Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years post-Dayton (9/12) : The fragile resilience of independent media


After Dayton, independent media enjoyed a windfall of international aid before eventually being left to fend for itself. Since then, those media outlets have been trying to survive despite the crisis in a landscape dominated by nationalists, local oligarchs, and their mafia-state interests. A two-sided analysis by Boro Kontić and Senad Pećanin.

This series is presented in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation

A quarter-century since the end of the war, the Courrier des Balkans has started series to examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s economy and politics, the social and environmental movements making their way through society, and the potential path to a brighter future. These articles will be accompanied by a two-day seminar on 2–3 December.


Recorded by Simon Rico | Translated by Clarissa Howe

Boro Kontić is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s best-known journalists. He has taught at the Sarajevo Mediacentar since its inception in April 1995 and is also a teaches for other training programs. After starting in radio, he moved to television to cover the 1992–95 war for Radio Slobodna Evropa. From 1994 to 2003, he was president of the Independent Union of BiH Journalists. His more than four decades of reporting have garnered him numerous international awards.

Senad Pećanin is the founder and former editor-in-chief of the Sarajevo-based magazine Dani. For many years, he has been a correspondent and contributor to multiple regional, European, and American media outlets. He has won a variety of prestigious awards for his journalism and human rights work, including the 1998 Olof Palme Prize. He is a former Harvard University Nieman Fellow and co-founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He became a lawyer in 2015 and operates a firm in Sarajevo.

Courrier des Balkans (CdB) : How did the Dayton Peace Accords affect news reporting in Bosnia and Herzegovina ? Were there any shifts in the media landscape after the war ?

Boro Kontić (B.K.) : Nothing dramatically changed after Dayton, except technology. Even today, twenty-five years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s media sector is still divided along ethno-national lines. The complex political system, harsh ethno-national rhetoric, and impossibilities of reaching agreements between the political parties halt democratic processes and developments in the media sector.

Senad Pećanin (S.P.) : The Dayton Accords allowed journalists to switch from war reporting to postwar reporting. Instead of reporting on the crimes, they could now report on the criminals – those who gave the orders and those who carried them out. It was especially dangerous for investigative journalists covering the crimes committed by members of “their” ethnic group. An even more difficult and dangerous phase started a few years later : investigating the mafia, organized crime, and corruption, which are closely tied to the ruling ethno-nationalist oligarchies. It’s paradoxical, but true : it was easier and less dangerous for journalists to investigate war crimes than to investigate nationalist oligarch-linked organized crime. Being a professional investigative journalist today takes courage, incorruptibility, rich professional experience, and material resources – all of which are cruelly lacking in the Bosnian media nowadays.

CdB : What audience do media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina target, their own ethnic group or the country as a whole ?

B.K. : There is media coverage for the whole country, including public TV, a very developed cable system, and hundreds of online media sources, but their audiences are mostly divided along ethno-national and political lines and most citizens follow the media of their ethno-national group. Audiences mostly rely on media sources associated with their group and disregard facts that do not fit into their personal views or the views of their group.

S.P : The vast majority of media outlets mainly target the majority group of the area where they are based. As a rule, the media is either closely connected to the ruling nationalist, criminal, and corrupt political oligarchs, or it is a source of influence for criminal tycoons who themselves are in cahoots with the nationalist authorities. There are a few rare exceptions, though, such as FACE TV, an independent channel that has managed to break through the country’s divisions.

CdB : After the war, the Bosnian media received a great deal of international support. How did that work out in your opinion ?

B.K. : International support was huge and dominant in the decade after the war. I direct the Sarajevo Mediacentar which was completely built and run on international donations as well as foreign know-how between 1995 and 2001. That helped us to build a strong organization, connect to the entire media world, and run complex projects through all these twenty-five years. That’s one side of the story. There were also many projects where international organizations spent millions but left no legacy. Some local journalists benefitted enormously from international scholarships and contacts, as it has always been throughout history. Some people took advantage of it, many of them just spent other taxpayers’ money.

S.P. : In the first phase, from the start of the war until 2001, the international community’s support for professional independent media was crucially important. The support took three forms : professional training for journalists, political protection offered by Western embassies and the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and substantial financial aid. Unfortunately, after that, aid to media whose work was deserving of support shrank considerably. In those conditions, some of the region’s best media outlets were unable to survive and either had to shut down or were sold off to shady businessmen. The markets being small with little potential and the pressure from the authorities and criminal interests being fierce meant that some outlets had to close (such as Split’s the Feral Tribune, the best weekly publication ever published in the former Yugoslavia, or the important Sarajevo paper Slobodna Bosna). Others were bought up and drained of their meaning by businessmen (as was the case of my magazine, Dani).

Unfortunately, it turns out that without international aid, it is almost impossible for independent media to exist in the former Yugoslavia. What had and continues to have huge, tragic consequences for every society in the region is international donors’ completely misguided obsession with media self-sustainability. In the current context, with the pressure from these criminal authorities, a disastrous economic situation, and a corrupt judiciary, self-sustainability has become an insurmountable hurdle. The tragedy is that the West couldn’t see that it would only take one-tenth of the aid they had previously agreed to in order to keep the best professional independent media outlets going.

The same amount of money spent in the region in just one month on roundtables, conferences, and workshops, each of which was more absurd and useless than the last, could have provided one year of vital funding to the region’s best publications, enough for them to survive. To be specific, it means that if one Western donor had been willing to pay about €100,000 annually to help Feral Tribune, Slobodna Bosna, or Dani, those papers would still be here today. They would still be playing the basic and vital role today that they did for so many years. It would have been the smartest and most productive investment in societies that today are victims of neofascism, nationalism, corruption, organized crime, and violations of fundamental human rights.

Sadly, Western donors did not have that kind of insight and the space was filled by donors from Russia, Turkey, and Arab countries. The growing role of the media outlets they support corresponds perfectly with the level of democracy in the above-mentioned donor countries. The biggest tragedy is that Western governments and donors still don’t understand that, without independent professional media, all of their enormous subsidies to civil society are basically pointless investments.

CdB : What are the main difficulties faced by Bosnian journalists ? Are they the same in the Federation as in Republika Srpska ?

B.K. : Yes, Bosnian journalists face the same problems and difficulties regardless of where they work. Primarily, I would say the issue is a lack of money. To give you an idea, annual advertising revenue for audiovisual media was just over 22 million euros in 2019. That sum has to be divided among 143 radio stations, 38 TV channels, and 61 other broadcasters, not to mention hundreds of online portals. Then there is the political and economic pressure that encourages self-censorship. The lack of resources hinders improvements in media quality in the country, especially given the challenges faced by the press with the emergence of new technology. Another one of the major challenges are the masses of false and misleading information spread not only by a horde of anonymous web portals but also by media professionals, either for financial or political aims. All of this taken together creates contempt for the media and heightens tensions that have been affecting Bosnian society since Dayton : there is also an outpouring of hate speech in the comments sections of online media and social networks.

S.P. : On the one hand, there’s journalists’ very fragile economic situation. Most of them don’t have either a pension plan or health insurance ; their income is unsteady and rarely more than 500 euros per month. On the other, those who work as professionals (meaning ethically, courageously, and responsibly) are under brutal pressure not only from the authorities and criminals, but also often from the owners of their media outlet. Recently, Oslobođenje, a once-prestigious Sarajevo daily paper, used the pandemic as an excuse to fire a dozen experienced journalists whose professionalism was no longer compatible with the editorial policy of the local baron who owns the paper. The situation is tough for media throughout the country, but there are in fact vast differences between the Federation and Republika Srpska. In Republika Srpska, all of the big media outlets, with the exception of BN Televizija, are completely controlled by Milorad Dodik’s criminal, nationalist regime. In the Bosniak-majority part of the Federation, the media landscape is much more varied and includes examples of excellent investigative journalism. On the other hand, in the Croat-majority part of the Federation, almost all of the media is under the absolute control of the criminal and nationalist ruling party, HDZ.

CdB : The mainstream media is controlled by businessmen and politicians ; you don’t often know who the real owners are. Is it still possible to get unbiased, independent news in Bosnia and Herzegovina in those conditions ?

B.K. : Definitely yes. Especially from portals and specialized media organizations with international funding. Some of them have uncovered numerous cases of corruption, human-rights violations, and civil liberty abuses but the various levels of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government rarely provide any response. Journalists and editors revealed that prosecutors in 2019 were less likely to launch inquiries into corruption, bribery, and conflicts of interest published by investigative journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

S.P. : The media outlets you can consider to be reliable news sources can be counted on one hand. It’s the television stations FACE TV and TV N1 and the news sites Žurnal, Klix, Tačno, and Info Radar.

CdB : Is there a place for investigative journalism in such a fragmented, divided, and impoverished country as Bosnia and Herzegovina ? As you know, those few investigative media and websites are still funded by international backers…

S.P. : The strategy of providing more-than-modest aid to the media is very bad ; it’s often counterproductive. It comes as a result of international backers not knowing the local media landscape and choosing local advisors that are incompetent and corrupt. Still, I have great admiration for the few colleagues of mine who, despite this unpromising and hostile atmosphere, stand up to the pressure and keep doing investigative journalism.

CdB : How do you see the future for young Bosnian journalists ?

S.P. : The outlook is pretty bleak. The vast majority of newsrooms don’t have anyone who can teach them about professional journalism. In fact, the only thing that most editors-in-chief could teach them is journalistic cowardice and how to spite the basic principles of journalism by unquestioningly following the criminal orders issued by the owners of the private media outlets and managers of the public ones.