Attacks on the Press 2001: Bosnia-Herzegovina

While Bosnia’s ethnically fragmented media showed modest signs of integration in 2001, independent journalists endured threats, harassment, and violence from political parties and government officials.

Nationalist and reformist parties battled in the November 2000 elections, with mixed results. The Bosnian Serb nationalist SDS party, formerly led by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, handily won in the Serb entity of Republika Srpska (RS). The Croat nationalist HDZ party gained an absolute majority from ethnic Croat voters in the western and southwestern regions of the Muslim-Croat Federation, the other political entity within Bosnia.

The reformist SDP party, meanwhile, narrowly beat the Bosnian Muslim nationalist SDA party in central Bosnia and other areas of the federation.

After taking power in Republika Srpska, the SDS reinstated numerous party loyalists to senior police and security posts in early 2001. The return of SDS officials who had orchestrated the wartime ethnic cleansing campaigns made journalists cautious about reporting on war crimes, official corruption, and organized crime.

The RS police investigation into the October 1999 assassination attempt against Zeljko Kopanja, editor of the Banja Luka-based daily Nezavisne Novine, who lost both legs to a car bomb after publishing articles about Serbian war crimes, faltered after SDS officials took over the Interior Ministry.

The HDZ continued to resist international efforts to integrate Croat-dominated western Herzegovina within the federation. During the first several months of 2001, the HDZ boycotted the Parliament, threatened to establish its own ethnic Croat mini-state, and orchestrated a mutiny by ethnic Croat soldiers in the federation army. In March, the international officials who still effectively run Bosnia responded by sacking HDZ leader Ante Jelavic from the country’s tripartite presidency.

Most media outlets in western Herzegovina remain under the control of the HDZ and backed the party’s rebellion, while the HDZ pressures the few independent media outlets in the region. The intimidation became so intense in early 2001 that independent journalists asked press freedom organizations not to publicize their cases, for fear of worsening the situation.

In May, a CPJ delegation traveled to Bosnia to press RS authorities to move forward with the the Kopanja investigation and to address security threats to journalists. Zivko Radisic, the Serb chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, promised to discuss the case with RS prime minister Mladen Ivanic and Interior Minister Perica Bundalo, but no progress in the investigation had been reported by the end of 2001.

Meanwhile, press freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in Republika Srpska. In July, the director and news editor of Banja Luka’s independent Alternativna Televizija (ATV) station and the editor of the Banja Luka youth magazine BUKA all received death threats for their coverage of war crimes and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. The sluggish police response reinforced the impression that journalists can be intimidated with impunity.

There was also a sudden change in the management of the official Republika Srpska news agency, SRNA, which was established during the war as an SDS mouthpiece. SRNA had recently gained some professional credibility and financial stability under director and editor Dragan Davidovic. But the RS government abruptly dismissed Davidovic in August in an apparently political move.

War crimes remained a dangerous topic for journalists to investigate, even in the relative safety of urban centers such as Sarajevo, where a reformist government was in power. On the evening of January 22, unknown assailants attacked Kristijan Ivelic, a reporter for the Sarajevo weekly magazine Start BiH, after he published a series of articles on the execution of 12 Yugoslav People’s Army soldiers in the central park of Sarajevo in 1992.

Foreign journalists also remained vulnerable. In early June, a Belgian state television crew working on a documentary film about Karadzic was briefly detained at gunpoint after leaving Pale, a town where Karadzic lived during the Bosnian war. Masked gunmen blocked the road and confiscated their videotape.

One of the most significant developments in 2001 was the emergence of Nezavisne Novine as Bosnia’s first truly national newspaper. It expanded coverage of local events throughout the country by opening bureaus in Muslim-dominated Sarajevo and in the Croat-Muslim city of Mostar. Nezavisne Novine also gained a truly national readership that crossed ethnic boundaries when it started using the Roman script, which is favored by Croats and Muslims. Moreover, the newspaper’s moderate editorial policy and balanced coverage of Bosnia’s appalling wartime history have earned it credibility.

Certain media reforms progressed due to pressure from the lead international agency in Bosnia, the Office of the High Representatives (OHR), as well as the Bosnia mission of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

In February, the OHR and the OSCE jointly proposed a draft defamation law for parliamentary approval in Republika Srpska and the federation. The proposed legislation would eliminate criminal defamation and restrict liability for civil defamation. The RS Parliament adopted the law in July, but the federation Parliament had failed to pass it by year’s end.

International authorities also reformed Bosnia’s internationally supervised broadcast regulatory agencies. In March, the OHR merged the International Media Commission and the Telecommunications Regulatory Agency to form a single Communications Regulatory Agency to regulate programming standards, election coverage, and frequency distribution.