Hatemongers ousted, Bosnia media rallies

After 10 years and $90 million in aid, news production is becoming more professional.

On a recent morning in downtown Sarajevo, an American editor questioned two Bosnian journalists on the status of their projects.

When Eldina Pleho explains that she's given her latest report to a colleague for a read through, editor Donald Pine approves.

"That's a good idea - to have someone read your summary and try to poke holes in it," he says.

Peer review is not a radical concept in journalism. But here at Sarajevo's Center for Investigative Journalism, it's a welcome sign of improvement.

After 10 years, Bosnian journalism has clearly improved from its low point during the 1992-1995 war - a time when hate speech and outright lies from the politically controlled media set the stage for the appalling violence and atrocities that marked the conflict here.

Still, standards remain low, so groups like the Center for Investigative Journalism are working to introduce long-term changes to how the news is covered. To that end, the center is focused on using its small budget - $1.8 million over three years - to turn its fellows into hard-nosed writers and editors.

The Center's efficient, results-oriented approach is in sharp contrast to the ad hoc manner in which foreign governments and organizations have spent more than $90 million on media aid since the war ended.

Foreigners that took over Bosnia in peacetime reckoned that press reform complemented their efforts to build a democracy from Bosnia's ruins. In the years that followed, some governments and organizations opened journalism schools while countless more donated cash and equipment to television studios and media outlets.

Not all the money has been well spent. The failed effort to establish nonnationalist news network is a primary example.

The Open Broadcast Network (OBN) was supposed to have been a country-wide alternative to politically controlled TV stations in the run-up to Bosnia's first election in 1996. But even though $10 million was spent to get it up and running before the first elections, it didn't go on the air until a week before the poll.

Major donors pulled out, and the network's domestic credibility suffered because of its foreign money and managers. After spending more than $20 million on the station, foreigners threw in the towel. OBN is today owned by a Croatian network and offers a heavy dose of fluffy reality TV.

Other efforts at reform have been more successful. The $19 million spent between 1998 and 2002 on Bosnia's version of the United States Federal Communications Commission has helped remove the hatemongers from the airwaves. It's also reduced the postwar glut of broadcasters. A Bosnian-driven group of five television stations have banded together to buy programming and the only country-wide newspaper. All are reportedly in the black.

But standards are still low. The regurgitation of press conferences too often passes for news. Factual articles are full of editorializing and often have few or no sources.

Besides hurting the newspaper business, the low standards aren't keeping Bosnians informed. The practice of assigning court stories to whichever reporter has time could spell disaster as Bosnia's state court begins war-crimes trials this year. To halt this practice, the Sarajevo office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting is introducing the concept of a court reporter at their training series for editors this spring.

It's all a work in progress. Already sounding like tough-minded editors, the six Bosnian journalists at the center rattle off advice they'd give to future members of their team.

"If you leave at 5 o'clock, you have to take your laptop home," says one.

"This job is eight days a week, 24 hours a day," says another.

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