Some key questions to ask when analyzing the role of the objective local media in BiH is: How marginalized are those outlets that are reporting to the public and do they serve any other purpose than that of marketing and political promotion? This “Real Voice of Journalism” publication explores the media landscape in BiH’s Republika Srpska Entity.
A third of the 64 municipalities and cities in the Republika Srpska (RS) have their own local media outlets, which includes around 20 radio and two television stations. The headquarters of the RS’s public broadcaster, Radio Television of Republika Srpska (RTRS), is located in the entity’s most populous city of Banja Luka. However, there are no other local public media outlets in the RS administrative center of Banja Luka. While RTRS receives financing from the revenues made off of RTV tax, millions are also being allocated from local budgets to finance municipal media. A 2016 Mediacentar survey states that, in 2013 and 2014 alone, RS municipalities and cities spent 3.8 million Bosnian convertible marks (BAM) a year on local public media outlets. The allocations for local public media outlets account for around 60% of all media financing.
Data from the last few years indicate a decrease in finances, which is a direct consequence of the economic crisis. However, the conclusion is that the spent millions have not contributed to the improvement of local media outlets and their role, said the president of the Association of Banja Luka Journalists, Siniša Vukelić.
“Local media outlets are literally in the hands of the coalition in power in their corresponding communities. Indeed, the local media’s role should be to inform the public about local problems, how the local government is functioning, and how the citizens’ money is being spent in each municipality. The first act of every authority that comes into power is to replace the editor-in-chief or director of their municipality’s local media outlet. This can be done quickly and unscrupulously, as those media are heavily reliant on the municipal budget. Thus, instead of those media serving as a source of information for the citizens of their municipality, they support and serve the local authorities.” says Vukelić.
Similar observations have been made by Oslobođenje journalist and a media analyst, Gordana Katana “As far as local media is concerned, I don’t even know what we are referring to. What local media? There used to be a network of radio stations that functioned properly in the RS, but their role is no longer visible to me. Radio Gradiška is perhaps the best example of how shifts in power at the local level changes the entire editorial and management boards of such a radio station, after which they exclusively favor the political parties that make up the local and entity level government.”
Gradiška is, indeed, a perfect example as it experienced a change of government in the last two local elections. After the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats’ (SNSD) long-standing position, the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took power in 2012 and immediately “purged” Radio Gradiška’s managerial board. In 2016, the SNSD regained power and again changed the administration within the municipality’s public media. Approximately 200,000 BAM are being spent yearly on the financing of Radio Gradiška.
There is evidence to show that these financing methods are the main impediment to the development and advancement of the local public media in the RS. In this entity, the method of financing local media is not regulated by law. It is left directly to local communities to decide what the budget will e and in what way it should e allocated. Local media are usually funded by grants and local authorities often use those means to keep the local media under pressure and control.
“It’s questionable whether we can even talk about the freedom of local public media. External control over the media’s management and the decisions regarding the amount of funding allotted is almost certain, which puts added pressure on the journalists employed in these outlets. One should not forget that most of these local public outlets are working on the edge of existence. If there was an analysis of these outlets, I doubt you would be able to find a single critical attitude towards the local community, which is the owner of these said media,“ Vukelić points out.
The polarization of media in the RS or, more specifically, the division of those close to the governing coalitions led by the SNSD or the opposing Alliance for Change party, is becoming an increasingly evident problem. The fact is that the entity’s public service, RTRS, is persistently classified as being on the side of the entity government while disregarding all postulates of the independence of public services.
This is evidenced by a fine of 29,000 BAM that was issued to RTRS in July 2017 by the Communications Regulatory Agency BiH (RAK) for its proven favoring of the SNSD and its leader, Milorad Dodik.
“RAK has monitored RTRS’ central information broadcasts, including episodes of,“Dnevnik 2“, “Pečat“, “Aspekt“, and “Aktuelno“, which were aired during the period from 5 October to 31 December 2016. After an analysis was conducted, RAK determined violations of Article 5. Paragraphs (2), (3), (6), and (7) of the Fairness and Impartiality Code of Audiovisual Media Services and Radio Media Services. It was found that 78 of the Dnevnik episodes analyzed began with information focusing on the opinions or activities of Milorad Dodik or with the direct transmission of his statements as the president of RS or as the president of SNSD. The opinions of the SNSD and of the RS government were transmitted without any critical review.
“It was determined that RTRS has, through its news programming, continuously promoted the interests of one political party through a selective and biased approach to reporting that constantly favored certain individuals or subjects and presented them in a positive light. This resulted in a series of broadcasts with one overwhelming viewpoint of various political, agricultural or other topics of public interest,“ which were stated as reasons for RAK’s decision.
On the other hand, the private TV house “BN” was opened under the influence of the Alliance for Change party. When analyzing local budgets, it was readily apparent that media funds were allocated in correlation to which policy options they aligned with.
A study published by Buka Magazine in April of last year showed that in 2014, for example, the city of Banja Luka paid out 108,514 BAM from the city’s budget for services related to the publication of tenders, advertisements, and informative texts.
“In 2014, as announced to us by the city administration, the Official Gazette of RS received 8,505 BAM, the Official Gazette of BiH received 23,770 BAM, and the privately-owned Glas Srpske received 52,506 BAM. In addition, a total of 23,732 BAM was paid to other media outlets on the same basis. This money was distributed to the entity news agency “Srna“ as well as the privately-owned Nezavisne novine, Press RS, and Novi pečat.
Interestingly, Press RS and Novi pečat no longer exist, but during their time of operation, they supported the entity’s government when the SNSD, which has continually been in power in Banja Luka since 1998, was at the helm. Novi pečat, which belonged to the so-called “yellow press“, was famous for its publications that tried to discredit the SNSD’s opposition and critics.
Buka’s research revealed that, in 2015, 102,943 BAM was again allocated on the basis of services such as the publication of tenders, advertisements, and informative texts. The Official Gazette of RS received 11,180 BAM, the Official Gazette of BiH received 20,659 BAM, and Glas Srpske received 46,393 BAM. A total of 24,710 BAM was allocated to other media houses that included the Srna News Agency, Press RS, Nezavisne novine, Novi pečat, and Elta TV. That same year, 26,741 BAM was allocated for public relations and advertising services. Of that amount, Alternative TV (ATV) received 13,384 BAM, Elta TV 6,786 BAM, Elit d.o.o. 2,492 BAM, and RTRS 1,228 BAM. The remaining total of 2,849 BAM was distributed among other outlets, including Euroblic, Nezavisne novine, Press RS, Glas Srpske, and Tellmobil.
The same research stated that additional funds were allocated in the second largest RS city of Bijeljina, which is a bastion of the opposition Serb Democratic Party (SDS).
“In 2014, the city of Bijeljina allocated 230,865 BAM for information and advertising services, while 338,805 BAM was allocated in 2015—nearly 100,000 more than the previous year. We have been told that these allocations are tied to the City Administration as a whole and to allocations related to media activity, including media monitoring, advertising, and the purchase of local news outlets for community centers.
It has been specified that the funds were allocated to these media: RTV BN, the Semberija and Majevica Public Company (SIM), TV ARENA, TV IN, and Nezavisne novine. All these outlets, with the exception of Nezavisne novine, are headquartered in Bijeljina,“ Buka’s research outlines.
“The media landscape is polarized solely because the public service broadcaster, RTRS, has completely abandoned the fundamental principles on which public services are to be built upon, such as the postulates of professional reporting and giving equal space to all political options, citizens, and their viewpoints. On the other hand, exactly how expansive is our media landscape? We can talk about BN TV as another pole on which the opposition is predominantly present. If nothing else, at least the viewers can get an insight into what the opposition is saying,“ explains Gordana Katana.
The media scene in the RS has been further shaken by the recent sale of Banja Luka’s Alternative TV to the tycoon Slobodan Stanković, the owner of Integral Inžinjering (Integral Engineering Consortium), which is also closely aligned with the ruling SNSD.
The media war of the authorities and their opposition in RS has continued with the help of “fake news.” Siniša Vukelić.stated: “We have an entire ‘fake’ media emerging here. Namely, temporary Internet portals are being established with the motive to publish fabricated and unconfirmed information that can be used and disseminated by RTRS and the Srna News Agency. On this basis, this type of news is being legitimized through the reactions of officials who comment on fictitious, non-existent news. Over the last several months alone, nearly a dozen such Internet portals have been established. What’s interesting is that this is not only being done by portals who favor the ruling coalition. It seems that the opposition parties are setting up their own portals, which do not provide ownership information, addresses, or contact numbers. In these instances, the struggle will be to prove what is fact and what is a fabrication.“
“Nowadays, you can publish a great story, but certain individuals can successfully ignore them by imposing their own untrue story through their outlet. In doing so, they are able to hide the truth from the public until it disappears into oblivion,“ adds Vukelić.
The culmination of media segregation in the RS, as well as the political subordination of RTRS, came to light recently when numerous citizens and family members protested in Banja Luka’s Krajina Square in search of the truth regarding the death of the young man David Dragičević.
David disappeared on the night of 18 March and was found six days later where the Crkvena and Vrbas Rivers merge. On 26 March, just a few days after the discovery, the daily protests began as David’s family became suspicious of the official police report that stated that the 21-year-old was involved in a brawl in Banja Luka’s city center during a night out eating burek, after which David robbed a house. Finally, under the influence of drugs, he fell into the shallow Crkven River and drowned. In addition, numerous hematomas found on his body were characterized as “mild physical injuries“. The peak of the protests occurred on 21 April when thousands of people gathered in Krajina Square. Citizens from across BiH came to take part in the protests.
While TV BN broadcasted the protests live, RTRS only mentioned David’s father Davor’s appeal for truth and justice and the public outcry about the case during minute 15 of the central news broadcast. To be more precise, the host only read a brief news flash accompanied by a few photos of the demonstrations. Nevertheless, the protests continued and the group “Justice for David“ was set up, which now has more than 130,000 members on social media.
“We have a very strange situation regarding the public service broadcaster in this case. Even the fact that Milorad Dodik decided to take part in some gatherings in front of the District Prosecutor’s Office in Banja Luka was not sufficient for the public service broadcaster to more seriously involve themselves in monitoring the situation. This speaks to the rigidity of the RTRS editorial staff who believe they know how to best behave in this situation—even better than does Dodik himself. Despite their significant unpopularity among a large number of citizens, the local media managed to make their unpopularity even greater. It is impossible to ignore such a big event with repercussions and low viewership was the result. There was a gathering of a few thousand people in the city center, which is unusual for Banja Luka. If you completely ignore such an event, how do you expect people will treat you? In what way will what you are doing be considered acceptable?,“ inquires Buka Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Aleksandar Trifunović.
Politics must be removed from public media. Yes, this is the message of our interlocutors, but how do we accomplish this? How do we hold our politicians accountable for properly regulating finances and selecting media editors and directors without political influences?
In late April, OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, warned of a bad state of affairs in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s media and that politics should not influence the freedom of media expression nor should it interfere in the selection of media management.
The poor economic situation, as well as the dwindling presence of strong advertisers, pushes the local media towards censorship and self-censorship. In the end, it’s not the outlets or the journalists working for those outlets that are most affected by this situation, it’s the citizens, especially those living in municipalities and cities that are deprived of information and viewpoints about the current state of affairs.
The ending of the article can be summarized through the conclusion of a panel discussion on media freedom that was held on 3 May in Banja Luka. During the panel, it was clearly stated: “Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a country in transition, is at the very bottom of many world lists when it comes to social and economic progress and development of any kind as evidenced in the latest EU Commission report. Many media outlets that are in service to the ruling political parties try to portray an idealistic image of BiH that does not correspond to the reality of this country’s citizens. For this reason and many others, the existence of free and critical media is a basic precondition for the development of a successful society. Investigative journalism should be nurtured and media freedom and ethical codes should be respected.“
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).