Attacks on the Press 2000: Bosnia-Herzegovina

WITH LOCAL MEDIA SPLIT ALONG ETHNIC LINES and nationalist parties that found many ways to intimidate the press, Bosnia and Herzegovina made only modest press freedom gains in 2000.

In the broader context of recovery under the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, more war criminals were captured and more minority refugees returned to their pre-war homes. But the profound democratic changes occurring in neighboring Croatia and Yugoslavia had only limited repercussions in Bosnia. The Muslim nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA) continued to lose support in the April 8 municipal elections and November 11 general elections. But the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) remained strong within their respective ethnic communities.

Before both elections, the number of threats and attacks against journalists rose sharply.

Working with the press organization IREX ProMedia, CPJ convened a two-day conference in Sarajevo on July 27-28, where 47 print and broadcast journalists met with educators, legal experts, and others to discuss the political intimidation of journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To read a 36-page IREX ProMedia report on the issues discussed at the meeting, click here.

Five years after the end of Bosnia’s civil war, the media remain ethnically divided. Six press associations claimed to represent professional journalists last year, but only two had any real political independence. Bosnian media remain strategic assets that nationalist parties exploit to promote inter-ethnic fear and preserve their own political power.

Allegations of corruption or war crimes may only be leveled at other ethnic groups, a rule that Banja Luka editor Zeljko Kopanja paid a horrible price for breaking. Kopanja is the co-founder and editor of Nezavisne Novine, the largest independent Serb daily in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On October 22, 1999, Kopanja lost both his legs in a car-bomb explosion. Undaunted, he learned how to walk on prosthetic legs, and returned to work at his newspaper. On November 21, CPJ honored Kopanja with an International Press Freedom Award at its annual awards ceremony in New York City.

(Click here to read or download Acrobat PDF version of Nezavisne Novine articles in English.)

Bosnian authorities made little progress investigating the attack last year, but it almost certainly resulted from a series of Nezavisne Novine articles that documented Bosnian Serb war crimes against Muslims during the 1992-95 war. Never before had a Bosnian Serb newspaper acknowledged the role of Bosnian Serb authorities in atrocities perpetrated against other ethnic groups. After the attack, Kopanja’s sources were afraid to speak out, and the subject of war crimes was once again taboo in the media.

A former official of the State Security Service (SDB) in neighboring Serbia, Bozidar Spahic, said in an interview transmitted on Radio Television Serbia on January 15, 2001, that SDB agents, along with their Bosnian Serb counterparts, were behind the assassination attempt. Kopanja argued that his attackers would not be found until the SDB archives are opened for examination.

In October, meanwhile, the Bosnian Parliament adopted a Freedom of Access to Information Law that had been drafted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an important step toward promoting greater transparency in government.

The OSCE Department of Media Affairs received reports of 138 press freedom abuses between November 1999 and October 2000. Government officials were responsible for 49 of these cases (35.5 percent), and the OSCE’s caseload increased significantly before the November general elections. More than twice as many incidents were reported in the Muslim-Croat Federation than in Republika Srpska, but OSCE officials attributed this to a greater willingness to report abuses on the part of Federation journalists, rather than to greater press freedom in the Serb-controlled portion of the country.

In Republika Srpska, intimidation tended to take the form of direct threats or physical attacks. On September 22, for example, RTV BiH correspondent Gordana Katana was threatened after she questioned the slow pace of refugee repatriation at a meeting between political parties, non-governmental organizations, and journalists in Banja Luka. Following the meeting, SDS party activist Bojan Vjestica approached Katana and allegedly threatened to blow her house up.

In the Muslim-Croat Federation, pressure on the media often involved the abuse of state powers such as taxation. The most egregious case was a June 6 tax raid on the printers of the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz, which delayed the paper’s printing and distribution. On June 16, all Dnevni Avaz‘s bank accounts were frozen after tax officials claimed that the newspaper’s employees had prevented them from completing their investigation. Having once supported the SDA politically, Dnevni Avaz had attacked the party fiercely in the months before the raid.

In mid-April, leaflets were distributed throughout the town of Livno accusing Frano Mioc, director of the radio station Studio N, and Zeljka Mihaljevic, a reporter with the station, of “spitting and vomiting on everything that represents Croat legal authority in Livno.” Studio N is the only multi-ethnic station in the West Herzegovina region, which is run by the aggressively Croat nationalist HDZ party.

On June 10, Edin Avdic, the cultural affairs editor of the Sarajevo weekly Slobodna Bosna, charged that the SDA’s cultural affairs chief, Muhamed Korda, had publicly threatened him for writing about alleged corruption in SDA-sponsored cultural activities in Bosnia. In front of the journalist and several witnesses, Korda made a phone call and then told Avdic to prepare for a physical assault. An hour later, Avdic was attacked by two unidentified men in front of his home in Sarajevo. The attackers repeated Korda’s threats and hit the journalist twice in the face.

In a June 27 letter to Alija Izetbegovic, chairman of the joing Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, CPJ noted that this incident was one of several recent attacks on the press that had been attributed to members of his party.

While the Office of the High Representative, the international authority overseeing implementation of the Dayton Accords, suspended criminal penalties for libel in July 1999, officials continued to threaten libel suits to distract attention from their own misdeeds. Bosnian courts were quick to act on libel cases filed by prominent local politicians and other powerful figures, but notably slow to prosecute physical attacks on journalists.

Edin Avdic, Slobodna Bosna

Avdic, cultural affairs editor of the Sarajevo weekly magazine Slobodna Bosna, was attacked shortly after receiving threats from Muhamed Hamo Korda, who was said to be affiliated with the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

After insulting Avdic in front of several witnesses, Korda allegedly warned him to prepare for a physical assault. An hour later, the journalist was accosted in front of his home in the Ciglane neighborhood of Sarajevo by two men who repeated Korda’s threats and then struck him twice in the face.

Korda’s anger was said to stem from the magazine’s coverage of alleged corruption associated with SDA-sponsored cultural activities in Bosnia. In a June 27 letter to Alija Izetbegovic, chairman of the joint Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, CPJ noted that this incident was one of several recent attacks on the press that had been attributed to members of his party.

Dnevni Avaz

The Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz’s bank accounts were frozen for a period of 10 days. Tax officials justified the June 16 bank action by claiming that newspaper employees had obstructed their work during a June 6 raid on the newspaper’s printing plant.

According to editor Mensur Osmovic, Sarajevo tax police broke into Dnevni Avaz’s printing plant at around 4 a.m. on June 6, delaying the newspaper’s production and distribution. Osmovic charged that the inspectors failed to produce a warrant signed by the director of the local tax bureau, as required by law. (According to local news reports, the director himself, Midhat Afifovic, had been ordered to go on vacation a few days before the raid.)

As the tax inspectors were leaving, they threatened to close the paper and arrest its director. Osmovic charged that officials of the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA) sought to silence Dnevni Avaz in retaliation for its exposés of SDA corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Having once supported the SDA politically, Dnevni Avaz had frequently criticized the party in the months before the raid.

On April 26, according to local and international press reports, Dnevni Avaz political reporter Adi Hadziarapovic was attacked by Enes Colpa, the chauffeur of Muslim-Croat Federation prime minister Edhem Bicakcic. Osmovic claimed the attack resulted from Hadziarapovic’s published criticisms of the prime minister and local business interests.