Europe Should Leave the Balkan Media Alone
by Stephen Schwartz
SARAJEVO -- The guns have fallen silent in the Balkans, but a number of important -- if less dramatic -- conflicts are still underway. One of these is the ongoing battle over how to regulate the local media. Far from pitting Serbs against Muslims, this fight is between, to put it bluntly, the Yanks and the Western Europeans.
Representing the Europeans is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which confirmed last week that it will send 50 people to Pristina to help establish a Department of Media Affairs, the body that will oversee the media in Kosovo. Most likely, the OSCE has in mind for Kosovo what it has been pushing on Bosnia in recent months.
In a recent study prepared for the OSCE by the Sarajevo-based Independent Media Commission (IMC), it was suggested that a Bosnian regulatory office be modeled after the British Press Complaints Commission in London. The study warned against enacting too many privacy laws, which it described as "unworkable and an unacceptable infringement on press freedom." But it also inferred that regulations aimed at fostering a climate of restrictive political correctness would be perfectly acceptable. Among Britain's achievements, the study noted, was its success in "protecting the vulnerable" by, for example, shielding the identities of hospital patients and monitoring "the portrayal in media of people suffering from mental illness."
The American attitude could not be more different. Advisors like David DeVoss of IREX ProMedia, a USAID-funded project, have sensibly advocated leaving the press in Bosnia essentially unregulated. They note that the American system, which grants total press freedom but has laws that allow citizens to sue for libel if they feel that their privacy has been violated, works fine in the United States and would work just as well in the Balkans.
Furthermore, the Americans, in marked contrast to the Europeans, have seemed willing to listen to the suggestions of local journalists. And what journalists in Bosnia, at least, have been saying quite clearly is that they prefer the American way of doing things. At an IMC meeting held last May in Mostar, representatives of the Bosnian media -- backed by American advisers who were present at the meeting -- soundly rejected European models, which they say would be formulas for censorship.
Two weeks later, at an IMC-OSCE conference held to review, in the OSCE's clumsy language, "a press code and systems of press regulation," Bosnian journalists presented their own proposals for a loose, professional press council that would have a purely "advisory" role. But that didn't sway Sir Brian Cubbon, senior commissioner of the British Press Complaints Commission, who proclaimed his delight that Bosnia's journalists had, in fact, already agreed to a British-style press code and had "rejected the American model of complete press freedom balanced off with libel law." Mr. Cubbon went on to lament that the U.S. and Britain, have "two separate cultures" that have produced utterly different attitudes toward media accountability: complete recklessness on the western side of the Atlantic, and pious responsibility on the other.
The Europeans' eagerness to over-regulate the press in the Balkans stems from their concern that without restrictions, the media would spout ultranationalist rhetoric. They tend to blame the communist media of the former Yugoslavia for failing to prevent the emergence of nationalist movements that ignited the horrors of the 1990s. In a recent op-ed piece for the Times of London, Simon Haselock, the international community's media administrator in Bosnia, decried "the terrible legacy of regime television," and complained that the Dayton Agreement has "failed to provide a formula for restructuring the press."
It is true, of course, that the state press in the former Yugoslavia was hardly even-handed. But the Europeans seem to be cleaving to a neocolonial outlook, which holds that the locals in the Balkans are all savages, requiring close supervision if peace is to be maintained. Most Bosnians would argue otherwise. They blame the wars of the 1990s on their political leaders, not on the press. Members of all three major ethnic groups in the country do not worry that a free, American-style press would lead to further violence.
They might also note that the Western European press is not something worth aspiring to. The IMC study, which was put together by British officials, praises England's editors for being "committed to the highest possible ethical standards." Aren't these the editors that hounded Princess Diana to her death? To uphold the British press as an ethical exemplar is to venture into real surrealism. This is not to mention the fact that the British news industry has had to contend with the failure of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to fulfill its pledge to introduce a comprehensive freedom-of-information act. British journalists continue to work under restrictions on access that no American reporter would accept.
Meanwhile, Krister Thelin, a Swedish judge who heads up the IMC, has pointed to Scandinavia's reputation for stability, prosperity and fairness as a possible model for the Balkans. But as Mr. DeVoss of IREX Pro-Media points out, Mr. Thelin has failed to mention that in Sweden newspapers are mainly controlled by political parties. Given that this system is not unlike the one that predominated in Yugoslavia in the Tito-Communist days, it is unsurprising that it is precisely the sort of system that Bosnians of all ethnicities are trying to avoid.
It should be said that Mr. Haselock, the Bosnian media administrator, has demonstrated some flexibility and is aware of the criticism of Messrs. Thelin and Cubbon. So Bosnia might ultimately escape a seriously egregious press regime. But Kosovo, where the OSCE is heading next, might not be so lucky. There, one must anticipate this controversy will take on a whole new, and more problematical life. The Europeans at the OSCE have already said the Department of Media Affairs they have planned for Kosovo will include a Media Regulatory Commission and Monitoring Division. While they insist that these bodies will not engage in censorship of local media, one wonders what other function such an organization would have.
Kosovar Albanian journalists, perhaps even more so than their Bosnian counterparts, do not need foreign nannies. In some respects they represent the most professionally developed media in former Yugoslavia. More importantly, unlike the Sarajevo media, which is dependent on the international community for subsidies, the Albanian media in Kosovo is paid for by the large Albanian diaspora in places like Zurich and the Bronx. Albanian journalists developed their media outlets without state support. They do not expect to live on handouts, and are touchy, as many Albanians are, about foreigners dictating to them. They may tell the OSCE to swallow its hat on this issue.
Unfortunately, people like Messrs. Cubbon and Thelin don't seem to care much about what local journalists in the Balkans think. What they think is that ethnic demagogues should be removed from the media. But they don't want the crimes of those same demagogues to be used as a pretext for imposing new restrictions on them. In countering certain Europeans' arrogant attempts to do just that, Americans involved in the revival of the Balkans have their work cut out for them.