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Edward Ferguson

British Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Part of UK in Bosnia and Herzegovina

5th December 2014


Next Wednesday is the 64th World Human Rights Day. While Bosnia and Herzegovina has achieved important progress in a number of areas, it still has a long way to go to provide all of its citizens with their basic rights and dignities. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is the right to freedom of expression. This is particularly important as it is through public availability of information, and the right to hold and express opinions, that governments can be held to account for success or failure.

I recently visited Tacno.net – a small group of people who run an internet portal dedicated to promoting tolerance and diversity. Tacno.net operates out of the kitchen in one of its journalist’s apartments in a back street in Mostar. This isn’t just about cost saving. It’s also about keeping a low profile. Threats are a daily occurrence. One lady was once physically assaulted, along with her husband. And their portal is regularly subjected to cyber attacks. And yet they soldier on, convinced – rightly – in the importance of their work.

This is not an isolated example. Attacks on independent media – physical as well as political – are commonplace here, and have been recorded against media outlets including Slobodna Bosna, Buka and Dani. Journalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be a dangerous business. And just yesterday, we saw pressure being put on journalists from Klix to reveal their sources over the alleged recording of RS Prime Minister Cvijanović. Against this background, it’s no surprise that journalists who work objectively and forensically to identify and expose incompetence and corruption are a rare breed. The Centre for Investigative Journalism, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, is fighting for the freedom and independence of the media. The OSCE plays an important role in highlighting abuses. The British Embassy, like several of our international partners, runs a number of projects supporting independent media and the publication of objective data by civil society organisations in order better to inform the public. But it’s an uphill struggle.

The recent election campaign showed clearly the scale of the problem. Of course, it’s not unusual for newspapers to align themselves with political parties. It happens in the UK. But here, it’s taken to the extremes, with a number of major newspapers acting almost as daily electoral leaflets for their preferred parties.

The partiality of commercially-run newspapers is one thing. But it’s quite another when taxpayer-funded, state television takes the same approach. We British take huge pride in the BBC. While we occasionally moan about ‘dumbing down’, its balanced reporting means that it is respected worldwide as an objective source of news. The BBC’s editorial guidelines emphasise the importance of securing the public’s trust through the highest standards of accuracy and impartiality. It seeks to inform, rather than to influence. But in the recent elections, while the OSCE’s observation mission found that BHRT and FTV adopted a “generally neutral” tone – a positive development in the case of FTV, which has in the past been widely seen as subject to political influence – they concluded that TV RTRS demonstrated “clear bias” in support of the President and Government of Republika Srpska. Tax payer-funded media should be, and should be seen to be, politically impartial, whether in the appointment of senior staff or in the balance of their programmes.

Freedom of the media is an essential pre-requisite for membership of the European Union. The media, civil society and the judiciary – together with Parliament – should together provide robust scrutiny of the government of the day. If that makes politicians nervous, then good – that’s what it’s meant to do. The job of the media is to act not as an extension of political parties, but as guardians of the public interest – a phrase that is over-used in the UK, but which hardly features here. Public analysis, comment and debate are an essential part of a normal functioning democracy, which means that they are part of the core values of the EU. That’s why we condemn any attempts to intimidate or suppress the media, or other alternative voices.

In any event, the current, controlling approach clearly isn’t working for the politicians. According to a recent study by Gallup, BiH’s government has the worst popularity rating in the world, and the second highest public perceptions of corruption. Social media provides a forum outside the control of politicians where information can be exchanged, and real discussions can take place. That’s why I’m on Twitter, and that’s why I started this blog. But what this country really needs is better quality journalism that is genuinely independent from political pressure. Freeing up the media – and cracking down hard on those who threaten this freedom – would be an important, symbolic act by the new government that would help to accelerate Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European path, and would send a strong message that it is ready to be judged on its results.

4 comments on “FREEDOM OF THE MEDIA

  1. Your Excellency,

    Hear, hear!

    It is as if I have written this article. The fact is, the media today in Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the contributors to the socio-economic situation in the country. A Dnevni Avaz reader, for example, is fed with lies against opponents of the SBB Party. Therefore, that reader is most likely to elect a SBB candidate in the elections – who would most likely be as corrupt as someone from the SDA or HDZ Parties. The cycle goes on, and so on…

    Here in Australia, for example, newspapers are either left-wing, centre-right or even right, and not pro-Labor Party or pro-Liberal Party of Australia. That’s the key difference!

    Great blog! Keep it up.

    1. Thanks Ahmed. As you say, you have to go out of your way to find a genuinely independent source of news in BiH, but they do exist – both in print and online. Civil society and the government needs to protect and preserve that space for receiving, sharing and debating opinions and ideas, without trying to constrain or control it. That’s why so many concerns have been expressed, by the OSCE, the EU and others, about the vagueness and subjectivity of the wording of the revised RS Law on Public Order and Peace, which includes the offence of “insulting another person on political, religious or ethnic grounds” including via “the Internet or web environment.” No clear explanation or justification has been given by the RS Government for these changes, and so it is not clear that the new law is compatible with previous rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that any constraints on freedom of expression must be proportionate, strictly defined and clearly justified.

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