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MEDIA IN TRANSITION

Bosnia & Hercegovina:

Media in Economica Transition

Ivana Escher

The media in Bosnia & Herzegovina, more than 300 of them versus slightly more than 3 million inhabitants, nowadays live two parallel lives - one virtual, and the other real. The former, the ideal one, was created and introduced by the international community. And the latter, the realistic one, is a gloomy picture of the journalistic profession in B&H dominated by lack of professionalism, corruptibility, ignorance and arrogance.

VIRTUAL WORLD: Thanks solely to the international community, Bosnia & Herzegovina is one of the few countries which can brag with an exceptionally good legislature in the domain of the media, regulations and even fundaments of media self-regulation. It all began in the end of 1999 when six B&H journalists' associations - divided on partly ethnic, partly geographic and partly political grounds - with whole-hearted help (financial and regulating) of the international community, adopted the common Code for Journalists.

This journalistic "Bible" preaches indeed high standards of the profession characteristic of by far more highly developed states than Bosnia. After that, the Council of the Press was founded, also at the insistence and with the money of foreigners, as a self-regulating and independent body consisting of six representatives of journalists' associations and six prominent representatives of the public. Their priority objective is protection of the public against irresponsible journalism and simultaneously promotion of the top standards of the profession as a preventive measure against non-ethical writing. B&H has also got its Ombudsman for the media, whose decisions, like those of the Council for the Press, do not have a regulatory, but an advisory function, that is, should stand for top moral credibility.

Electronic media, on the other hand, on the grounds of the Dayton Accords, got their state regulatory agency from the international community, which is in charge of working permits, distribution of channels, but also professionalism in electronic media, in other words, it has the power to punish the disobedient. And finally, the international team on duty in B&H has put a lot of effort (and means) to provide B&H with two first-rate laws the liberal provisions of which could arouse envy of many Western-European countries even - the law on Free Access to Information and the Law on Protection against Libel. The Law on Free Access to Information for the first time in this space looks upon information as goods that belong to all the citizens and not exclusively to the authorities, and it prescribes that the authorities shall give the citizens all information without exception, including even the ones from the domain of national or military security. The only exception when information can be withheld is possible after performing the test of public interest, that is after establishing whether publishing of the information is more useful than it is harmful for the public. The Law on the Protection against Libel is also drawn up in such a way that it will play a significant role in democratization of B&H, especially because the implementation of its provisions is aimed at ensuring full freedom of expression, striking libel out of the list of criminal acts from the former criminal law of B&H.

With such legislative/legal framework and the fact that there are no ex-communist "social/state" media in B&H, but that they are private and market-oriented media - with the exception of transformed public radio-television broadcasters who are just awaiting their new law - it may seem that B&H has made a big step forward in the sphere of the media. Butů

REAL WORLD: An average and impoverished citizen of Bosnia & Herzegovina is nowadays frustrated by politicians, corruption and - the media. Balkan petty politicking and corruption usually go hand in hand, but the media have become not only the arena for political-criminal settling of affairs, but also very active protagonists in the attempts of public reprisals. Not rarely the editor of a newspaper publishes that the head of another paper is in fact a mobster who throws bombs at the homes of nouveau riches in Sarajevo, or that he is wanted by Carla del Ponte herself for the crimes he has committed. Responses of the attacked party can also cause nausea: "And your editor raped and then killed a minor Roma girl before the war!" There are also stories about a journalist disowned by his family, one whose mother "stole in shopping centres", the one who is so ugly that he cannot stand having anybody look at him, one who is fat, stupidů and similar foul talk that even the worst yellow press would be ashamed to publish. Unfortunately, the so-called serious media are the ones that usually do it, in fact. The ones that until recently liked to call themselves - independent media. It is true, though, that some progress has been made, because in B&H media there are no extremely insulting texts any more about other ethnic groups or religions, although both market and editorial orientation still corresponds to the most numerous ethnic group the media exists in.

The lesson the media here have mastered to the last detail is the responsibility of the authorities to the public and protection of their, still insecure, journalistic profession. However, the lesson was mastered one-sidedly, that is, solely in the domain of rights, but not obligations. The media nowadays seek and publicly insist on the highest standards of work of those they report on - politicians, international community, economists, or other experts. And yet, they do not consider these very principles obliging for themselves, so that violations of professionalism and ethics in the work of journalists is, unfortunately, an everyday phenomena.

Generally speaking, the lack of professionalism in B&H media mostly reflects in complete ignorance and lack of education, untruthful reporting, the failure to make a distinction between facts and personal opinion, carrying unverified information and stories based on assumptions or hypotheses, violation of human rights and disrespect of victims, and as extremely dangerous, intentional public disclosure of untruthful and insulting texts aimed at humiliation of projected "enemies".

The criticized party is not given a chance to tell its story, because such texts are usually based on a single, often "anonymous source", or exclusively present only the party the media likes better. Possible denials are used as an additional opportunity for ridicule because they are published together with a new sarcastic commentary, while decisions of the Council for the Press, not binding by law since it is a self-regulatory body, are usually ignored.

WHAT LIES IN THE BACKGROUND: The commentary of an OHR employee who occupies a high post is that B&H media "have lost touch with reality" and that it seems to him that journalists begin their working days with malicious question: "who shall I scalp today?" This remark may be an exaggerated caricature of journalism in B&H, but the statement about lost touch with reality is founded in all the developments in this space. After several-decade long communist journalism which saw the role of the media one-sidedly as "informing of the working class in self-management", and then the pre-war and war nineties which evaluated the media depending on the quantity of expressed ethnic patriotism, postwar years have brought international mediators, their money and completely new rules of the game.

At the time the media still had their guiding principle, that is, the objective they believed they should serve. It was clear what the international community required B&H media to do in order to make it to the list of "good guys" predestined for big donations - popularize multiculturalism, criticize nationalists, and bridge borders drawn among ethnic groups during the war.

But, the phase when all operation costs of some media were covered by donors all the way down to purchasing toilet paper, has passed for good. Nowadays, the international community does not wish to donate large sums of money to the media any more, and the former division into independent and controlled media has essentially almost disappeared. Circulation and political influence have become the main qualities, so representatives of the international community are nowadays concerned more about their relations with the former "party" media, therefore, powerful ones, than independent, in other words poor and powerless media.

Having lost their ideological and financial patron in the international community, B&H media turned to local economic and political elites and started advocating their interests. The new patrons also have money, but in return demand complete loyalty and agreement to actions which can hardly be qualified as journalism. In the transitional phase - which in historical terms could be described as the phase of primary accumulation of capital - in which economic elites still are not legally and politically organized, the media are the ones which are waging war in their name for the best possible position.

AND WHAT LIES AHEAD: The media, like the political scene of B&H, still have the period of real transformation lying ahead of them and the adoption of at least the fundamental principles of the culture of dialogue. The existing economic elites, always the predecessors of serious political parties, in the forthcoming local elections in B&H (this coming autumn) might found their own parties in response to the nationalistic, radically rightist, or post-communist, radically leftist parties that, equally unsuccessful, replaced each other in power in the past several years.
Political profiling will also reflect on the media which are already used to firmly connecting their editorial policies with a certain centre of power (in other words, financial centre) or political ideologies. Soon the media will make it public what group they belong to, and whose interests are of top priority to them, which will inevitably make the attribute "independent" a historical category that has marked for good the most difficult decade for the media in the Balkan. The most intriguing thing is that the role independent media have played during the turbulent years will now be reserved for the ones which have once stood on the opposite side of the independent ones - the public RTV systems which, as prescribed by law, must be moderate, concerned for the minorities, alternative scene, marginal groups, education and similar.

The media with transparent political background - either with the rightist, the leftist or the central orientation - are not unknown in highly developed countries, of course. On the contrary. But, while in orderly societies, the populist or social democratic media as a rule stick to highly professional norms and ethics, the media in Bosnia & Herzegovina still either turn a deaf ear to the opinions that they do not like to hear, or the facts that do not suit their patrons, or, which is even worse, they distort and fabricate them to speak in their favour. But, professionalization of B&H media cannot be secured by either donors, or the unprepared and impoverished market, and least of all political authorities. This job will have to be done journalists themselves, who will need plenty of new knowledge, persistence and hard work for it, as well as a long, long time.