPI that the body was established to "fill in the gap left by the Dayton Peace Agreement in the media field." He stressed the IMCs role as a promoter and protector of media and confirmed its clear authorisation with regard to setting out regulations for licensing of electronic media.
Another related matter of concern lies with the fact that Freimut Duve, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, holds the position of Honorary Chairman of the IMC. IPI feels this is inappropriate and has the potential to lead to a conflict of interests. It is conceivable that the IMC, which includes Duve, could close down a media outlet, leading free press advocates to request the intervention of Duves Freedom of the Media office.
In October, the International Federation of Journalists and the International Press Institute held a meeting with representatives of the IMC and all the main journalists unions and associations operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A journalists Code of Conduct and a draft law on Freedom of Information were adopted at the meeting.
A new Bosnian Serb ultra-nationalist television channel began transmitting on January 14 from Pale. The channel - S-Kanal - is said to be co-founded by Radovan Karadzics daughter, Sonja. The hardline information minister of Republika Srpska, Svetlana Siljegovic, has been appointed director of the station. Most of the stations staff are former employees of the ultra-nationalists official television station Serb Radio-Television (SRT) - Pale. SRT was banned from transmitting from Pale in October 1997 by the office of Carlos Westendorp for tampering with tape recordings of a press conference given by a judge from the International Criminal Tribunal and broadcasting distorted, inflammatory reports.
The international initiative to seize the TV transmitters raised more than a few eyebrows in the media world. Many analysts however, now credit the move with accelerating the democratic process in Bosnia and consolidating the Dayton Accord.
Senad Pecanin, the editor-in-chief of the independent Dani magazine in Sarajevo, was convicted on January 19 of criminal libel against the editor of the pro-government daily Dnevni Avaz. Pecanin, found guilty on five charges of slander, received a two-month suspended prison sentence, which he will be required to serve if he is caught violating any law within the next year. Pecanin was sued by Radoncic in connection with an article which alleged Radoncic had burnt Dnevni Avazs financial records and practised bigamy. Radonic also signalled his intent to file for civil damages amounting to US$85,000 against Dani.
This is the first criminal libel conviction in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many other criminal libel cases are pending. Pecanin told Reuters that the trial was part of an "atmosphere of pogrom" against Sarajevan journalists which started with attacks on the independent media by Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic in November 1997. Izetbegovic - perceived by many Bosnian Muslims as being the "father of the nation" - attacked Dani and other independent magazines for alleging Bosnian authorities tried to cover up atrocities against civilians during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Since then Dani has experienced mounting difficulties with state-owned printing facilities and the state distribution company. On another occasion, Izetbegovic declared journalists were either patriots or "enemies of the state," according to the type of coverage they provide. He encouraged anyone who felt wronged by the media to take journalists to court. "If they feel themselves to be the victim of slander, I advise them to sue," he said.
The European Commission announced in January it had donated 4.8 million German Marks (US$2.6 million) in support for fledgling independent media in Bosnia. Independent daily newspapers, news agencies and radio and television stations in the federation and Serb republic will receive the assistance. In October the Commission approved 35 projects of support for the independent media in the countries of former Yugoslavia for a total amount of ECU 8,578,920. This includes ECU 224,225 to ensure the continuation of the school of journalism in Sarajevo.
Late in 1997, Robert Gelbard, Washingtons special envoy to Bosnia, announced a US$12 million aid package to reform the media in Bosnia with a special hook: basketball. NBA games and popular US films and programmes would be made available to the media outlets which demonstrated a commitment to fair, non-partisan broadcasting.
Many incidents of media intimidation were reported over the year, particularly during the election period. Reports of intimidation by police persist. On September 13, there was a serious incident of harassment of journalists working for RTVBiH while on assignment in Banja Luka. RTVBiH management reported that three colleagues - Mladen Paunovic, Kemal Miminovic, and Brano Galvocevic - were harassed and detained for a few hours, according to IFJ.
Bosnian media reported on March 1 that two British television journalists were beaten at gunpoint by attackers in Croat-controlled territory who stole their videotapes and camera. The two British journalists, Jeffrey Pickett and Michael Grimes, were working on a story for Network 5 International on the possible misuse of humanitarian aid intended for Bosnian children.
On July 29, a grenade exploded in Sarajevo several meters away from the offices of the bi-weekly Dani causing some damage. The explosion could be linked to the recent publication of a series of articles about the link between the Mafia and Bosnian authorities, in particular the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA). The magazine had already been the target of several attacks and threats this year, and until recently was under police protection.
The government of the Bosnias autonomous Serb republic sacked the editorial staff of several radio and five television stations accused of broadcasting hard-line nationalist propaganda on July 27. The information minister Rajko Vasic said the changes had been made because the stations had favoured one political option and had been a source of misinformation and inflammatory reports. He said new editors had been appointed who would be directly accountable to the government. The contentious move came just seven weeks ahead of Bosnias general election.
The staff of Radio Serb Sarajevo, one of radio stations affected, went out on a two-day strike to protest the governments decision to fire the hard-line editors. Radio Serb Sarajevo employees prevented the government-appointed editor from entering the station, while police prevented the old editor from entering the building. The dispute came to an end when unionised employees agreed to go back to work on the condition that no one interferes with editorial policy, and that only one hour of programming be rebroadcast each day from official Bosnian Serb radio.
The elections in September were marred by several media-related incidents. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which organised the elections, was given sweeping powers to ensure that the media provided free and fair coverage of the election campaign. It was forced on several occasions to assert its authority. At the beginning of the month the OSCE struck 15 Bosnian Croat candidates off the voting list because of unfair campaign coverage by state television in neighbouring Croatia. The Croatian state TV company HRT had been giving what was considered an unfair amount of coverage to one of the main Bosnian Croat parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). The private Bosnian Serb Radio St John became involved in controversy when it was accused of giving airtime to a banned figure, Serbian deputy prime minister and leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vojislav Seselj.
Independent and opposition newspaper owners report difficulties in gaining access to the kiosk distribution system in the Republika Srpska and some areas of the Federation. Distribution is apparently particularly problematic in Croat-controlled regions.
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