Attacks on the Press 2002: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s lively media reported on numerous corruption and political scandals in 2002, from bomb threats against the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Sarajevo, to the government’s involvement in weapons sales to Iraq. The astonishing number of scandals reflected fragile government institutions and the existence of two ministates within the country: Republika Srpska and the Federation. Rampant lawlessness fostered widespread fraud, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. It also kept journalists there vulnerable to a broad array of harassment and abuses, including threatening phone calls and letters, politically motivated tax inspections, retaliatory lawsuits, and physical assaults.

Impunity for attacks against journalists remained the norm in 2002. For example, despite local and international pressure, no progress was reported in the Republika Srpska police investigation into the October 1999 assassination attempt against Zeljko Kopanja, editor of the daily Nezavisne Novine, who lost both legs when a bomb blew up his car. Kopanja had just published several articles about Serbian war crimes.

The internationally run Office of the High Representative, which is the chief peace implementation agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina and has legal authority over the country, continued to press ahead with media reforms in 2002, particularly in establishing a national public broadcasting service. That became a politically sensitive issue because of the broadcast media’s role in promoting ethnic hatred during the recent war.

In May, the outgoing high representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, imposed 43 different laws, amendments, or regulations that the parliaments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska, and the Federation had failed to enact. Included was a package of laws establishing European-style public broadcasters. The statutes were imposed amid a debate within Bosnia and Herzegovina about how to find a healthy balance between public and private broadcasters. The country’s broadcast regulatory body, the Communications Regulatory Agency, continued to make a determined effort to consolidate the nation’s broadcast market by reissuing licenses based on program quality, financial viability, and technical capabilities. In the process, the agency reduced the number of broadcasters by nearly a third.

In a positive development, Nezavisne Novine opened the country’s first private printing press in July, strengthening the paper’s financial stability and ending the monopoly of government printing presses, which often charged independent newspapers higher printing rates.

Telephone threats and indirect pressure on journalists–particularly from influential political parties, such as the hard-line Bosnian Serb nationalist SDS party and the reformist SDP party–escalated ahead of the October 5 general elections. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an election monitoring body, documented one case of physical intimidation and a number of politically motivated tax audits against journalists prior to the elections.

While Western officials had urged Bosnians to support ethnic reintegration and reforms by voting for political moderates, the poll results revealed a nationalist comeback. The three Muslim, Serb, and Croat nationalist parties that were in power when the country’s civil war began in the early 1990s were all voted in to the country’s three-member rotating presidency and gained strong positions in national legislatures.

Broadcast media provided relatively diverse and balanced reporting on the elections, partly due to strict monitoring and enforcement of standards by the Communications Regulatory Agency. The print media, which are subject to fewer restrictions than broadcast media, covered the electoral campaigns more aggressively and critically. Many newspapers, however, openly supported one political party or another and published stories based on spurious information that targeted their political enemies.

Bosnia’s new high representative, Paddy Ashdown, has focused on reforming the judiciary and legal systems to combat lawlessness and corruption. In November, he repealed criminal penalties for defamation and enacted the Law on Protection Against Defamation to encourage greater freedom and responsibility in the press.

September 15

Independent print media in Sarajevo

Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija, who is also the head of the reformist Social Democratic Party, threatened to close a number of unidentified independent newspapers in the capital, Sarajevo, after the October 5 national elections. Lagumdzija made the threat during a meeting between several Bosnian ministers and representatives of the Bosnian diaspora in New York City, the Sarajevo-daily Oslobodjenje reported.

Lagumdzija said that “certain papers
in Bosnia-Herzegovina will cease to exist after the October 5 election” but later backtracked, explaining that after the elections there would no longer be a need for the political debates published in these newspapers during the run-up to the poll, according to a September 19 interview in the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz.