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South Slavic: August 14, 2003

14 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 25


Part I

A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg with Jovanka Matic, media researcher for the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences, and Besim Spahic, head of the Journalism Department at the School of Political Sciences of Sarajevo University.

RFE/RL: Mrs. Matic, to what extent does the Serbian government control the media?

Jovanka Matic: The new government of the [Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition] DOS failed to deliver the media autonomy they promised. Moreover, a couple of months ago the government started to apply both direct and indirect pressure on the media.

Secondly, private television empires such as TV Pink and BK have been allowed to keep the privileged positions they acquired during [former President Slobodan] Milosevic's rule thanks to the close ties between their owners and some of the leading figures of the former regime.

Instead of seeking a balance between new, small, and professional media on the one hand and the privileged giants from the Milosevic era on the other, the balance has been maintained in favor of the latter. When the [losers] began to protest this state of affairs, the government dug in its heels all the more.

RFE/RL: Mr. Spahic, to what extent does the government in Bosnia-Herzegovina control the media?

Besim Spahic: Before answering your question, we must first determine which government we are talking about: the representatives of the international community, the government of the [Croatian and Muslim] federation, the Republika Srpska, or the 10 cantons.

As you can see, our situation is quite complicated, but one thing is clear: no government whatsoever will ever leave the media alone. The government needs the media to project an image and shape public opinion.

The American Internews agency did research over the past two years on both the print and electronic media. The findings showed that those in power -- mostly from religious and national parties -- have a great influence on the media. They interfere with their work, calling the editors -- just like in the good old communist times -- to ask why something was published instead of something else, and sometimes even threaten them.

RFE/RL: It seems that Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina share the phenomenon that Mrs. Matic has already mentioned. I am talking about powerful private media that used to back the former regimes and now are very close to the new governments. The new governments have eagerly accepted the services of the media that used to attack their own parties when they were in opposition.

Matic: As far as the owners of those media are concerned, they did something understandable from the viewpoint of their own interests. Once it became evident that Milosevic's regime was on its way out, they changed their attitude overnight and started to back the new government.

It is typical for commercial media to follow the prevailing mood, since they depend on [advertising revenues]. After the 2000 elections, the majority in Serbia was against Milosevic. Therefore, there is nothing strange about those media's switching sides, but rather about the new government's behavior toward them.

The government accepted the support of those media and let them keep their privileged status. Pink and BK cover 90 percent of Serbia's territory because of the way frequencies were allocated under Milosevic.

The upshot is that those two stations between them air three-fourths of all television commercials broadcast, which provides a large chunk of revenue.

Unlike them, Studio B television, which used to be a very popular station, and B92 cover just one-fourth of the country, which is why they get only 5 percent of the commercials.

The government achieved some short-term goals by leaving the status of BK and Pink untouched and accepting their support without question, because those media helped mobilize public support for government policies. In the longer term, however, the government's attitude will lead to problems.

Spahic: I largely agree with Mrs. Matic. Media are institutions fighting for their existence and depend on sponsors, commercials, and advertising. The policies of the media in Bosnia-Herzegovina depend primarily on the political structures that support them as well as on the firms that pay for their advertising.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina there have been cases of political parties that founded their own media, and of media that switched sides in order to go with the winner, perhaps more than once.

This is how the street influences journalism. For instance, the daily "Dnevni Avaz" received its initial capital from the [Muslim nationalist] Party of Democratic Action [SDA]. In 2000, the newspaper became independent and subsequently grew in size and stature. There are rumors that it intends to expand into television.

RFE/RL: Private media empires -- if we can call them that -- do not promote only the interests of the government, but also their own interests. Those who dare to criticize them are often fiercely attacked.

Matic: That is because we are a country in transition; it would be unacceptable in an established democracy.

Zeljko Mitrovic, who owns Pink, has done this several times. Of course, he does not always do so directly, but some of his journalists produce stories favorable to him or simply broadcast his editorials. This is a form of abuse by the owner, but there are no legal safeguards here.

Similarly, politicians react to this state of affairs only when it threatens their interests. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic challenged Pink's legal status only after it gave considerable airtime to one of his rivals.

BK clearly serves the interests of the Karic family that founded it and publicizes the brothers' activities. It is a comment on the level of political culture in this country that such behavior is considered respectable.

One viewer told researchers that he watches BK because he considers it modern and exciting but just closes his eyes when the screen is filled with the images of the Karic brothers. This shows that the public does not find BK insulting but just shuts out what they don't like.