Attacks on the Press 1999: Bosnia-Herzegovina

Journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina suffered physical attacks that ranged from beatings and abduction to the car-bombing of a noted Bosnian Serb newspaper editor. The attack on Zeljko Kopanja came in October, after his Banja Luka paper published investigative reports about alleged war crimes and acts of corruption committed by Bosnian Serbs.

Reports from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia give some indication of the risks that journalists face. A Croatian journalist in Bosnia was threatened with decapitation for his reporting. A journalist from the independent Novi List, who wrote critically about Croatian nationalists, was abducted from a hotel in western Mostar. His abductors scarred him with a lit ciga-rette and broke his hand with a 10-pound rock. Elsewhere in Bosnia, radio stations were set on fire, equipment was damaged or stolen, television broadcast repeaters and a studio were mined with plastic explosives, and elected officials assaulted TV reporters.

The attacks reflected tensions at the heart of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has existed in a fragile, economically devastated condition since the Dayton peace accords that ended the 1992Ð95 Bosnian war. The accords partitioned Bosnia into two political entities: the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. The agreement is enforced today by 30,000 NATO troops. Local news media will play a crucial role in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s future. They will be either the glue that holds the gerrymandered country together or the fuel that ignites another ethnic war.

With 431 print and broadcast media outlets serving a population of fewer than 4 million, Bosnia is media saturated. Yet the economy is too small to support even a minimal advertising base. As a result, media depend on international governments and foundations for funding. The money available is shrinking steadily and will eventually disappear.

In April, six major press associations, representing all three of Bosnia’s major ethnic groups (Serbs, Muslims, and Croats), approved a press code modeled on European standards. Besides emphasizing sound journalistic principles, the code condemns journalism that discriminates against religious and ethnic groups or incites communal hatred. The signatories met in Sarajevo under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The new press code will affect the 206 radio and 76 television stations in the Muslim-Croat Federation and the 84 radio and 28 TV stations in the Republika Srpska. The Independent Media Commission (IMC) also pushed for the new press code. The IMC, which regulates Bosnian broadcasting, has handed out hundreds of temporary broadcast licenses. It was created by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international authority that oversees the Dayton accord, but is gradually being transferred to local control.

The IMC has the authority to censor programming that it deems inflammatory or chauvinistic. Of the 150 alleged violations that it identified in 1999, 36 cases resulted in fines. During the NATO bombing of neighboring Yugoslavia, the IMC threatened to shut down television in the Republika Srpska unless it provided more balanced reporting. Similarly, the IMC moved against Bosnian Croat broadcasters in Mostar when the latter rebroadcast programs from neighboring Croatia that supported former Croatian president Franjo Tudjman’s claim that Herzegovina should be part of Croatia.

As a result of such actions, the IMC and the OHR were criticized by Bosnian journalists and by international press groups, who feared that their attempts to enforce ethical broadcast standards were becoming too heavy-handed. There was also widespread concern about possible efforts to monitor the content of print publications. Even so, Bosnian press associations generally welcomed support from the IMC and the OHR in protesting attacks on the press.

The outgoing high representative, Carlos Westendorp, moved over the summer to restructure government TV broadcasting, which had also been partitioned into separate Muslim-Croat and Serb networks. Westendorp’s aim was to draw the two entities of the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska together via shared TV programming, including a single national newscast. The political parties that control state broadcasting in the two entities resisted the changes. But the internationally funded Open Broadcasting Network (OBN) made progress in its efforts to launch a credible, nationwide news and entertainment broadcasting venture.

Westendorp also sought to decriminalize defamation laws and to reduce the high fines commonly levied in civil-defamation suits. There were numerous libel suits in local courts last year. Senad Avdic, editor of a weekly magazine in Sarajevo, faced 15 separate libel suits (he was convicted twice and given a single suspended sentence). Senad Pecanin, editor of the Sarajevo-based magazine Dani, was also harassed by libel suits and threatened with arrest by police who turned up at his editorial offices to browbeat him. Pecanin’s office was targeted in a 1998 bombing attempt that resulted from his magazine’s feisty, aggressive reporting.

May 27
Senad Avdic, Slobodna Bosna LEGAL ACTION

On May 27, the Sarajevo municipal court sentenced Avdic, editor of the Sarajevo-based weekly magazine Slobodna Bosna, to a three-month suspended jail term for allegedly defaming Semsudin Mehmedovic, the former minister of internal affairs of Zenica-Doboj Canton, in central Bosnia.

Published on May 16, 1998, Avdic’s article alleged that Mehmedovic used force to dislodge protesters who had blocked a road to demand payment of their salaries. Avdic also claimed that Mehmedovic was harboring terrorists and had helped some of them leave the country.

June 23
Senad Avdic, Slobodna Bosna LEGAL ACTION

Judge Mirsad Sehovic of the Sarajevo municipal court sentenced Avdic to a two-month suspended jail term on charges of criminal libel. If he is convicted on new charges within a year, he will have to serve the jail term. The criminal prosecution was initiated on behalf of Bakir Alispahic, the former minister of internal affairs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in response to a 1997 article written by Avdic. In the article, Avdic claimed that Alispahic had hired Iranian intelligence experts to train the Bosnian special services. He also suggested that Alispahic had misappropriated funds while serving as minister of internal affairs.

August 22
Senad Avdic, Slobodna Bosna LEGAL ACTION

At 6:45 a.m., two policemen entered the Sarajevo office of Slobodna Bosna with a warrant for the arrest of Avdic, the independent weekly’s editor in chief. The police demanded that Avdic accompany them to court for a hearing on libel charges brought against him earlier in the year by Sead Cirkin, former head of the Prijedor municipality in Bosnia.

Cirkin initiated libel charges against Avdic after the journalist refused to turn over the names of five individuals who had signed a letter accusing Cirken of embezzlement. Slobodna Bosna published a copy of the letter in August 1997.

Within a few hours, the judge ruled that all charges against Avdic related to the Cirkin case should be dropped. Avdic was released from custody the same day. Had he been found guilty, he would have been forced to serve a suspended three-month prison sentence, under the terms of a previous conviction.

October 22
Zeljko Kopanja, Nezavisne Novine ATTACKED

Kopanja, the founder and editor of Nezavisne Novine, the largest independent Serb daily in Bosnia-Herzegovina, lost both his legs when a car bomb exploded in front of his Banja Luka home. The bomb detonated at around 8 a.m., when Kopanja opened his car door.

Kopanja had recently won international praise for publishing the first detailed accounts of Serb war crimes against Bosnian Muslims to appear in Bosnian Serb media. Nezavisne Novine‘s first article on the subject argued that the atrocities were part of a premeditated ethnic-cleansing campaign aimed at Muslims and other non-Serbs.

The piece also asked why local authorities had failed to investigate and prosecute suspected war criminals. Shortly thereafter, the republic’s prosecutor reopened an investigation into war-crime allegations. In a follow-up article published one week later, the paper quoted testimony from witnesses at the Hague war crimes tribunal.

See article on the Kopanja attack and its effect on Bosnia.