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Analysis 02 Mar 16

Broadcasters’ Collapse Mirrors Bosnia’s Own Decline

The near financial collapse of the public TV stations, as well as the rows over a separate Croat TV channel, echo the deep the structural problems facing Bosnia itself.

Zekerijah Smajic and Srecko Latal
Photo: Anadolu Agency

Two decades of bad management, political influence and a polarized society have brought Bosnia's three public TV stations - the state BHTV and the two entities' stations, FTV in the Federation entity and RTRS in Republika Srpska - to the verge of collapse.
 
Instead of becoming a factor for social integration and cohesion, Bosnia’s public broadcasting system is a mirror of the country's instability and dysfunctionality.

The agreement between the broadcasters and Bosnia’s three telecom operators - which were collecting TV licence fees alongside people’s monthly phone bills - expired last year.

It was extended until this June to give Bosnia's governments and three broadcasters more time to find a new financial solution.

Faced with financial collapse, the three broadcasters last week reached a last-minute compromise on a new model of financing.

This envisages all Bosnian citizens paying TV taxes directly, a model used by many European countries.
 
A draft law on the public broadcasters has until June to be approved by the Council of Ministers, the Bosnian parliament, and then by the two entity governments and parliaments.

This agreement may offer a more sustainable model than the previous one, which faced growing difficulties.

However, it does not address other problems that have tarnished the work and reputation of the public broadcasters.

In addition to their financial problems, debates about the broadcasters in the last few weeks have been dominated by another issue.

This is a draft law put together by Bosnia's Ministry of Communication and Transport, which proposes reorganizing the public broadcasting system to include a third broadcaster, based in Mostar and broadcasting primarily for the country’s Croats.

The proposal has renewed debate about whether Bosnia should have ethnically divided broadcasters, with one station for each of the country’s main ethnic communities.

While many Bosnian Croats have been demanding this for years, local and international officials fear it would be a further step towards ethnic division within Bosnia.

Like many other public debates on heavily politicized and disputed issues, the debate is being waged more with bold statements than cool analysis or facts.
   
As long as this is so, the crisis in Bosnia's public broadcasting system will remain a metaphor for the slow disintegration of the country itself, which has long been undermined by rows over the constitution and ethnic national concepts as well as ongoing political crisis.

While quarrels drag on about models of financing and about the introduction of a new Croat public broadcaster, no one is mentioning the deeper issues, including legal, structural, political and professional deficiencies which have turned Bosnia's public broadcasters into dispensers of political, ethnic, social and cultural tensions.

Seeds of Bosnia's media mayhem:
 
The seeds of most of the problems that today haunt Bosnia’s media scene were built into the foundations of Bosnia's 1995 Dayton peace accord, which assigned most of the competencies in the communications sector, including the media, to the entity and cantonal governments.

Such a distribution of power in post-conflict, ethno-nationalized country led to the chaotic formation of the printing and broadcasting media.

In the first few years after the war, 46 TV terrestrial broadcasters, 148 radio stations and 86 other broadcasters operating “through other electronic communication networks” were registered.

Reforms to the broadcasting system in Bosnia started in 1998, when the international community called for the establishment of a single broadcasting system at state level as a condition for country's eventual EU membership.

By the end of 1998, the Office of the High Representative, OHR, was empowered to reform the media sector. By mid-1999, the OHR had established a Public Broadcasting Service of Bosnia and Herzegovina, BHRT, and two entity public broadcasters.
 
In the next few years, the OHR imposed more directives and laws to strengthen the role of BHRT, which was seen as potentially key factor in generating social cohesion among the three main ethnic groups.
 
Financial security never achieved:

The three broadcasters were supposed to satisfy the needs of all three ethnic groups, while the structure of employees in each of the three companies had to reflect ethnic and cultural diversity in the areas they covered.
 
Further OHR interventions in 2002 made each of the three public broadcasters an independent company responsible for its own financial affairs.
 
Broadcasters’ financial arrangements were supposed to be reinforced with the Amended Law on Broadcasting System of 2005, which stipulated that the broadcasting fee, collected through telecom operators, would be put in a joint account.

Fifty per cent of the revenue would be given to BHRT and 25 per cent each to the two entity broadcasters. This law also centralized advertising revenues, which were than divided according to the same formula.

The strategic objective of this mechanism was economic empowerment of BHRT, but Bosnia’s ethno-political elites systematically obstructed this, in their own way, from the start.

At the same time, Bosnian citizens - increasingly frustrated by the poor programs - started refusing to pay their TV contributions.

During its first year this system collected only about 63 per cent of planned revenues and in the coming years, while the income varied, it was always far below the required levels. This situation gradually impoverished the public broadcasters, especially BHTV, and nearly caused their financial collapse by the end of 2015.

Political influences and structural flaws:

Meanwhile, constitutional, legal and regulatory flaws as well as broader economic and social problems in both the country as well as in the broadcasters have created a situation where it was impossible to establish or maintain managerial or editorial media standards.

From the beginning, the public broadcasting system was managed by party political delegates through the broadcasters’ managing boards.
 
Managerial laymen were appointed to key managerial positions, while the Programme Council - which was supposed to comprise eminent representatives of society as the main consultative body for the program-profiling of broadcasting content - never came to life.

As a result, despite repeated international attempts to secure the independence of the public broadcasters, the two entity stations ended up being directly influenced by the political regimes that ruled the two entities, and switched political sides just as regimes changed.

In the case of the state broadcaster, it often reflected the weaknesses, confusion and polarization of the ruling coalitions.
    
The Communications Regulatory Agency, CRA, which was established to be responsible for media regulation, enforcement of rules and codes, professional conduct of broadcasters and the imposition of sanctions for deviations from professional principles, was also unable to escape political influence.
 
This political influence and systematic deficiencies resulted in a situation in which the work of public broadcasters failed to satisfy legal regulations as well as quality criteria.

Instead of quality cultural or educational programs, broadcasters often offered an abundance of biased news reports and cheap foreign soap operas. The same football games frequently ended up being simultaneously transmitted by all three broadcasters.

The broadcasters are also to blame:

The prolonged crisis and creeping economic collapse of Bosnia's public broadcasters cannot be solely attributed to the Dayton Agreement or to the political elites and their nationalist policies.  A major part of responsibility belongs also to the incompetent and corrupt managements of the broadcasting companies.
 
Despite ample financial, technical and professional assistance from the international community, Bosnia’s public broadcasters have done almost nothing to develop their own mechanisms to collect broadcasting subscriptions and generate commercial revenues from advertising, sales of programs and production services.
 
Significant savings could have been achieved also on the basis of program exchanges between the broadcasters while the technical and technological base could have been rebuilt by compensation deals with European and other funds, grants, or favourable development loans.

Additional savings, as well as improvements in broadcasters' performance and quality of their programs could have been achieved had the broadcasters been willing to address problems about the excessive workforce as well as about the non-transparent private contracts awarded to private production companies.

Like many other public companies in Bosnia, the public broadcasters became home for hundreds if not thousands of unnecessary workers, who were often employed in line with political or personal connections.

In addition, all three companies developed the habit of outsourcing much of the production to private companies, although they had ample capacity to do the job themselves. This became one of the favourite ways of redirecting the funds to the pockets of the managers and their close friends.

The demand for a Croat channel:

While public debate on this issue intensified over the past few weeks, as the state ministry prepares the disputed draft law, it has so far brought nothing new.

Bosnian Croat leaders launched the initiative for a separate Croat channel at the time of the breakup of former Yugoslavia and have long used this theme to score points and portray themselves as protectors of Croat national interests.

In fact, Bosnian Croat politicians and tycoons could have established a private Croat TV channel whenever they wanted to, but they never showed any real interest.

A number of private TV stations started over the past 20 years in Croat-dominated areas and broadcasted programs oriented exclusively towards the Croat community. However, most of these TV stations eventually closed due to lack of funds. The Bosnian Croat politicians and tycoons ignored their cries for help.  

Meanwhile, Bosniak leaders steadfastly reject the idea of a Croat TV channel, claiming it would lead to creation of the third Croat entity, although they have never explained why the establishment of a public TV station would lead to such major changes in Bosnia’s constitutional order.

Looking at the experiences of other ethnically, culturally and linguistically mixed European countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium or even Macedonia, the request for a station that would better fit Croat cultural needs appears legitimate.

In Belgium, three ethnicities live in three federal units: Flanders, Wallonia and the capital of Brussels. There are also three different constituent linguistic communities, Walloon, Flemish and German. Each has its own legislature and executive administration, and the Belgian broadcasting system is organized in a similar way.

It has ethnically divided management, separate buildings and completely independent broadcasting services in the languages of the constituent nations.

Switzerland and even Macedonia are similar. The establishment of separate public broadcasters in Macedonian and Albanian formed part of the 2011 Ohrid peace agreement that ended Macedonia’s ethnic conflict.

Even the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, is subdivided into national entities - BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and BBC Ulster - as well as linguistic sections. Thus, there is a tiny BBC channel just for the 50,000 or so speakers of Scottish Gaelic, and a much bigger channel for the Welsh language community.

These and other similar arrangements in ethnically mixed European countries, such as Italy, Spain and Britain, show that ethnic groups have full right to request - and receive - better protection of their cultural rights.

However, some argue that this is not really the focus of the Bosnian Croat requests for a Croat TV channel. Some conclude that this, like many other politicized issues in Bosnia, is not about providing better services for people, but is an excuse to preserve ethnic tensions in the country, since they are the simplest way for local national political elites to remain in power.

Instead of debating whether Croats have the right to have their own TV channel, or whether Bosniaks should allow it or not, the public would be better off debating the real issues: how to organize the entire public broadcasting system to provide better programs for less money.

That might finally help bring the people of Bosnia closer together rather than pushing them apart.


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