Press freedom is one of the United States’ core values, and I believe that vibrant, independent media institutions are one of the most important aspects of a thriving democratic society. Since the end of the war, the U.S. government has invested almost $35 million dollars in the media sector in BiH, and we continue to invest in media here, though on a reduced level, through USAID and our small grants programs. Our investments and work here, and the work of many other members of the international community, helped develop the infrastructure for a sound, capable media sector. But there is clearly much more work to be done.
The State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report noted that independent media in BiH “were active and expressed a wide variety of views but were subject to undue influence from government, political parties, and private interest groups” and that “media reporting continued to be divided along ethnic lines.” It mentioned the explicit political pressures against the state-level public broadcaster BHRT and political pressure against the Communications Regulatory Agency. BiH has modern communications laws, some say among the best in the region. Unfortunately, we have seen the independence of the regulatory agency lessening while at the same time noting strong political influence in the news we read, watch, and listen to. Nonetheless, we are encouraged by some – albeit, limited – improvements.
My team at the Embassy and I engage with the media as much as we can, through interviews, statements, and by meeting with journalists and editors to find out more about the situation in their media houses. Over the past two weeks, we have had the opportunity for both formal and informal meetings with executives and journalists from over a dozen public and private television and print outlets throughout BiH. We have listened to their concerns about political influence and the difficulties journalists encounter in BiH, and also the commitment of many journalists and media administrators to professional and independent media.
A few weeks ago I met with a group of young journalism students. I was heartened by their energy and interest in journalism as a public good, and urged them to use their journalism skills to become advocates for a better society. Many told me they hope to avoid the political influences that have invaded some outlets in the last 5-6 years. I know and have met many thoughtful journalists and editors already working to build print, television, and online media institutions which are strong, professional and independent. Personally, I hope that media outlets in BiH will increasingly take a stand against political influences and for independent, balanced reporting.
Solidifying the independence of the media begins with renewed focus on strengthening BiH’s public broadcasting system. Politicians and government leaders need to understand that the citizens of BiH value the principle of freedom of the press. In a vibrant democracy, public figures must expect criticism and the expression of alternative views, but they must also respect journalists and ensure they have the freedom to do their jobs responsibly. While media and politics are too often deeply intertwined in BiH, this does not have to be, and should not be, the case.
To find out more about the press freedom, you can visit Freedom Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan foundation that champions freedom of the press as a cornerstone of democracy.