Bosnian public broadcaster’s survival under threat
As Bosnia prepares for parliamentary elections in October amid a surge in tension in the Balkans due to the war in Ukraine, access to reliable and pluralist news and information is being jeopardised by financial threats to the Bosnian public radio and TV broadcaster BHRT. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Bosnia’s central institutions and those in its Serbian-majority region to respect the law and find a lasting solution for this broadcaster.
The BHRT only just escaped being shut down on 1 April, which would have represented an unusual and serious attack on media pluralism in the region, and its survival still hangs in the balance.
Its closure was averted by a resolution by the parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of Bosnia's two regional entities, which resulted in the regional entity’s tax administration lifting a two-week-old freeze on the BHRT’s accounts on 6 April. But this last-minute rescue has not protected the BHRT from the effects of economic sabotage by the RTRS, its counterpart in Bosnia’s other regional entity, the Republika Srpska.
The RTRS, which receives all of the revenue from the broadcasting licence fee levied throughout Bosnia, is in principle required by the 2005 public broadcasting law to hand over 50% of the revenue to the BHRT and 25% to the FTVBiH, the Bosnian Federation’s public broadcaster. But the RTRS has refused to comply with its obligations towards the BHRT for several years, depriving it of the equivalent of 32.2 million euros. This denial of funding has prevented the BHRT from properly fulfilling its news coverage duties and honouring its tax and salary obligations. It has run up debts to the point of becoming insolvent, and currently owes more than 9 million euros, which it is unable to repay.
The hostility from the RTRS, which is under the sway of the Republika Srpska’s ruling Serbian independence party, the SNSD, comes against a background of frequent Republika Srpska attacks on Bosnian institutions with the aim to weakening Bosnia’s legitimacy as a central state, in which the BHRT is an important institution. The RTRS has for several years been obstructing a major provision of the public broadcasting law – the creation of a single national public broadcasting corporation common to both Bosnian political entities, which would have revenue-sharing between the three regional broadcasters as a corollary. Thus, paying its share of revenues to the BHRT would be tantamount to recognising the existence of such an institution, one that would be less permeable to political pressure from regional parties.
“Access to reliable and pluralist news and information in Bosnia would be in great danger if the BHRT were to disappear, at a time when the country is preparing for parliamentary elections in October and the war in Ukraine has revived geopolitical tensions in the Balkans,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s EU and Balkans desk. “We call on the RTRS to comply with all aspects of the broadcasting law, not just some of them, and to therefore distribute revenue among Bosnia’s three public broadcasters fairly. Bosnia’s institutions must also urgently find a lasting economic solution for the BHRT, so that the blocking of its accounts ceases to pose a threat to press freedom in this country.”
Parliamentarians from various parties made several encouraging proposals during the Bosnian Central Parliament session devoted to the BHRT on 27 April, but it is essential that these proposals have concrete legislative effects. And the parliamentarians of the other parties – in particular those of the Serbian party (SNSD) and Croatian party (HDZ), who, by their absence, recently blocked the holding of a session – must commit to voting for these proposals. The proposed changes to the law to ensure sustainable funding for the three public broadcasters and the call for the country’s Public Broadcasting Council to design a single countrywide broadcasting tax collection model seemed particularly relevant.
RSF also calls on the commercial high court in Banja Luka (the Republika Srpska’s capital) to overturn a recent lower court decision that the RTRS is not obliged to pay the BHRT. By quashing this decision, which is the subject of an appeal, the court would comply with the initial judgment of the Bosnia and Herzegovina state court, which ruled in favour of the BHRT before finally declaring itself incompetent to judge the case in 2018.
Safeguarding this public broadcaster is all the more important as its proper functioning is one of the 14 conditions that the European Commission set for granting Bosnia the status of candidate for European Union membership. The need for its survival was also the subject of a letter signed by several MEPs in 2017 with RSF’s support.
Bosnia is ranked 59th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.