“If you gave me the choice to decide whether we should have a government without the press, or the press without a government, I wouldn’t hesitate for a single moment to choose the latter.” This is an often quoted saying of one of the first presidents of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson—a quote about freedom and the importance of the media for a democratic society.
The state in which the media finds itself is actually a direct reflection of the society in which those media exist. When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), that image is perhaps the most real at the local level and in the smaller communities where everyone more or less knows one another and the everyday occurrences are to a much lesser extent under the “spotlight“ of the mainstream media.
Sarajevo and Banja Luka for example, are larger centers, which means that have bigger markets and, consequently, higher political competition and different ideological influences, which is certainly a more favorable environment for media to exist as compared to smaller communities.
In Mostar, a city that has lived with ethnic divisions for over 20 years following the war, a number of media professionals and analysts agree that the media is in a difficult situation. In the years immediately after the war, the city had three influential local TV-stations – Hrvatska radio televizija (HTV) Mostar, HTV Oscar-C, and Radiotelevizija (RTV) Mostar. In the last few years, one of those TV-stations – RTV Mostar, which was a primary public medium – completely disappeared from the media scene due to significant financial problems. RTV Mostar has also lost its former influence and is operating at significantly reduced capacities as a result of privatization and its role in the creation of TV1 in Sarajevo. HTV Oscar-C doesn’t have the same influence that it once had either. In the meantime, a few local TV-stations have emerged: City TV followed by Naša (TV), whose programs are being broadcast by cable operators.
A similar situation is occurring at the radio stations, few of which are registered. Some stations are public and some private, but media professionals often question the authenticity of these stations’ programming, that is outside of just the content produced for fun and entertainment.
“As far as Mostar is concerned, we can say that there is a relatively large number of media outlets. What is their quality? Their reach? Are they analytical or are they just for entertainment? Are they free? These are big questions. In my opinion, quantity does not necessarily mean quality. We have a large number of media in Mostar, however, when you take a closer look and analyze what everyone is doing in an attempt to find a decent news service or program that deals with the city of Mostar and the wider community, you come to find out most outlets, particularly radio stations, are broadcasting computer-generated music playlists with a few commercials here and there. There are few attempts to produce something that could meet the needs of the local community.” says Faruk Kajtaz, president of Citizens’ Association Starmo Mostar, which deals with the issue of media freedom.
Kajtaz notes how important media freedom is for a democratic society if it truly wants to call itself a real democracy. “I think that the classic problem of endangered media freedom in this country no longer exists to the extent it did shortly after the war when there was constant political pressure being applied to journalists who were receiving constant phone calls and were being told what they should report on. I think that the pressuring techniques have changed now; they are more sophisticated and are often based ownership structures within the media and on the principle of denying funds,” Kajtaz reckons.
Media professionals agree that one of the main levers of influence on media is economic in nature and is centered on controlling the flow of money to the media agencies. This raises the question: How are those media who want to be a socially avant-garde expected to survive? Such media are left to fend for themselves, claims Štefica Galić, from tačno.net portal, based in Mostar.
“Many international associations and other organizations that have supported such media have long since retreated from BiH. Economic stagnation has devastated the media’s ability to function through the use of ads and leases, and the sale of media space has been hindered. As a result of these conditions, a large portion of the media is left to the political parties who, by exercising their power over the budgets of public enterprises and in other ways, keep a considerable part of the media alive,” says Galić.
“How is the obedience of the media being ‘bought?’” asks Aner Žuljević, a representative of the Social Democratic Party of BiH in the Herzegovina-Neretva Cantonal Assembly, Žuljević emphasizes that, as an opposition party, the HNK was unable to obtain information about public spending from the cantonal government that related to various planned items within the HNK’s budget. They weren’t even able to obtain information about money that was transferred to media outlets stationed in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton area.
“Why should transactions, which put both the media houses and the public in an unpleasant position and create speculations that this government is, in fact, buying the affection of certain media with these transfers, be kept a secret?” Žuljević inquires.
Media experts and professionals concur that one of the direct consequences of this indirect media control is a form of self-censorship within Mostar’s media, which is a problem they are trying to call attention to. “A particular problem is journalistic self-censorship. I believe that this is one of the most important and most significant problems in media precisely because Mostar’s journalists, in my opinion, know very well what their boundaries are and they do not want to cross them,” explains Faruk Kajtaz.
How, then, does this censorship translate in the media or, to be more precise, in a journalist’s everyday work of creating content that is then directed to the general public?
“When it comes to self-censorship, we can look at it from several aspects, and I would like to highlight the one that hurts me the most and that I believe is the most evil. It is an ideological aspect. So, when we are preoccupied with a certain ideology and hate everything that the said ideology and its myths would not support, then the news becomes tailored only to support those myths and that ideology that we love—the ideology for which we took that ‘membership card’. All the rest of the reality is rendered useless and we choose not to try to understand or imagine it,” says Husein Oručević, a political scientist.
The decimation of a number of media and “clipping the wings” off of a sector of Mostar’s electronic media, opened the door to the “flourishing” of a fairly large number of internet portals that produce regular news columns. Some portals are exclusively local while others publish news that concerning BiH, the region, and beyond. The most well-known is the Croatian portal bljesak.info, which has been around for approximately 16 years now. Other popular domains that are managing to have an impact on the public include starmo.ba, tacno.net, mostarski.ba, pogled.ba, novasloboda.ba, dnevnik.ba, hms.ba, hercegovina.info, republikainfo.com, treci.ba, and abrasmedia.info.
In addition to the regular problems that are affecting all BiH media, analysts are pointing to another phenomenon that is characterizing online media in central Herzegovina and is having an ever-growing influence on “mainstream” journalism within the realm of online media. In an ethnically divided community, any kind of controversial news published on an internet portal, whether it’s in the Croatian or Bosnian language, invokes a chain of reactions and commentary from the readers that often contain hate speech and triggering language that further fuels inflames a negative atmosphere in the society — or local community to be more precise.
“In today’s times, we are bearing witness to the fact that every man can in some way become a source of information and commentator on social reality,” says Igor Božović, a journalist for BH Radio 1 and a columnist for the portal bljesak.info. He stresses that attention should be paid to the fact that, today, the freedom of information and access to information is being misused in the form of social communication via social networks. “We are seeing that anyone can create an Internet profile and spread their alternative facts, fake news, and all other new concepts that we have now become familiar with,” explains Božović.
Such things, he agrees, are influencing standard journalism practices, and, in this case, Internet portals have entered the empty media space that was created at the local level as a result of this changing “landscape”. “It’s good that people can contribute their personal experiences because it can provide us with a broader understanding of one thing and one event, but it is also a fact that now anyone with even a small amount of technical knowledge can disseminate information, and it is often not people who have spent significant amounts of time studying the ethics of journalism, fair and balanced reported, and other similar practices,” Božović adds.
There are certain views regarding the state of media and journalism in central Herzegovina that, in addition to objective and social circumstances, journalists are themselves responsible for their current position. Those who are well informed on the topic believe that journalists are unorganized. They are divided into multiple journalistic associations are without their own trade union that would fight for their rights. Several attempts to start such a trade union have completely failed.
“I have to say that journalists are forced to work for a meager salary of 500 to 600 KM,” says Vera Soldo, the editor of the Internet portal republikainfo.com. She emphasizes that if journalists want to be free, they have to pay for their freedom and present the work of domestic journalists for foreign media as an example. “International media provide better pay for their journalists. When you are better paid, you, of course, have more resources to work with and more opportunities to research stories. This is not the case here,” Soldo explains, referring to the difficulties faced by BiH’s journalists.
“The journalist alone has a responsibility to fight for their own status. When I have given presentations about journalism and media, I always explain that nobody is going to give handouts to journalists. There are some things that go without saying, but in a legislative sense BiH almost has perfect media laws, so much so that even some EU countries copied our legislation,” says Faruk Kajtaz.
He recalls how Slovenia has also “copied” some of BiH’s media-related legislation. However, it’s one thing to write and adopt a law, and something entirely different to implement it. “So, journalists have to fight for their own rights and they must first know what their rights are. They have to know their trade. They can’t afford to just be the microphone holders; they have to be the people that use their heads and respect the facts because, without truth and facts, everything becomes questionable,” Kajtaz concludes.
This article has been published as part of the “Real Voice of Journalism” project. The project is funded by the European Union through the small grants programme “Protecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in the Western Balkans” implemented by the Croatian Journalists’ Association as part of the regional project “Western Balkan’s Regional Platform for Advocating Media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety”, which is carried out through the partnership of six regional journalists’ associations – Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS), Association of BH Journalists (BHJ), Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA), Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AJK), Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), and Trade Union of Media of Montenegro (TUMM).