Free (falling) media in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The country that once served as an example for media freedom in the region - the first to decriminalize defamation and adopt the world’s most liberal media laws - has somewhat lost its shine. In 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina further dropped down the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, now ranking 68 on the global scale, according to which there are concerns that despite very good laws, journalists in the country are often the targets of threats and political pressure.
The situation is further aggravated by economics. Media representatives often fear for their jobs and often make compromises at the cost of professional journalism. To generate income the media is increasingly turning to sensationalism. The chase for readers’ ‘clicks’ and advertising revenue tends to be a driving force of journalism today.
“There must be a clear distinction between propaganda and journalism that serves the public interest,” says Ljiljana Zurovac, executive director of the Press Council, which is the BiH self-regulatory body. “The Internet freedom that we enjoy in BiH today is being constantly abused by the rise of web portals which do not contain any identification, any editorial page or any other contact details. They publish misleading, manipulative information and promote hate speech.”
Zurovac adds that more order is needed in the media industry as there is a huge lack of transparency of media ownership. “We must introduce provisions to the media or commerce laws that will require web portals that act as media to register and publish an editorial page listing their owners, the chief editor and journalists. This way citizens could make an informed decision whether to trust the web portal or not, as well as who to approach for complaint regarding a violation of the Press and Online Media Code and the web portals would be obliged to pay VAT and sales tax from advertising services.”
Thin line between rumours, comments, information and facts
The media situation in BiH seems to have started declining over the past decade, and according to the IREX’s Media Sustainability Index the negative trends have continued although the pace slowed in recent years. The patterns of government funding, political control over public broadcasters, failure to reform the public broadcasting system and agreement on the method for television fee collection are prime issues for concern.
Director of the Mediacentar Sarajevo Boro Kontic says that in times of media overflow the public broadcasters should be the place to go for quality information. “In BiH, public media outlets still prevail, but they largely present the long arm of local politics rather than serve public interest, that is, all citizens. On the other hand, you cannot expect private media outlets to ‘be dying’ for freedom because they are determined by the owner’s commercial interest.”
“Unlike the freedom of an individual who can say whatever he or she wants, the freedom of the media is limited by journalistic professional standards, starting from the verification of each fact all the way to involving all the stakeholders of a given juxtaposed story. However, today we live in a new, digital era, and in spite of feeling great enthusiasm for having new opportunities, there are sceptics who believe that we have not made a step forward. Actually, we have returned to a pre-(Johannes)Gutenberg time, to a medieval market place where rumours and shouting, gossip or comments have the same meaning as information and facts,” he says.
Examples of good practices
The South East European Media Observatory identified four non-profit media from BiH – the Mediacentar Sarajevo, Magazine Buka, the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIN), and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) - as positive examples of good practice and media integrity. For many years these organizations have been protecting and promoting public service values in journalism.
BIRN’s Balkan Insight managing editor Srecko Latal says the media itself largely determines its freedom. “The media is sharing the same faith with the country that is deeply polarized and culturally impoverished. We keep comparing ourselves with those worse than us and use that as an excuse to lower our standards.”
Another issue debated and addressed in many reports is the lack of implementation of laws by the saturated judicial system. Latal explains that laws, mechanisms, and institutions should not regulate everything, just the extreme cases. “Journalists and the media should regulate themselves. They must understand that unprofessional and irresponsible behaviour jeopardizes their future above all. Many media employees do not realize how much they are responsible for having an effect on citizens.”
Journalists, especially those who specialize in investigative journalism, depend on institutions to apply the Freedom of Information Act of BiH (FOIA), says Aladin Abdagic, CIN’s editor-in-chief. “CIN has time to file lawsuits against the government institutions in order to get the data it needs for its reports. We sued several institutions in the past and won. However, this luxury of time is something other journalists who collect data on a daily basis simply do not have.”
Abdagic says that judicial processes are lengthy and data received is usually outdated and unusable, but this is not what matters. “The fact that we used legal mechanisms is important because it changed the awareness within the government. After the lawsuits all the institutions responded to our FOIA requests in the legal timeframe of 15 days.”
OSCE media freedom representative instrumental for safeguarding free expression and free media
Freedom of expression is a fundamental and internationally recognized human right and as such also a basic component of any democratic society. As the world’s only intergovernmental media watchdog, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media plays a vital role in safeguarding free expression and free media throughout the OSCE region.
On several occasions the Representative has urged the BiH authorities to address the long-standing issues of safety of journalists, funding the country’s public broadcasting system, and to support free expression and the rights of journalists.
“Safety of journalists remains the main threat to media freedom in BiH and across the OSCE region; and the fight to end impunity is instrumental in this respect,” Mijatovic says. “There is also an urgent need to ensure independence and sustainability of public service broadcasters and regulatory agencies, in order to strengthen media freedom in the country.”