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Fear of Politics

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Boro Kontić, the Director of Mediacentre Sarajevo, in an editorial written for the Novinarstvo Magazine of the Mediacentre, provoked by the media coverage of last week's social rebelion in BiH, writes about the pervasive control that politics have over the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (The original, in BHS, is available on the website of MC's Novinarstvo Magazine).

“Who can say what is true and what is newspaper talk” - S.S. Kranjčević
 
Back in the days (‘twas just after Dayton), I asked Charles Crawford, the British Ambassador at the time: What, based on his Bosnian experience, was the main difference between local and European media? He answered without hesitation or diplomatic circumlocution: “Unlike Western Europe, where politicians fear the public and the media, you got the opposite. Here, the public fears the politics, a situation that is supported by the media”.

Illustration borrowed from www.media.baIllustration taken from www.media.ba
 
A lot of time has passed since Dayton and Crawford made his lapidary definition and I felt (or imagined?) that things may be changing. That they moved for the better. That I could tell Mr. Crawford, should I ever meet him again: We are not what we were, either. If there ever was hope, it was dispersed by the devastating picture. The media here remain stuck in the deep shadow cast by politics.
 
Let me try and illustrate:
 
The Mother of All Cantons
 
On Friday afternoon (February 7, 2014) I turned on the TV on the channel of Cantonal TV Sarajevo. The event was of national importance and magnitude, but the Cantonal TV was geographically closest to it. So, what did I see and learn?
 
I was a reporter on the street, she didn't have the exact information but her accusations against hooligans were quite exact. At the same time, one cameramen had just arrived from the battlefield and played unedited footage depicting youths who were pushed from the quay wall into Miljacka’s river bed. One of them was obviously down on the ground. A group of people, in a gesture of solidarity, gathered around him. Others tried to climb up the stone wall of the riverbank. Two of them were in the actual river.
 
We were not told what was the reason behind what we see. Why were they there, what happened to the one on the ground? Was he hurt?... There were no answers to the obvious questions. The verbal tirade of the reporter suggested the situation was chaotic. And then, in the manner of sub-par teachers programmed to work only with straight A students, she repeated that word: hooligans! They, apparently, were hooligans. And hooligans, I guess, belong in Miljacka river. That is my understanding, led by the pictures I saw and comments I heard.
 
One needed much stronger constitution for what followed. The anchor talked to the director of the state hospital. He was courteous beyond belief, sucking up to the collocutor, it was a verbal "lace" that said nothing but left an impression of being in awe of the guest... If you wanted to show journalism students the die-hard remains of subservient mentality, so fatal for the profession, there they were! A beautiful illustration, a cynic would say, in the manner of a doctor that has the chance to present a nasty cancer to the students.
 
The said hospital director is married, full disclosure now, to a member of BiH Presidency. The anchor was all gratitude and subservience. It seemed that he didn't even consider the possibility that all the viewers wanted to know was the number of injured, the seriousness of the wounds, the holding capacities of the hospital. Was there a phone number for the relatives worried senseless to find the information they needed?
 
Jasmila and Nikšić
 
The golden rule that every public statement may be subject to public test and comments fails in many aspects but, thanks God, got observed in the now famous "Jasmila Žbanić - the Archives" case. An avalanche of accusations and outrage followed. It is desirable, it is mandatory actually to check and test any information through a process of public debate. By the way, it is good that nobody seemed impressed by the fact that she is a person known in the world, person that put BiH on the film map of the world with her work. Isn’t that success worth our praise?
 
The question is, why the public in BiH doesn't use the same criteria to judge both the most and the least successful? How it could happen that the prime minister of the Federation Nermin Nikšić could twice present suspicious, to say the least, information and his statements are not given even similar treatment as the statement of a film director. At the press conference he gave on the first night of the protests, in the manner of an insolent yet serious doorman, he started with the police officer who was fighting for his life, information that later totally disappeared from public. Last Thursday evening, however, it did achieve its purpose, to present the protesters as hooligans, a mob and potential murderers. Why the media didn’t check and test prime minister’s statements thoroughly? Those were not opinions, those presented facts. And checking the facts is the fundamental task of this profession. Commentary is warranted only if we have established facts. Nikšić’s misinformation on the drugs found with some protesters met a reaction of a kind, but the question remains: If there are hooligans, how comes there are no liers?
 
Don’t Interrupt Me
 
The President of the Presidency Željko Komšić immediately warned the anchor of Sunday’s News of the Federal TV, almost threatening her, not to interrupt him while he speaks. She should have, I guess, responded: “You can do that at your party's meeting. On the public television, you come to answer questions, not to give speeches". It should be said that the anchor kept good control over a demanding programme, but that is, in fact, the model how politicians would prefer to treat the media.
 
It was in the same newscast, in a story from Sunday's protests demanding that arrested are released from custody, one person just released from jail was almost denied any opportunity to say what happened to him. He got a couple of seconds and it was possible to learn about the police torture he was subjected to over the previous two days only from the other media.
 
So, public media can't interrupt politicians, but they can always cut the statement given by a 17-year old boy for whom that will be the first lesson about the media and the society he lives in. It was him that should have appeared in the News. Let us see him. Let us see the face of the person responsible for everything that transpired. Let us hear what hooligans have to say.

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