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Public TV Survived The War, But Can It Survive Peacetime In Bosnia?


The TV station that managed to continue broadcasting throughout the historic siege of Sarajevo (1992-95) is being left to collapse in peacetime.

You won't find any Bosnians under the laser effects and artificial fog in Kyiv this week as acts from 42 countries perform in the Eurovision Song Contest. In September, Bosnian public broadcaster BHRT announced it was forced to withdraw from the annual extravaganza because it couldn't afford the entry fee.

But there are other casualties, too, including live coverage of major sporting events. Even utility bills are reportedly going unpaid -- so much so that BHRT's landmark headquarters in Sarajevo's densely populated Alipasino Polje neighborhood might have its power cut.

BHRT is said to be sinking under a $20 million mountain of rising debt. Meanwhile, its funding has dried up: The collection of TV license fees -- previously paid through landline telephone bills -- ceased last year when lawmakers allowed the relevant legislation to lapse, and regional partners are reportedly behind on payments.

So the TV station that managed to continue broadcasting throughout the historic siege of Sarajevo (1992-95) is being left to collapse in peacetime.

"The public broadcaster is the victim of the Bosnian political reality," Emir Habul, a member of the BHRT executive board, tells RFE/RL. "The Bosnian state is facing obstruction at the executive and legislative levels. Its functioning is not being undermined by the opposition but because of a struggle within the parliamentary majority."

Systemic Duplication

It is not easy to navigate the labyrinth of Bosnian institutions. To match the complicated structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina as it emerged from the Dayton peace agreement -- divided within an overarching, unified state structure -- the Serb-majority Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation that compose Bosnia each have their own public broadcasters, with a third public broadcaster at the state level. While the regional public broadcasters are thriving, to virtually no one's surprise, BHRT -- the one broadcaster that's supposed to serve all of Bosnia's citizenry -- is in trouble.

"Unfortunately, due to ethnic divisions and political pressure, the entity [regional] broadcasters are becoming stronger and the state-level service is being sidelined," Stefica Galic, editor of Tacno.net, told Media.ba. "That is happening in all spheres of Bosnian society."

BHRT is hostage to various special interests. Ethnic Croatian parties in the Bosnian parliament are refusing to support any financing solution for the public broadcaster until the establishment of a third, Croatian, channel. Meanwhile, Serbian opposition parties are wary of passing any bill that might benefit Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik's ruling Social Democrats. As a result, a law requiring monthly TV license-fee payments of 3.8 euros ($4) was not extended or replaced last year, leaving public broadcasting out in the cold.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has issued several warnings to Bosnian authorities, demanding a solution to the financing problems. When those were not heeded, the EBU reluctantly imposed sanctions on BHRT. "Bosnia and Herzegovina now risks being the only European country that could be without a national public service broadcaster," the EBU said in a statement.

Twenty-seven years after the Dayton agreements, ethnically based parties in Bosnia (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) appear to be on the brink of realizing their nationalist aims.

In 1990, there was an unsuccessful attempt to formally divide Bosnian media along ethnic lines by creating three separate channels -- Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim -- operating under one roof (then Sarajevo TV, the precursor of BHRT). Mass protests and strong public support for media free of ethnic divisions were keys to that failure.

"That spirit has been lost," Habul says. "Today, any similar action by citizens on behalf of the public broadcaster is extremely unlikely. Most people now support the idea of three channels."

Polling among Croats corroborates that assessment, with the majority consistently saying it wants a Croatian channel. In Republika Srpska, Dodik's supporters are in favor of the existing SerbTV, based in Banja Luka, while opposition parties have rallied around BN TV, based in Bijeljina.

Increasing Isolation

The contrast with the 1990s is stark, Habul says, with the divide between ethnic groups arguably as great or greater, and civil society almost nonexistent.

The Croatian National Assembly (HNS) has proposed a compromise that would provide support for three ethnic channels (Croatian in addition to Bosniak and Serbian) while also maintaining BHRT, which would continue to serve everyone. Only one party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has come out in support of that solution. The proposal has yet to reach the floor of parliament.

"People in Bosnia are more and more isolated within their own ethnic group," Habul says. "Kids are growing up without any experience of other cultures, religions, nationalities. I recently met a 30-year-old man in Banja Luka who told me, 'You're the first Muslim I've ever met.'"

Habul argues that Bosnia desperately needs a public-service broadcaster open to -- and serving -- all ethnic groups in order to promote diversity and to build trust among Bosnia's various ethnic communities.

There is plenty of blame to go around for BHRT's predicament, according to media editors interviewed by Media.ba. Prominent among those at fault are Bosnian politics and politicians. But some of the responsibility lies with poor management of the public service, an indeed with ordinary citizens.

"Everyone is responsible...from constantly changing management and its inability to deal with the crisis, which has pushed BHRT into an even deeper abyss -- without anyone being held responsible for the failure -- to parliament, unable to resolve the issue of TV license-fee collection," said Sandra Gojkovic-Arbutina, editor of Nezavisne Novine.

The solution, according to Habul, is simple but nevertheless unimaginable in current political circumstances. "Pass legislation and enforce the law. We need to revive the regulations that would keep the three public broadcasters going" -- one in each of the two entities, plus BHRT -- "and in a coordinated way, avoiding overlaps and conflicts and ensuring that all three complement one another."

Such an approach, along with longer-term solutions to collect fees on behalf of all three broadcasters, might ensure that so-called ethnic channels aren't the lone survivors.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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