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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

A Harsh Landscape for Journalism   

The lofty ideals of the American media can seem awfully remote to Bosnia’s beleaguered reporters and editors.

By Rosemary Armao
Rosemary Armao is an editor at South Florida's Sun-Sentinel.     

The topic of my discussion with top Vecernje Novine editors in a smoky office in Sarajevo was supposed to be computer-assisted investigative reporting. But, as is the nature of journalists everywhere, they quickly got right to the bottom line:

"What would happen at Baltimore Sun," Executive Editor Berin Ekmecic asked in imperfect English, "if reporters not been paid" for three months?

There would be no Baltimore Sun, I said, putting down my demitasse of Turkish coffee. A very unhappy and possibly violent staff would find other jobs.

The editors laughed. Except for occasional partial allotments, their staffers and they had received no pay in three months. But in Bosnia, there are no other jobs, no secure salaries. (The lucky ones have spouses who work for the many international organizations in the city.) So reporters stay in newsrooms, doing the best they can under conditions that are dismal--personally and professionally.

That exchange was one of many during a three-week visit in March to Sarajevo and Banja Luka in the former Yugoslavia in which I confronted the futility of translating the American journalism experience and techniques. I'd been given that assignment by IREX, the government-funded International Research & Exchanges Board. It had asked Investigative Reporters & Editors Inc. for help in building and bolstering independent media in former Communist nations of Central Europe.

Before I took the trip, Azra Alimajstorovic, a Bosnian TV journalist and a fellow at the University of Maryland, had tried to warn me when I asked her what elements of her investigative reporting classes here she thought her colleagues would find most interesting and useful. All of it will be interesting, she told me, but none very useful. "It is very different in my country."

Paucity of resources may be the most obvious of the barriers to a free, aggressive press. I had a hard time telling Bosnian journalists to work extra hours and be willing to give up free time in pursuing a story, as I often counsel American colleagues. One 40-year-old reporter who came to classes I taught in the Serb-controlled city of Banja Luka told me she makes the equivalent of $150 a month. Her husband used to work at a chemical plant, but work is infrequent now. So the couple and their three children live with her parents to make ends meet. She looked tired.

In Sarajevo, business writer Suzana Cerimagic speculated that in America, reporters look for big stories because they can win fame and get hired by a bigger newspaper that will pay them more. But in Bosnia, she said, it is not the same. There is no more money at the larger papers.

Not only salaries are affected. Newsrooms in Bosnia still use typewriters, and phone lines are shared and unreliable. Whole newsrooms, including production departments, share a few older computers, many of which could stop working after midnight December 31.

Years of war and the splintering of the former Yugoslavia have drained Bosnian newsrooms of talent. Croat journalists work in Croatia now, and Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro pulled away experienced reporters during the four-year Bosnian war in the mid-1990s. Those left behind churn out stories in quantities similar to those demanded in the United States of wire service reporters.

A pervasive exhaustion is not hard to detect. People look worn. They droop. "Why did you go into journalism?" I asked a group of professionals at the start of a speech at the University of Sarajevo. "I made a mistake. I thought it would be something easy," one young reporter said, to laughter from his colleagues.

Added to the hard work for low pay--hardships familiar to plenty of American journalists--Bosnian journalists have been called on over the past seven years to document the disintegration of their country: war, death, homelessness, ethnic atrocities. They've also lived those stories, watching family and friends suffer or leave. The blasted hulk of the Oslobodjenje building, which kept publishing every day of the war even in the face of relentless Serb shelling, stands unrestored, a monument to journalistic bravery. These reporters are amused at American journalists' lust for the big story. "Better to have some more-normal stories, not so much life and death all the time," a reporter for an alternative Sarajevo newspaper said.

The Bosnians also laughed at American journalists' ideas about objectivity. Even in poor translations of the Bosnians' work, some of their passion and their connection to their subject matter was evident. I complained, though, that journalists in my classes used this connection as an excuse to not talk to people. When I asked for reports filled with quotes on how people manage to live when they don't collect pay, the Bosnian journalists said people don't like to relive all that. The journalists know about that firsthand, they told me.

Bosnian journalists standing up for freedom of the press get little sympathy or support from officials or readers in their country. Emir Habul, then editor of Oslobodjenje, interrupted a lecture on investigative interviewing techniques to tell me about a reporter in his office whose interview of a top government minister ended badly. The minister threw a tape recorder at the reporter. The newspaper reported this. And while the minister did apologize, he never again granted another interview. Readers sent letters to the newspaper asking why the reporter had insisted on asking the nice minister such rude questions.

At least the reporter got the interview. U.S. reporters used to complaining about politicians hiding behind spokesmen have never had to face officials so unaccustomed to dealing with the press and so oblivious to any need to address the public that they simply don't talk with reporters at all outside of formal, controlled press conferences. Requests for interviews are routinely refused. Officials respond, if they feel like it, to questions written out and faxed to them. Sometimes the responses don't come back for weeks, and sometimes they come in the obvious wording of a team of bureaucrats.

The reluctance to talk is spreading, said Alena Ahmetspahic, a weekly magazine reporter in Sarajevo. Ask a butcher down the street for a quote, and he's liable to tell you to fax him your questions.

One morning during my stay in Sarajevo, there was what our translator called "a bombastic situation." A Croat official was grievously wounded--he later died--when a bomb exploded in his car near the U.S. Embassy. Covering this serious event became the topic for class that day, though I did little of the teaching. Police? They refused to comment because the matter was under investigation. Witnesses? They were afraid to talk: "Please, give me a break," they pleaded with reporters who asked for descriptions of what they'd seen. Embassy officials? They'd say, "Talk to police." Coverage of the event emerged from leaks, tips from the press in Croatia and announcements to government-controlled media outlets.

The divisions that have rent Yugoslavia extend to the journalists of the country, too, so there is no united front pressing for reforms or rallying the public to demand freedom of expression. Newspapers in one part of the country do not circulate in other parts, much less in the other countries that have emerged from the ruins of Yugoslavia.

"I could never go to Banja Luka," a Sarajevo reporter told me. Sarajevo is the capital of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Banja Luka is the largest city in the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, which was set up by the Dayton peace accord that ended the Bosnian war. This reporter was half Serb, but she could not forgive the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo she lived through.

Because they use words, journalists, like Bosnian teachers, are players in a bizarre game of division and separation. Where once everyone spoke the same language in Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian, people now refer to the Serbian language, the Croatian language and the Bosnian language. Serb newspapers are printed in the Cyrillic alphabet, not the ABCs of the West. Croats have renamed the months.

The vowel "e" is common, of course, to all the groups. It has stayed "e" for Serbs in Serbia, but has mutated to an "i" for Croats from Dalmatia and "ije" for Croats and Serbs from Bosnia. Write the simple word "time" and, depending on whether you print "vreme," "vrime" or "vrijme," readers will have categorized you and decided whether you can be believed.

Television journalists struggle to get it right, say translators like IREX's Alena Begovic, who pays attention to the subtleties. She collects expressions from still-confused newscasters. "News from all around the world" came out "Vesti Iz Svijeta" in one broadcast--joining Serb and Bosnian words in the phrase.

"Do you think that freedom of the press will develop here like you have in America?" a newspaper editor from Cazin in Northwest Bosnia asked me. I told him I thought it would take time; we had a 300-year head start, considering that the watchdog press began operating when America was still a British colony.

Maybe the most useful advice trainers can carry overseas is to copy the high points of the American experience: the best media are genuinely independent, not just from the government but from all special interests; the proceedings of government must be open to inspection and officials held accountable to the public; and a watchdog press must be tolerated and nurtured.

That seems pretty far off at the moment. "In America," a young reporter in Banja Luka asked, "are there any things you cannot write about?"

"No," I told her, "I can't think of anything off-limits."

"And what protections are there for the reporters?" she pressed. I mentioned the First Amendment, Freedom of Information laws and state shield laws.

She and her colleagues in the class smiled wistfully. It was all very interesting.