Corruption and political chaos in Bosnia and Herzegovina gave journalists many scandals to cover in 2003, from massive fraud at state power companies to illegal weapons sales to Iraq.
Journalists endured a wide array of harassment and abuses, including threatening phone calls, politically motivated tax inspections, retaliatory lawsuits, and physical attacks, most of which were initiated by politicians, businessmen, government officials, and the police. Hopes for greater accountability for press freedom abuses were dashed by the October 2002 general elections, when the three nationalist political parties that led the country into a brutal civil war in the 1990s were all voted back into office at both local and national levels.
Their electoral victories emboldened some nationalists to suppress news reporting they deemed unfavorable. A group of university students linked with the Muslim nationalist Party for Democratic Action (SDA) in the capital, Sarajevo, threatened and harassed journalists from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s weekly television news program “60 Minutes” in January for their reporting on a secret training camp run by Iranian intelligence agents during the civil war. Police were posted around the Federation Television (FTV) building for several days to protect the “60 Minutes” staff.
The internationally run Office of the High Representative (OHR), which oversees the implementation of the peace accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina and has legal authority over the country, continued to press ahead with political reforms under the leadership of liberal British politician Paddy Ashdown. Ashdown pressed the ruling nationalist parties to strengthen the central government by integrating the country’s two ministates: the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim dominated Federation.
Many journalists remained skeptical of these new political reforms, since legislation passed in 2001 granting access to government information had still not been implemented. Ashdown’s forceful personality alienated many independent journalists in Sarajevo who thought he was working too closely with corrupt nationalist parties that were guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
As part of its broader campaign to centralize state institutions, OHR continued to press for the creation of a national public broadcasting system, as well as two other official broadcasters, FTV and Radio Television Republika Srpska (RTRS). This policy left independent broadcasters such as the Mreza Plus network at a major disadvantage, scrambling for advertising amid a stagnant economy and declining international financial assistance.
The internationally supervised Communications Regulatory Agency continued to strictly monitor and enforce broadcast media regulations. In September, the Federation Intelligence Security Service leaked a transcript to the independent Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz implicating a prominent reformist politician in a series of explosions that shook Sarajevo during the summer. The leak was seen by many journalists as a smear campaign and an attempt by the new nationalist authorities to discredit a senior official from the previous government.
Impunity for attacks against journalists remained the norm in 2003. 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 destroyed his car. Kopanja had just published several articles about Serbian war crimes. Despite the country’s sluggish economy, Nezavisne Novine increased its circulation and advertising revenue in 2003 by continuing to publish hard-hitting news about local politics and war crimes.
Political interference in public radio and television also remained a serious problem at the local and national level. In June, politicians in the northwestern town of Sanki Most ousted Midhat Dedic, the director of the municipal radio station Radio SANA. In October, the Republika Srpska Parliament exceeded its legal authority and tried to gain control of RTRS by passing a resolution demanding that the board of governors, director, and news editors resign. That same month, FTV Director Jasmin Durakovic resigned when the Federation Parliament passed a resolution requiring FTV to broadcast all of Parliament’s sessions. According to Durakovic, the resolution amounted to government interference in the editorial independence of a public television station and was a financial burden on the station.
Much of the media remained divided along ethnic lines. The Sarajevo office of IREX ProMedia, a U.S.-based media training organization, held a series of meetings throughout 2003 to encourage four of the country’s six journalists’ associations to work together to strengthen advocacy for greater press freedom and professional responsibility. The four organizations prepared to establish a state-wide association of journalists.