Updated: 28-May-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 48 -
Winter 2000 - 2001
p. 16-21

Media wars

Daniel Deluce examines media reform in Bosnia, which began in earnest when peacekeepers seized transmitters belonging to Bosnian Serb television.
Daniel Deluce, a former Reuters correspondent in Sarajevo, worked for the Office of the High Representative between spring 1998 and autumn 2000 reforming Bosnias media.

Lethal weapon: Had the international community been watching Serbian television in the late 1980s, it might have seen the signs of impending doom.
(Reuters photo - 338Kb)

The demonstrators in Serbia called it the Bastille. For 13 years, the headquarters of the state broadcaster was a hated symbol of the authoritarian rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. When demonstrators stormed Radio-Television Serbia, it signalled the end of Milosevics regime. When he could not persuade the army or the police to defend his television monopoly, his dictatorship was over. The citadel had fallen.

Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) was Milosevics most powerful tool, an electronic truncheon that could stifle dissent and manufacture consent for warfare. Serbia remains a long way from securing democracy and the rule of law. But the end of Milosevics comprehensive control over RTS has opened a new political era and provides a chance for freedom of expression to take root.

Had the international community been watching this television station more closely in the late 1980s, it might have seen the warning signs of impending doom in the former Yugoslavia. RTS and other media under Milosevics control created the conditions that made war possible, spreading fear among peaceful neighbours and persuading many Serbs that the ghosts of the Second World War had returned to slaughter them. RTS constructed a bizarre universe in which the Bosnian capital Sarajevo was never besieged and the devastated Croatian town of Vukovar was liberated. The media onslaught launched in Belgrade helped spawn similar hateful propaganda elsewhere in other Yugoslav republics and its legacy will be felt for years to come.

Since the outbreak of fighting in the former Yugoslavia, millions of dollars have been spent by NATO member states and other Western countries in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and Serbia, in an attempt to repair the damage. International assistance has helped the public in Serbia and Montenegro gain access to alternative sources of information and helped counter the disinformation of state media. In Bosnia, a degree of pluralism and media freedom has begun to emerge thanks in part to international donations to independent newspapers and broadcasters.

Nevertheless, when it comes to preventing conflict or building peace, media do not always receive the priority they deserve. Despite the destructive role played by the media in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred in former Yugoslavia, the peace agreement ending the Bosnian War, negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, failed to include any specific provisions for the media in the new state, other than a brief reference to freedom of the press in relation to elections. International organisations charged with overseeing implementation of the peace agreement have since spent much time and energy making up for this oversight.

Until autumn 1997, the international community in Bosnia was obliged to tolerate the hate speech spewing from Srpska Radio-Televizija (SRT), the station controlled by Milosevics protgs in Pale, Republika Srpska, just outside Sarajevo. In the absence of coherent regulation of broadcast frequencies or licensing and with the judiciary politically tainted, the then High Representative, Carl Bildt who described SRT as media that even Stalin would be ashamed of had few tools at his disposal. Nevertheless, in his last days as High Representative in May 1997, Bildt laid the ground for a more robust approach. The Peace Implementation Council, the gathering of countries and international organisations with a stake in the Bosnian peace process, approved a document in Sintra, Portugal, that empowered the High Representative to intervene against media that posed a threat to the peace agreement. It was broad language drafted with SRTs inflammatory output in mind.

In summer 1997, it became increasingly clear that SRT was undermining the peace process. In addition to the inflammatory language used to describe non-Serbs and hostility towards many aspects of the peace accords, political opposition within Republika Srpska was denied coverage and routinely attacked in the evening news. As a power struggle developed between the hardline leadership in Pale and more moderate allies of Republika Srpskas then President Biljana Plavsic in Banja Luka, more warnings were issued to SRTs management with little effect. Press officers for the new High Representative, Carlos Westendorp, hinted at possible military action against SRT, but the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) remained cautious in its public pronouncements.

It was a tense time for the peacekeeping mission and for NATO member governments. SRTs broadcasts were appalling, but Western governments feared that if peace-keepers intervened against SRT, the Pale leadership would gain sympathy by presenting themselves as defenders of free speech. The pivotal event came in July, when Plavsic appointed new police chiefs in Banja Luka with backing from UK and Czech SFOR peacekeepers. Details of a planned coup by the Pale leadership against Plavsic were revealed. SRT condemned SFORs role and compared the peacekeeping force to the Nazi SS in a video clip. The propaganda now posed a threat to SFOR itself.

When SRT broadcast a distorted account of a press conference by the chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, SFOR troops intervened in response to a request from Westendorp, seizing four transmission towers on 1 October 1997. SRT resumed broadcasting under new leadership in the Banja Luka studios, where staff were more sympathetic to Plavsics faction. The news programming remained nationalist, but the excesses of the past were eliminated. The anticipated backlash never materialised. Many Serb journalists had viewed SRT for what it was, a political tool that had nothing to do with journalism or public service.

The Pale leadership had made no pretence about SRTs partisan structure. Senior member of the ruling nationalist Serb Democratic Party (Srpska demokratska stranka or SDS) and the then Serb member of Bosnias collective presidency, Momcilo Krajisnik (now awaiting trial in The Hague for war crimes) headed SRTs governing board. In the wake of SFORs intervention, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) negotiated interim arrangements for SRT with Plavsic, which were agreed in February 1998. These arrangements established a non-partisan governing board and allowed for an international administrator who would promote public broadcasting standards and editorial independence.

The seizure of SRTs transmission towers was a watershed for Bosnia. It created a more level playing field for elections and paved the way for more pluralism and media freedom in Banja Luka, the largest town in Republika Srpska. The international community sent a clear message that it was ready to act to halt incitement to hatred and partisan interference in public broadcasting. It marked the end of the hardliners monopoly over television in Republika Srpska. The crisis surrounding SRT underlined how ruling nationalist parties throughout the country continued to dominate the most influential media and discourage open debate. Bosnian media clearly required systematic reform to bring them into line with democratic norms. With the support of donor governments, OHR began developing a strategy to build lasting media freedom.

Over time, the strategy evolved into an ambitious undertaking. It called for the creation of a regulatory framework for broadcasters, reform of the public broadcasting sector, continued financial support for independent media, public service campaigns to explain the international communitys efforts and legal protection for journalists.

The Peace Implementation Councils December 1997 meeting in Bonn called for the establishment of a regulatory body that would issue licences to broadcasters according to transparent criteria. The regulatory agency, which was later named the Independent Media Commission (IMC), was to operate under interim international supervision and to become a domestic institution in due course. It was designed to create fair competition for broadcasters and to remove political control of the airwaves.

With funding from the United States and the European Union, the IMC was established in June 1998 by order of the High Representative. Each department had an international head and a Bosnian deputy. An appellate body comprised of Bosnian nationals and foreign experts, the IMC Council, was set up to review appeals from stations. In the intervening period, the IMC has managed to construct a regulatory framework that has stripped away the kind of political manipulation that accompanied the issuing of licences. By promulgating a broadcasting code of practice, the IMC has helped deter inflammatory broadcasts, as stations tend to be reluctant to jeopardise the licences they hold or future licences they hope to secure. Some stations have been reprimanded or fined, a few were temporarily ordered off the air, and two stations were shut down for occupying frequencies illegally and forging documents.

The jury is still out on the IMC. Bosnian journalists and other international organisations have taken it to task for treading too softly against flagrant propagandists and for moving too slowly to consolidate a saturated media market. In a country with fewer than four million inhabitants, there are some 280 broadcasters, probably the highest such ratio in the world. The IMC says the criteria for new long-term licences will be much stricter and result in a more rational market. The IMC also maintains that it must respect legal procedures that allow stations due process, with the result that the agency cannot act with the kind of speed advocated by its critics.

A more fundamental problem is that the IMC has to confront entrenched interests with limited resources and no enforcement mechanism to implement its decisions. In extreme cases, the IMC can turn to SFOR for assistance but only if NATO member states deem it appropriate to act. Rulings against Erotel, a station controlled by Bosnian Croat hardliners of the Croat Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica or HDZ), were flouted and ignored for a year.

Whatever IMCs shortcomings, it has set a standard of transparency and fairness that has greatly reduced political interference in broadcasting. It has modelled itself on regulatory agencies in the European Union and North America and avoided regulating print media, choosing instead to help journalist associations agree a voluntary code of ethics. Although excesses are still common in print media, plenty of independent publications serve as a counter-balance.

The biggest question for the future is how and when the IMCs work will be handed over to local authorities. An ambitious timetable for a transfer this year has been reviewed and postponed. Bosnian institutions have yet to prove that they can operate in a transparent and non-partisan manner. Donor governments have approved a plan to subsume the IMC into a single telecommunications regulatory agency under international supervision. Current High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch has identified the frequency spectrum as a vital economic resource that must be regulated in a manner that discourages political interference and corrupt monopolies.

Building a public broadcasting service out of the ashes of an ethnically segregated, inefficient system has proven the most difficult aspect of the OHRs strategy. Vested political interests have fought to retain control over the remnants of former Sarajevo Radio-Television, Bosnias pre-war state broadcaster. Just before fighting erupted in the spring of 1992, the Serb nationalist leader, Radovan Karadzic, proposed dividing the station which had a reputation for balanced, if prosaic, reporting into three ethnically separate channels. His proposal was rejected but came to fruition once the war started. The assets of Sarajevo Radio-Television were divided in accordance with territorial conquest. Separate ethnically based stations were created with assistance from Zagreb and Belgrade. In areas where the Bosnian government controlled territory, Sarajevo television became known as Radio-Television Bosnia-Herzegovina (RTV BiH) and fell under the political control of Alija Izetbegovics Bosnian Muslim Party of Democratic Action (Stranka demokratske akcije or SDA). Although oriented exclusively to Bosnian Muslims, RTV BiH never engaged in the kind of explicit hate speech employed by Croat and Serb regime media.

Barbed message: NATO-led peacekeepers seized four Bosnian Serb television transmission towers in response to inflammatory broadcasts.
(Reuters photo - 317Kb)
Within six months of SFORs intervention against SRT, Westendorp launched a more comprehensive initiative to reform the entire public broadcasting sector. After months of negotiations with the countrys three-member presidency, he persuaded the Croat and Bosnian Muslim representatives but not the Serb to agree a memorandum of understanding on the future of broadcasting. This document called for setting up a new public broadcasting service that would respect religious tolerance and editorial independence and operate in a financially transparent manner. It called for a new country-wide public broadcasting network as well as a new service for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (The Federation), the countrys slightly larger entity. It also required broadcasters from Serbia and Croatia to abide by Bosnias laws and regulations. In practice, however, the regimes in Belgrade and Zagreb ignored these provisions, the SDA later obstructed implementation of the reforms outlined in the memorandum and the HDZ rejected it after a change in the Croat member of the Bosnian presidency.

A new multi-ethnic board of governors at RTV BiH was, nevertheless, appointed, though its work was obstructed by SDA loyalists. With the memorandum stalled a year after its signing, Westendorp imposed a new Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for the entire country. Issued on his last day in office in July 1999, the decision created a loose structure designed to ensure that Bosnias statehood was respected, that the SDA-dominated broadcaster would be succeeded by a genuine multi-ethnic service and that a financially realistic model be pursued.

OHR lawyers found legal backing for a state-level broad-caster in Article II of the Bosnian constitution, which refers to the state setting up communication facilities. It was a groundbreaking interpretation that put an end to legal debates designed to obstruct multi-ethnic public broadcasting. The decision created a broadcaster for the Federation as well. Moreover, both entity broadcasters would in future only have access to international programming through the new BiH service, which would represent Bosnia in international organisations. The legal vacuum that had allowed large mono-ethnic public broadcasters to develop was eliminated. The new service was required to produce at least an hour of news and current affairs programming daily. The decision was described as an interim step and left room for future political representatives to amend or develop as necessary. Given the constraints of the Dayton Agreement, the limits of donor funding and the paralysed political climate at the time, the OHR had pushed as far as it could.

The PBS has now replaced RTV BiH as a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and broadcasts international sporting events on a country-wide signal. The Olympic games were aired with a multi-ethnic staff of commentators and a current affairs programme allowed viewers to participate in an election campaign discussion. An expert from the BBC has set out guidelines for creating a management structure in line with modern European practice. The High Representative has named multi-ethnic governing boards for the entity broadcasters in both Republika Srpska and the Federation.

Nationalist political parties have inevitably tried to manipulate the PBS governing board, obstructing its work at every step and portraying the entire project as a failure. The failure, of course, lies with the countrys political leadership. If Bosnias political leaders had embraced public service broadcasting standards and multi-ethnic principles, then the international community would never have intervened. Given the hostile attitude of the nationalist parties, the delays in putting PBS on the air with an evening news programme are understandable. However, it is now vital that talented editors are recruited promptly and that PBS begins airing an evening news programme. A quality PBS news service for the whole country is crucial for building a climate free of intimidation and religious intolerance. A more pluralistic political scene in Bosnia and recent developments in Croatia and Serbia should offer some breathing space for the PBS to develop.

The most ambitious private media project in the Balkans was launched by the first High Representative, Carl Bildt, shortly before the countrys first elections in 1996. The United States and the European Union funded the creation of a new multi-ethnic television network, the Open Broadcast Network (OBN), which was meant to serve as a commercial alternative to the mono-ethnic, politically controlled stations on the air. However, the network got off to a poor start with shoddy journalism and weak programming. It was run initially by diplomats with minimal experience in broadcast management. OBN played no role in the 1996 election campaign as it was barely on the air before the vote took place. Less than two years later, after major infusions of cash and advice from television professionals, OBN had put together a solid multi-ethnic news programme that served as a genuine alternative to the nationalist party propaganda. Civic opposition parties finally had a way of reaching voters with their message.

OBN met with fierce resistance among the nationalist parties, particularly the SDA, which tried to deny it broad-cast frequencies. Some donor governments refused to support it, preferring home-grown media outlets. Despite its hefty price tag and shortcomings, OBN has played a significant role in breaking down ethnic barriers and creating a fragile pluralism in Bosnia. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Swiss government launched a multi-ethnic radio network, Radio FERN, in 1996 that proved less controversial. Radio FERN has also produced a quality news service free of nationalist or political bias and has helped build a network of independent stations across the country.

OBNs principal sponsors, the United States and the European Union, had hoped that the station could become a self-sustaining commercial network, possibly covering a wider Serbo-Croat-speaking region. However, Bosnias economy remains impoverished and the broadcasting market is saturated. As a result, the donors may conclude that OBN cannot make it commercially. Indeed, they are already discussing folding the news service into the PBS structure. Regardless of OBNs ultimate destiny, it has served an invaluable role as a counter-balance to the fabrications and distortions of the stations controlled by the nationalist parties.

Funding news organisations in authoritarian environments inevitably carries risks. Whenever money flows into corrupt and undemocratic societies, powerful political interests find ways to get to the money or hijack the station receiving the aid. To be effective and to ensure taxpayers money is not wasted, a more coherent and unified approach by donor governments is essential. But to date, the approach of the international community has tended to resemble buckshot from a shotgun. Some of the aid hits the target and much goes to waste. In Bosnia, the media market is chaotic partly because Western governments were so ready to fund new radio and television stations.

There is also a danger that accompanies excessive faith in the commercial broadcasting sector, especially in the longer run. Funding a private station does not result automatically in editorial independence. Private stations in countries that lack an independent judiciary or proper commercial legislation are extremely vulnerable to manipulation by vested political or financial interests. The example of tainted commercial stations and publications throughout the former Soviet Union should serve as a warning against throwing money at the private sector without strict conditions. Otherwise, supposedly independent media turn into political weapons paid for by taxpayers in the European Union and North America.

To ensure that commercial media in Bosnia evolve in a free and competitive environment, High Representative Petritsch recently suspended privatisation of media until a thorough review could be conducted. The focus of reform efforts in the future will likely turn to the privatisation process and business aspects of the media. The international community will need to push for the dismantling of media oligarchies and prevent the birth of new monopolies.

In terms of promoting the legal protection of journalists, the international community has begun replacing the communistera laws that stifled free speech and journalistic inquiry. In July 1999, Westendorp invoked his authority as High Representative to strike down a provision that allowed prison sentences for those convicted under the defamation law. He called for a new defamation law and a freedom of information law to be drafted under international guidance. In October 2000, the state parliament adopted a law prepared by OSCE experts that grants free access to information held by governmental bodies except for a narrow range of categories. The freedom of information law, even if it is only partially enforced, carries the potential of transforming the culture of secrecy that has prevailed among Bosnias political leaders.

A few representatives of press freedom organisations have accused NATO member states of violating free speech by taking action against media deemed inflammatory. When the IMC was established, these same critics claimed that media freedom would be endangered by an all-powerful agency ready to act arbitrarily. While there are obviously risks involved in any interventionist media strategy, many of the critics start from the wrong premises.

Instead of considering Bosnia, or indeed Kosovo, Rwanda or East Timor in terms of a Western democracy, it is important to view these countries through the lens of Germany in 1945. Do we promote free speech if we tolerate political control over broadcast frequencies and printing presses? If demagogues and dictators are allowed to incite religious, ethnic or racial hatred and genocide, do we uphold our democratic values? In countries without democratic traditions or institutions, there is no robust judicial system that protects journalists, no regulatory agency that prevents political interests from controlling publicly funded broadcasters, and no free market that ensures open access to printing presses and advertisers. Doing nothing simply enables vested interests to stifle journalists and dissent.

Where a multinational military keeps the peace, a maximum degree of international authority should be exercised in the media sector earlier rather than later. Frequencies should not be handed out by political oligarchies. Adopting a laissez-faire approach to former warring factions signals weakness and offers opportunities to revive conflict. Better to take a firm line at the beginning and in this way lay the ground for an earlier withdrawal. An international strategy for fundamental economic and judicial reform must, how-ever, accompany any attempt to promote media freedom. Political control of the economy precludes any attempt to establish a free, independent Fourth Estate. Printing presses, advertising sources and access to frequencies must be free of political interference. Without an independent judiciary and police force, there is no protection against threats to journalistic inquiry and free speech.

One point that some press freedom activists have made, nevertheless, deserves more consideration. Institutions or regulations imposed by international administrators should conform to democratic standards because, at some point, the peacekeepers will depart and hand over to local authorities. Whatever is created by international peacekeeping missions will eventually be inherited by domestic governments. As much as possible, the laws, institutions and regulations that the international community supports should be based on best democratic practice and principles. Intervention by the international authority on the ground must follow due process and be accompanied by broader, democratic reforms that protect journalistic inquiry. If there is no due process and no clear democratic principle at stake, intervening in the media or any other sector only to influence political developments tends to backfire. Donor governments cannot be seen to be violating the laws and regulations that operate in their own countries.

The good news is that the climate has improved for media freedom in Bosnia since 1995, sometimes because of the presence of the international community and sometimes in spite of it. The bad news is that the gains made so far are tenuous and dependent on vast, foreign donations. Too little attention has been devoted to training and educating aspiring journalists. Perhaps the benefits are not visible quickly enough for donor governments, which feel obliged to produce immediate results with aid money. The BBC School for broadcast news in Sarajevo, for example, which is sponsored by the United Kingdom and George Soros Open Society Fund, has been an unqualified success and is helping shape a new generation of independent-minded broadcast journalists. International funding will inevitably decline over time. But it is critical to take the reform process forward. The media carry vast potential both to ignite war and to help establish democracy. Freeing them from political control should carry the same strategic priority as removing landmines or building bridges.