Two years after the Dayton peace accords, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains divided along ethnic lines, with state-run media used by all sides as tools for spreading nationalist propaganda and retaining power. Further complicating media issues in the region was the direct intervention of NATO forces in the control and management of state broadcasting facilities, raising troubling questions about media independence and the appropriate mechanisms, if any, for combating ethnic propaganda in a volatile post-war environment.

The ruling nationalist factions in each ethnic community exercise direct or indirect control over local news broadcasting. The news media is more lively and diverse in Sarajevo and other areas of the Muslim-Croat Federation. In the Serb Republic, there are few independent publications or broadcasters. Most Bosnian Serb news outlets operate on behalf of one of the two rival centers of political power. Although the Western-backed Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic serves as the duly elected leader in Banja Luka, wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, an indicted war criminal, controls much of region from his base in Pale.

Newsgathering throughout the country is hampered by police harassment, poor telecommunications, and restrictions on transit between the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation and between Muslim- and Croat-controlled areas. The development of independent media has been hurt further by the loss of the many journalists who were killed in the war, emigrated, or left the profession for more secure employment.

The Dayton peace accords addressed the need to safeguard both the security and independence of journalists, but those promises have not been vigilantly enforced. In a memorandum to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in May, before she traveled to Bosnia, CPJ recommended measures to secure the safety of journalists and to aid the growth of independent media before the fall local elections. The memorandum urged that Stabilization Force (SFOR) troops be authorized to safeguard not only transmitters or media offices, but also the journalists themselves – with the use of force if necessary. CPJ called for the prosecution of police officers who attack journalists. Because regionally differentiated license plates were used to identify traveling reporters by their ethnicity, exposing them to local police and paramilitary harassment, CPJ asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to offer shuttle buses to journalists covering the election across inter-entity boundaries until the entities adopted a universal license plate. CPJ also appealed for SFOR adjudication of broadcasting regulatory disputes, such as the case of Radio Zid, an independent Sarajevo station whose signal was overpowered on the same frequency by the Karadzic family's Radio Orthodox St. John in Pale.

In May, Albright pledged that by year's end all Bosnians would have access to independent television or radio reporting. She announced plans to expand broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America to counter "misinformation designed to fuel hate" by official media. The NATO powers authorized High Representative Carlos Westendorp, the top peace envoy in Bosnia, to take action against media deemed to be working against the peace process. In August, the television studio in Banja Luka, controlled by Plavsic supporters, cut links with Karadzic-backed Serb Radio and Television (SRT) in Pale, citing its "primitive propaganda," and broadcast its own news program. Plavsic demanded the resignation of SRT's pro-Karadzic editorial managers. In August, when SRT's Pale TV intercut footage of Nazi tanks with footage of NATO troops deployed in Bosnia, NATO deemed the programming to be in violation of the Dayton accords. On September 1 nearly 300 U.S. SFOR troops interceded to block armed pro-Pale Bosnian Serbs from illegally taking control of a television transmission tower in Udrigovo that new non-governmental broadcasters had hoped to use. After a day of Bosnia Serb protests and mob attacks, the U.S. troops withdrew. SFOR returned the transmitter to the Karadzic loyalists, who pledged to tone down anti-NATO editorializing and provide an hour of prime time to rival factions. Pale TV denounced the move, saying NATO had engaged in censorship by seizing the transmitter and dictating the terms of its return. In a letter to Secretary Albright, CPJ objected to NATO's decision to turn the Udrigovo transmitter over to the Karadzic forces, noting that it would curtail promised opportunities for independent broadcasters. The letter reiterated CPJ's position that NATO should enforce the Dayton accords' "ample guarantees for press freedom" and "ensure that a variety of viewpoints – including criticism of the actions of NATO – can be expressed in the local media."

On October 1, Westendorp condemned SRT for its alleged "persistent and blatant contravention" of the Dayton accords and "insulting language and highly biased reportage," and authorized SFOR's seizure of four transmitters used by Pale TV.

The transmitters were turned over to Plavsic's state broadcasting service in Banja Luka. Miroslav Toholj, the general manager of Pale TV, called the seizure of transmitters "violence against freedom of the media." Journalists from the Pale studio went on strike, proclaiming themselves victims of press attacks initiated by NATO.

While CPJ took no position on the NATO seizure of the transmitters, which had been at the service not of a news organization but of the propaganda arm of an unrecognized government run by indicted war criminals, the Board of Directors voted later to oppose any NATO intervention which would reduce rather than increase the availability and diversity of published and broadcast news and opinion. CPJ urged Westendorp to ensure that the transmitters would be used for balanced, impartial news coverage. In October, former CPJ chairman Kati Marton traveled to Bosnia and Serbia with New York Times columnist and fellow board member Anthony Lewis. During their week-long visit to Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Doboj, and Belgrade, they met with Bosnian and Serbian journalists and political leaders, seeking stronger press freedom guarantees and support from the international community for independent broadcasting. They urged that any new regulatory agencies be supervised by professional journalists, not politicians.

The Bosnian Serb broadcasters were not the only ones accused of violating the Dayton agreement by airing biased and inflammatory programs. Banja Luka TV broadcast an inflammatory anti-Croatian program at year end, prompting Westendorp to announce that he would appoint a foreign "supervisor" for the Bosnian Serb station. Croatian Television Mostar, HTV, in Croat-controlled western Mostar, was warned on three separate occasions in 1997 by the OSCE media commission and NATO to stop broadcasting allegedly racist denunciations of Bosnian Muslims. The OSCE ordered HTV to apologize during their evening news broadcasts, under threat of punitive NATO action. The station acquiesced, but two general managers resigned in protest.

The print media also became a target in the Bosnian Serb power struggle, with the bombing in September in Doboj of Alternativa, the only pro-Plavsic newspaper in the Karadzic-controlled town. Alternativa's offices had been machine-gunned a month earlier at a time when its publisher was held in custody by pro-Karadzic police. In a troubling development for Sarajevo's independent press, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic attacked Dani and other leading magazines for reporting on Muslim atrocities against Serbs in the Bosnian capital. Izetbegovic called the journalists anti-Muslim traitors "financed by foreign sources."

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