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For Usual Suspects Declining Independent Media Part Of The Plan

An article of faith among adherents to democratic principles is the significance of an independent public broadcasting service. Even commercial competitors, broadcasting and otherwise, accept, however tepidly, that public broadcasters lift the media market creatively and economically. None of that matters to the recently risen illiberal dictators and oligarchs. The consequence has unleashed a return to State broadcasting, easier on the populist ears and eyes.

5 alarmAn international conference of very serious people met for two days in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) earlier this month to put forward recommendations to “rescue” public broadcaster Radio and Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHRT - Radio televizija Bosne i Hercegovine). For several years the same serious people have been sounding one alarm after another. BHRT needs money, and fast.

BHRT provides one national radio channel and one national TV channel in BiH and serves as a financial umbrella for two independent regional public broadcasters with distinct ethnic alignment; RTVFBiH in the Bosniak/Croat dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and RTRS in the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska. Fighting over money and influence for a decade, the two regions have effectively stalled any solutions for BHRT. The politics of ethnic rivalry is everywhere in BiH.

"All alarm bells are ringing," said BHRT General Manager Belmin Karamehmedovic, quoted by (June 13). "At the moment, we don't have any model of financing. We need quick solutions to survive. It's literally a matter of days.” He explained that one of two BiH telecoms that add the household license fee to telephone bills will no longer provide that service at the end of June.

"I would like this conference to be marked by saving our public broadcaster, but we are aware that this is a point with no return,” said BiH Minister of Communications and Transport Ismir Jusko in opening remarks. “From the beginning, the Ministry’s commitment is clear: we are partners of BHRT.”

“Strong public service media is essential for the social, democratic and economic wellbeing of the country,” said outgoing European Broadcasting Union (EBU) director general Ingrid Deltenre in an opening statement. (See EBU statement here) The EBU, trade body for European public broadcasters, has been in the thick of BHRT’s troubles for years, up to and including withholding services for non-payment of membership fees. At the conclusion of the conference, Ms Deltenre was “encouraged” by the participation and threw the ball “to the political leadership of BiH to implement the recommendations that were jointly formulated by participants at the event.”

Those recommendations included an immediate cash injection to “prevent the threat of closure,” insuring editorial independence and getting BHRT and the two not-quite subordinate regional broadcasters to the the negotiating table. European Parliament representative Christian Preda drew a red line: ““To put it simply, the idea of a future member state of the EU without public service media is unthinkable. It is as much an issue of European law as it is an issue pertaining to the democratic character of the country.”

Clearly, the signs for BHRT are not good. A meeting of the BiH Board of Public Service Broadcasting failed this past week for lack of quorum, reported news portal (June 22). The member representing Republika Srpska - not to be confused with the Republic of Serbia, a separate country - was a no-show. Meant to harmonize policies of the three public broadcasters, the Board has failed to meet a quorum for three years.

Resistance of Republika Srpska leaders to “strengthening state institutions” remains a leading drawback to media development in BiH, reported the IREX 2017 Media Sustainability Index released this month. It’s overall score for BiH continues to drift lower - “unsustainable mixed system,” meaning only minimal objectives are met. “RTRS has been criticized for political bias, while BHRT is considered the most balanced among the three broadcasters.”

The weakest of the five IREX objectives is business management. As advertising revenues in BiH continue to fall, media operators are increasingly dependent on the “few remaining sources of revenue, including political actors.” The household license fee, the primary revenue source for public broadcasters, has all but dried up. largely through political resistance to a sustainable collection model. “BHRT is particularly suffering, with unprecedented financial troubles jeopardizing even reduced production,” said the IREX report. “The station cannot be sustained much longer if the problem is not solved promptly.“

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