Friday, June 4, 2010
Speech by Leon Willems, director of Free Press Unlimited

When it comes to the topic of this conference I would like to take you back to 1993 and make a small comparison with regards to the current situation. Many media actors and international observers describe the situation as alarming. First there is the growing number of attacks on journalists that is growing each year. This year already 23 attacks on journalists are reported. Some of them include death threats by people that hold office in the government or have responsible positions in the community. I would like to first distinguish four levels of relevant actors when it comes to protecting journalists in Bosnia. Those are the international community, local and regional government, the media themselves and the general audience including the civil society organizations. At the international level we can conclude that the international engagement with Bosnia is quickly evaporating. In 1993 Bosnia was at the heart of the debate for a better Europe. Now it is at most a country that is of interest to technocrats of the EU because of the pre-accession story. International political engagement with Bosnia is gone. But the international community continues to monitor the situation and is concerned and this is something that could be heightened to a higher level of attention and pushed to achieve more coordination. At the local and regional government level, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has the best legal and institutional framework and frameworks for professional and ethical standards for media and journalists are in place. This is due to the significant role of the international community in creating a law (Law on Protection against Defamation and Freedom of Access to Information) and the formation of media regulatory and self-regulatory bodies (Regulatory Agency for Communications and the Press Council). BiH is the only country in the region where the defamation is decriminalized (journalists can not be criminally sanctioned for their texts), and where the press council self-regulation system was introduced in print media. That is a big improvement vis-a-vis 1993 when local and regional lawmaking was absent and Bosnia was torn apart by pressures and conflict outside and inside Bosnia. But many of these good laws are not put in practice. Today the outside pressures are gone, Bosnia is torn apart from inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. And the media have become something of a battle ground. It is worrying that the current local leaders are not inherent nationalists and did not express ultranationalist views in much of their political career. They are portraying nationalist views for political gain and attain of keep hold of power. That presents dangerous precedents in the history of the last century in Europe. Local government has certainly a big role to play and it should improve on its ugly track record vis-à-vis the press. The media sector itself is something of a miracle. Since 1993, Free Press Unlimited (before: Press Now) was involved in more than 26 media projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of the support consisted of long term institution building for various media organizations, ranging from private media outlets, print media, radio and TV networks to public broadcasters; from media training institutes, journalist association and the press council to news agencies and online media platforms. Speaking concretely, we are still working intensely with BH Novinari and the Media Centar Sarajevo. We can proudly state that Free Press Unlimited was among the first to identify the independent media organizations that remained independent, survived the market challenges, and are alive and kicking within the Bosnian media landscape today. So there is an independent media sector and it is more than capable of holding its own. But there are problems there too. I was challenged by some of being romantic when defending the traditional professional values of independent journalism. There is fatigue and this is something you personally, one by one, are the only ones who can do something about it. Let me tell you right now, to uphold independent journalism is maybe romantic but there is no bigger issue in journalism than that. Independence is the only reason why the public can trust you, quality is something without which journalism cannot do or it simply ceases to exist. I leave the discussion to you what you as journalists and media can do. As it is principally your business, you have to take ownership of the problem, individually and collectively. Which brings me to the general public, your audiences. Many of you tend to think this is a crowd that can be easily manipulated, prefers to vote for nationalistic parties and cannot be trusted to take relevant decisions for the future of country. An interesting research carried out by UNDP indicated that the public in Bosnia-Herzegovina today, compared to the pre-war situation, has extremely limited circles of trust. People do not trust each other. In the media, they do not dare to express freely their genuine opinions, but rather stay within the “safe” boundaries of ethnic consensus. In other words, the public arena itself is not a trusted arena. The research concluded that people hide their true feelings, which are much more forgiving, much more altruistic, much more interested in the wellbeing of all. But they do not trust to express these views. Now that seems to me to be a challenge for the media. How can the general audiences be engaged again to express their true feelings? That would be a lengthy and difficult debate, which the media sector itself should encourage. Now you are hiding in self-censorship and the dungeons of political correctness. You will dig your own grave, when continuing that attitude. So I advise you to get out of the dungeon, no matter how difficult the debate is. It seems to me that without the general audiences acknowledging the importance of trustworthy and relevant media, there is no future. So that is at least something where new openings should be searched, finding new and innovative ways to engage the audience with relevant issues, including the issue of threats to journalists. It is inconceivable to me that journalists would not stand for each other’s safety and the ability to report freely. Remember that if you are indifferent to your colleague, chances are that he or she is indifferent to you as well. So there is a lot that can be done by you yourself. But also on the other three levels, acute and immediate action is required. Which is why I call upon the international community to reengage with Bosnia, especially but not only for the sake of the media sector. An ugly logic in international politics is that the number of deaths determines the sexiness of political engagement with a country. Let us call on the Europeans, for the sake of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its recent history, to prevent that from happening. Let me finalize by thanking the organizers of the conference, Media Centar Sarajevo,the Press Council, the regulatory agency CRA and most importantly, BH Novinari and director Borka Rudic. The original idea for this conference came a year ago when the late Hans Verploeg (representing the Free Voice organization, our colleagues of media development in the Netherlands ) visited Bosnia. Hans’ experience was crucial in helping to draft a system of early warning for The Free Media Help Line of BH Novinari. He will be dearly missed.  

On the picture from left to right: Milkica  Milojevic, Head of the BH Journalists Board, Borka Rudic, General Secretary of the BH Journalists, Zoran Djukanovic, Free Press Unlimited programme coordinator and Leon Willems, Free Press Unlimited director.