Television wars

Traditional diplomacy has ignored the power of the media to exacerbate conflict. But a new sort of diplomacy is taking shape which is trying to harness it to the cause of peacemaking. Michael Maclay recounts lessons learnt during the efforts to rebuild a liberal television culture in Bosnia
November 20, 1997

There was one gaping hole in the Dayton agreement which ended the Bosnian war in 1995: media. There was a long military annex. There were annexes on elections, refugees and human rights. There was even an annex on national monuments. But for an international treaty drawn up under enormous pressure from the media in what is supposedly the age of CNN diplomacy, the lack of attention to media seems an odd omission.

There was much else one could criticise in the hastily drafted agreement, notably the gap between the goals it sketched out and the means it provided for achieving them. But as a blunt tool to end the war through intervention by foreign troops and then to hand back responsibility for making peace to the Bosnians, Dayton was not bad. The agreement made peace possible although certainly not inevitable.

But it was an agreement of traditional diplomacy, drafted by outsiders who did not understand-or could not address-the huge role which newspapers, radio and, most significant, television had played in creating war in the first place. Much of the period since Dayton was signed has been spent trying to write that media annex into the agreement retrospectively. The fact that Nato troops are now taking possession of television stations-with their return conditional on editorial performance-shows how far we have come. And the international community's political representative in Bosnia-the Office of the High Representative (OHR)-has created a revolution in international mediation by setting up a national television network and supplying political programming to state broadcasters.

At the time of Dayton, many journalists saw the urgent need to cajole the media into serving as an instrument of reconciliation and peace rather than of prejudice and division. They were perhaps more acutely aware than the negotiators of how at every turn in the spiral of collapse in ex-Yugoslavia, the media had nudged the constituent peoples towards mutual distrust and eventually hatred. From the late 1980s, when Slobodan Milosevic consolidated his power base by stirring up the Serbs against the people of Kosovo, state television became his most potent weapon. Franjo Tudjman in Croatia inspired a similar media campaign of intolerance, initially against the Serbs and later against the Muslims.

In Bosnia itself more than anywhere in Yugoslavia, the media had been liberal and multicultural, reflecting the cosmopolitan character of Sarajevo. But Bosnia, too, succumbed. Partly this was because, away from the urban centres, patterns of settlement in the countryside dated from mediaeval times, with Muslim villages alternating, in different parts of the country, with Serb and Croat villages. With the discrediting of communism, people became vulnerable to the new nationalisms as a means of assuring their physical security. The media played a central role in creating these nationalisms.

When, in the spring of 1992, the Serbs seized the transmitter on Mount Kozara in northern Bosnia it was with the intention of destroying Bosnia's non-sectarian national broadcasting tradition and replacing it with Bosnian Serb propaganda. An extreme and subsequently genocidal leadership broadcast stories which played on tribal memories of wartime atrocities and created nightmarish fears of the other ethnic groups. A group of Serbs told the US journalist Peter Maass early in the conflict why they had to leave their village. Serb radio had "revealed" Muslim plans to massacre all the Serb men in the village and split up the women into harems. The villagers Maass interviewed were decent enough people who said that they had only ever had good experiences with their Muslim neighbours. So how did they know the radio was telling the truth, Maass asked. The reply, chilling in its na?vety: "Why would the radio lie?"

As the war went on, it was probably inevitable that BiH TV, the national broadcaster, would become a propaganda mouthpiece for the Bosniac (Muslim) government in Sarajevo. But it never plunged to the depths of the Serbs and the Croats, who consciously used incitement to ethnic hatred as the driving force of their policies. To their credit, the Bosniacs also allowed a degree of pluralism on the Muslim side.

Nevertheless, the media landscape was bleak at the end of 1995. Most of the talent and experience, from all communities, had left Bosnia; the average age of a journalist was 21. Apart from the independent stations mainly in Bosniac areas, the country was dominated by the three monolithic "state" broadcasters: BiH TV (mainly Muslim), SRT Republika Srpska TV in Pale (Serb), and HRT, the offshoot of Croat television in the west of the country. Each broadcaster operated to a political prospectus under media apparatchiks; each employed the rhetoric of war, depicting other groups as alien aggressors. If ever there was a case for the wholesale restructuring of a country's media, this was it. Had Dayton been a prospectus for rebuilding Bosnia, it would have offered a superb opportunity to engage the talent, experience and idealism of the western media which had followed the conflict with such commitment.

But Dayton did not establish a protectorate as the Allied administration had done in Germany after the war, where the British and the Americans played an important part in reviving a free media. It did establish a huge military operation in the shape of the Nato-led implementation force (Ifor), whose professionalism and weaponry were as impressive as their rules of engagement were restrictive. Their purpose was to act as a deterrent, only rarely to intervene.

The civilian agencies created by Dayton were more disparate and had to develop their own mandates and rules of operation. The OHR led by Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister, was responsible for dealing with the previously warring parties and co-ordinating international agencies such as the OSCE (charged with organising elections in Bosnia), the UN, the World Bank and the EU.

When it came to media, there were two tasks. The "positive" one was to build up local, independent broadcasters and publications, to encourage international financial assistance and training. The other, "negative" one was to monitor, to seek to correct and if necessary to punish behaviour seen as inconsistent with the peace treaty. There was next to nothing about either approach in Dayton; indeed the mandate to do anything at all was unclear.

Foreign interference with domestic broadcasting was bound to be controversial. It became even more so when we-I was then working as an adviser to Bildt-dreamt up the Open Broadcast Network (OBN), an attempt to create an independent television network serving all three communities in Bosnia. The proposal was drawn up in conjunction with the OSCE-which saw the media's potential for promoting free and fair elections-and the Open Society Foundation (OSF) set up by George Soros. An OSF feasibility study estimated that about $17.6m could provide the equipment, satellites and transmitters for an alternative television network covering most of Bosnia.

We planned to base the OBN on existing independent stations on the Bosniac side and to gradually develop partners in Serb and Croat territory. The idea-to bring together the three communities via the airwaves which had been used to blast them apart-was unimpeachable; what was dispiriting was the extraordinary difficulty we encountered in translating the project into reality. Before a penny had been raised or a programme schedule sketched out, headlines appeared in the Sarajevo papers attacking "Bildt television," a sinister colonialist $50m plan to wipe out domestic television. This complaint haunted our efforts over the next 18 months, although programming always remained in Bosnian hands.

Our decision to base the OBN on the small independents in the main Bosniac cities was probably right, but we made further enemies in the process. The five stations we chose had shown courage during the war in offering independent views, in spite of political compromises they sometimes had to make with the authorities. Hardly legal according to the old Yugoslav media laws, they were an easy target for the government when it turned against them. Senior politicians vilified them to us as front organisations or money-launderers. In Bosnia, people do not dole out criticism by halves.

Our problem with the independents themselves was different. They had a range of talent-from the sophisticated cultural world-view of Studio 99 to the commercial Islamic approach of TV Hayat to the pro-ruling party activism of RTV Mostar-but they could not work together. After initial agreement to rotate the position of editor-in-chief between the stations, they failed to produce a programme schedule. We brokered an agreement to subcontract the vital news operation to a group of Bosnia's best journalists led by Boro Kontic, a Sarajevo Serb working for the Soros Foundation. At the eleventh hour Kontic and his team were vetoed by the Muslim stations. We had a trial of strength which we could not at that stage win-we depended on the stations for the frequencies on which the OBN was to broadcast.

In order to make the network a reality, the OHR had to get tough: we imposed a draconian regulation under the OSCE's election rules, which overrode all state and local laws. Without it the OBN would never have happened. Only by threatening with the big stick were we able to clear the ground for any semblance of freedom of choice.

The network was launched in September 1996, a hurried and modest start with a halfway respectable news programme, a live Tina Turner concert and donated international films. The rivalry between the stations continued-over resources, editorial language and content. One Muslim station insisted that Bosnian Serbs should be called "aggressors" and "chetniks"-a term of abuse from the second world war. Many of these disputes were unavoidable, but they underlined to us the impossibility of handing over full management control. The OBN also needed the support of us "internationals" to protect it from the hostile governments in all three parts of Bosnia.

Unfortunately, the international agencies themselves did not always work together. Officials from different parts of the OSCE empire campaigned against each other around Sarajevo, alternately bad-mouthing and taking credit for the OBN. At one stage they tried to take over the project with the support of elements in the US State Department, to the horror of the international funders and to the delight of government ministers.

The OHR was meanwhile left to raise the $10.2m required to keep OBN on the air (after the project was scaled back to take account of the non-co-operation of the Bosnian authorities). We had two months to bully, charm and cajole the funds out of a long list of governments which were used to taking years rather than weeks to approve funding on this scale.

We managed it-just. By early 1997 the programmes-including the most unbiased news coverage in Bosnia and good discussion programmes and features-were reaching most of the Muslim-Croat Federation as well as Banja Luka, the biggest city in Republika Srpska. The donors agreed to pay for the second phase to extend the signal further, on condition that OHR took responsibility for daily management. Until then, management had been rather chaotically shared between various organisations. A British manager, Mike Challenger, cleaned up the financial and organisational mess and began searching for a Bosnian to succeed him.

At the time of writing the network has celebrated its first anniversary, a new Bosnian chief executive is in place, and the network is being given a "relaunch." The future success of the network is in Bosnian hands, as was always intended. But it would not be there at all but for a certain, almost neo-colonial, ruthlessness on the part of the OHR.

What about the more "negative" task of censoring unacceptable propaganda from the three main broadcasters? Again, only the OSCE had a formal mandate in election-related matters. They set up a rather unconvincing Media Experts Commission, which failed to stop a torrent of poisonous propaganda in the September 1996 election campaign. SRT, the Bosnian Serb station, once more broadcast monstrous stories of Muslim plans to massacre Serb villagers and HRT ran scurrilous accounts of Muslim atrocities against Croats in Mostar and beyond.

But the dithering over enforcement of censorship rules suddenly came to an end at the Nato summit in Portugal in May 1997. The OHR slipped into the communiqu?, with British and US support, a provision for the high representative to have direct access to television and radio. He was also given the right to close down television stations which were not acting according to the letter and spirit of Dayton. Initially, this was seen as yet another set of fine words. It turned out to be more.

The first test was the rather mild demand that Carl Bildt be allowed to broadcast a farewell message on leaving Bosnia in mid-June 1997. It was to go out simultaneously on each of the main networks, including SRT. To our surprise SRT did as requested, following the usual routine of polite refusals, endless cups of Greek coffee under icons of Serb patriarchs and responsible ministers being unreachable. But a precedent had been established.

Under Carlos Westendorp, Bildt's successor, things got serious. When Biljana Plavsic, the president of Republika Srpska, began battling with indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic-still pulling the strings in the Serb part of Bosnia-she knew that the key to her survival was access to the media. SRT in Pale-still in Karadzic's pocket-broadcast insulting comments about Plavsic, coupled with offensive remarks about the international mediators who were supporting her efforts to implement the Dayton agreement. OHR did manage to secure for her the occasional interview on SRT, but the surrounding commentaries undermined her credibility with most Serbs. However, Plavsic's adversaries went too far when they edited film of Nato tanks into grainy old footage of Nazi tanks combined with inflammatory threats against the international agencies. This was too much even for the most doctrinaire opponents of "mission creep" in Nato.

In a series of violent incidents in the northern part of Republika Srpska, troops of the renamed Nato stabilisation force (SFOR) took possession of a vital transmitter which had been broadcasting Pale's propaganda. They returned it to the Pale authorities under the Udrigovo agreement, which not only told them to stop abusing Plavsic, but also gave the OHR the task of putting together one hour of programming each night on current themes. The OHR are now commissioning a mass of material from Bosnian and international sources, including the OBN, to combat the tide of prejudice.

In early October, SRT again pushed its luck too far. It doctored a news item to suggest that Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor at the International War Crimes tribunal at The Hague, had said that no Serb would ever be given a fair trial for war crimes. The response was swift and overwhelming. SFOR troops occupied four se-parate transmitters in as many hours, and made it clear that this time they would be returned only if there were clear improvements in SRT's editorial output. SRT's belated attempts to apologise were brushed aside.

Nato has come a long way since the (recent) days when generals dismissed out of hand the idea that soldiers' lives should be risked for the sake of a television bulletin. The danger now is rather the reverse-that SFOR will be prodded so far by its political patrons, mainly in the US, that television will be used too obviously as a tool in favour of one side against another.

On the other hand if Bosnia is left in its present state of limbo, its traumas unresolved, Dayton could turn out to have been a hollow victory-as incomplete as the humbling of Saddam Hussein who now holds his head high, years after the Gulf war.

For Bosnia, a little more courage and institutional innovation six years ago might have warded off the horrors which were visited upon its peoples. For the potential Bosnias of the future, it is vital that the lessons of the conflict are learnt. The media are no longer a sideshow in diplomacy, but need to be a central part of conflict prevention and resolution. They also need to be paid for. Dealing with media is a subtle and painstaking business-international agencies must get the balance right between knowing when to be ruthless, and when to hand the script-writing back to the people to whom it really belongs.

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the BBC World Service played an important role in the endgame of the cold war. That demanded courage, persistence and expenditure. But it was part of a one-dimensional game. We have now stumbled on new weapons for the diplomatic armouries of the future, in the more complex, and messier, battlefields of post-communist Europe. We have some way to go in learning how to use them.