World Press Freedom Day 2004, Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro: „Support to
Media in Violent Conflict and in Countries in Transition.‟
The newspaper that refuses to die
By Gojko Beric, Columnist, Oslobođenje Sarajevo
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends
As you have heard, I come from Sarajevo, where there is still some clean air for normal people. I hope you know what I mean by “clean air”.
I have not come to expound some theory about the subject of this conference; that‟s not my area. As a journalist, I believe that open wounds and the experiences
we live through are our best teachers. I have come to tell an extraordinary tale; indeed, I may be so bold as to say it is unique in the history of journalism – the story
of Sarajevo‟s daily newspaper Oslobođenje, for which I have worked for more than
I am five years older than the paper, which first came out at the height of World War II, on 30 August 1943, in a small village in liberated territory in north-eastern Bosnia. Last year, Oslobođenje celebrated its sixtieth birthday. For the
Balkans, that is a pretty long life.
In the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina was seen as the ideological bastion of the regime of the day. The media were all advocates of the regime, some better, some worse – and Oslobođenje was among the better ones.
And then a minor miracle occurred. A year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Oslobođenje acquired its own little island of freedom. For the first time in the paper‟s history, its journalists themselves elected the editor in chief. Until then, the editor had invariably been appointed by Party committees. Overnight, Oslobođenje was
transformed from an obscure Party bulletin to a modern, reader-friendly paper with some of the most prominent journalists of the Yugoslavia of the day as its contributors; a paper that now included editorials and other features new to the print media of the day, and which took up the cause of the federal government‟s reformist policies. A mere ten months or so later, Oslobođenje was selected as Yugoslavia‟s
Newspaper of the Year for 1989 in a survey conducted by the Split-based Slobodna
Dalmacija, which polled professional journalists country-wide.
This hard-won freedom was short-lived, however. In November 1990, the first multi-party elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina; such was the impact of nationalist euphoria in Serbia and Croatia that the nationalists won a convincing victory. The Serbs voted en masse for the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), the
Muslims for the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), and the Croats for the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). The result was a power-sharing government, with the victorious parties determined to apply the same principle to the leading print and air media, Oslobođenje and RTV Sarajevo Broadcasting. Everything was subject to this
concocted division of power, from the minutest detail to the editorial positions which,
of course, were allotted to the party faithful. Oslobođenje, however, managed to
resist this nationalist onslaught.
All this took place at a time when the leading press in Serbia and Croatia, despite their long tradition and fine journalists, plunged into moral decline, turning into the mouthpieces of Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman respectively.
Oslobođenje, however, held true to its democratic stance, promoting anti-nationalism and standing for national, religious and cultural tolerance, the traditional model of coexistence between the Muslims, Serbs and Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among the most outstanding journalists and editors of its multi-ethnic team were several Serbs.
In early April 1992, war erupted beneath our windows. Sarajevo was under siege, surrounded by Karadžić‟s troops. Death was a daily feature of the city‟s streets, where people were killed by shells or snipers‟ bullets. The Oslobođenje building, one
of Sarajevo‟s finest, was barely 200 metres from the Serb front lines. In the evening of 20 June 1992, it was struck by incendiary shells and burst into flames. Six storeys on one side of the ten-storey building and four on the other ended up as burned-out wrecks. While firemen and journalists fought side by side to quench the blaze, Oslobođenje‟s duty team were in the nuclear shelter, putting together the next issue. The leading article was headlined Oslobođenje keeps going.
But it became harder and harder to keep going. Sarajevo was under total siege, with no food, water, gas, electricity or telephone lines. We used radio receivers, gathering reports from a network of industrious radio hams. To produce a print run of at least four thousand copies daily, even reduced to the bare minimum of pages, we had to find a hundred litres of fuel a day to keep our generators working for four hours. We did everything else in the semi-darkness of the shelter, with candles as our only source of light.
In the mornings, our journalists would risk their lives to hand the paper to colleagues around the city, who would then ensure that copies were on sale everywhere, working for an hour or two as news hawkers and the rest of the day as reporters. Oslobođenje‟s appearance on the streets of Sarajevo every morning was
one of the highlights of the day for the city‟s long-suffering inhabitants. Even those
who were in the trenches, defending the city, read the paper. We managed to produce the issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of Oslobođenje in the original, pre-war
format. That day I saw Sarajevans weeping on the streets as they read the paper, reminding them as it did of the days of peace.
At the end of the novel Banket u Blitvi by the great Croatian writer Miroslav
Krleža, Nils Nielsen, the hero, a rebellious liberal intellectual, wonders what opportunities are left to humanity after so much slaughter and social breakdown. The answer he comes up with is: “A case of lead typesetters‟ letters, which isn‟t much, but it‟s the only thing humanity has come up with so far as a weapon to defend our human pride.” At the end of 1993, we were faced with much the same questions as Krleža‟s hero. We realized that our ideals had met with defeat, and that Bosnia and Herzegovina would be divided along ethnic lines. The editorial team spent two whole days hotly debating what we should do. Finally, we agreed unanimously to keep
going as before. We too were left with only one weapon to defend our human pride –
that typesetters‟ case known as Oslobođenje.
For most of the war, Sarajevo and Oslobođenje were the two words from
Bosnia that reverberated around the world. If there remained just one proof of genuine multi-ethnic coexistence in Sarajevo under siege, it was the war-time editorial team of our newspaper. Our ruined building, still subject daily to shelling and sniper fire from Serb positions, was a place of pilgrimage for foreign journalists, writers, philosophers, artists, diplomats, international military officers and humanitarian workers from all over the world. Every one of them was proud to add their visit to Oslobođenje to their curriculum vitae.
I cannot deny that the world was generous to us, in its own way. In line with the “humanitarian ideology” advanced by France‟s President Mitterrand, Europe did provide the people of Sarajevo with some crumbs of food, even as it looked on indifferently as the barbarians on the surrounding hills killed them day by day. It was much the same with Oslobođenje. Europe provided us with mere dribs and drabs of
aid, mainly in the shape of newsprint, but was generous with awards, medallions and other accolades. In 1992, the BBC declared Oslobođenje the world‟s Paper of the
Year; this was followed by the Scandinavian Award of Freedom, the European Parliament‟s human rights‟ Sakharov Prize for Freedom, the World Association of Newspapers‟ Golden Pen of Freedom, and many more. No other newspaper in the world has received so many awards and accolades, in which Oslobođenje was always
described as a newspaper that was dedicated to the truth, freedom and courage in the most difficult of circumstances. If there were a Nobel prize for journalism, I have no doubt we would have received that too.
These were the highlights of the first half of our historic match. The same rules no longer pertained in the second half, however. For our part, we continued to play to the very same rules that Europe had professed to admire. But times had changed, we were now seen as perverse, and our stubbornness had to be duly punished. The referees played their part in this, naturally.
The continuation of my story begins with the signing of the Peace Accord at the US military base in Dayton in mid November 1995. This brought to an end the bloodshed, the appalling human tragedy that had befallen Bosnia and Herzegovina. If I tell you that not a single bullet was fired to celebrate the accord, you will perhaps understand the mood that prevailed in my long-suffering city. After more than forty months of siege, the peace agreement was seen as hypocritical and unjust.
It was then, too, that the fame of war-time Oslobođenje became history,
although we journalists and editors were reluctant to believe it. It didn‟t mean that we were blind to what was happening around us. We could see all too clearly that our country had been partitioned, that the era of the romantic defenders of Sarajevo was now behind us, and that the highest offices of state were now occupied by the same national leaders who had only days before been the deadliest of enemies, some of them symbolizing the executioner, others the victims. The atmosphere was positively Orwellian, with mimicry and lies the common currency of political communication. The nationalists could finally proclaim themselves victorious.
What this meant, in short, was that everything Oslobođenje had consistently
fought against during the war had now, with the onset of peace, become the harsh reality. It was the defeat of a genuinely multi-ethnic society, the defeat of a civilization that Europe had not even been aware of until then, and the defeat of my newspaper. These things happen. After fascism triumphed in Spain, Albert Camus said he had discovered it was possible to suffer defeat, that force could subjugate spirit, and that there are times when courage does not meet its due reward.
Sixty thousand NATO troops came to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the country came de facto under international rule, embodied in the person of the High Representative. Oslobođenje refused to become the mouthpiece of either the Serbo-
Croato-Bosniac nationalist authorities or the international community. It paid a high price for that refusal: nobody now needed the newspaper whose name had been known the world over, other than the few readers who constituted the surviving, impoverished remnants of the middle class whom the war had undermined.
The war changed everybody, even those who had left their place in the bread queues to buy a copy of Oslobođenje the moment it appeared on the streets. Even
those of us who had made the newspaper what it was were the same, though perhaps we didn‟t realize it. We were tired and depressed, penniless and impoverished, and what little remained of our former energy and creative passion was evaporating. For all that, Oslobođenje did not mean to sell its soul to the devil. Our moral capital was too great to be chucked into the river Miljacka that runs through Sarajevo. That very capital, however, became a burden.
In the eyes of the Serbian Democratic Party and the Croatian Democratic Union, Oslobođenje was despicable. These were parties that had come onto the political scene as militarized populist movements. During and after the war, they functioned in just the same way as the Communist Party. Both bore a heavy responsibility for the war and for crimes against civilians. We who were diluting their nationalist wine with water day after day, and reminding them of the sins of their ways, could hardly expect their applause.
Nor were we to the taste of Izetbegović‟s Party of Democratic Action,
indoctrinated with religious fanaticism and nationalist anti-communism. Well aware of Oslobođenje‟s international reputation, Izetbegović himself refrained from
expressing, in public at least, his hostile view of the newspaper. He left this to others, mainly intellectuals from the Islamic Community. In mid 1994, when the end of the war was still a far distant dream, it was they who launched a campaign against nationally mixed marriages, claiming that they were part of a Communist project designed to eradicate the Muslims. In the fierce debate that this provoked, Izetbegović‟s Minister of Culture published an article in the Muslim weekly Ljiljan in
which he referred to Oslobođenje as a “Serbo-Chetnik Communist paper.” What sort
of a schizophrenic ideological construct is that?
The Dayton Accord brought peace of a kind to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it was already a gravely sick society. Ethnic and religious divisions and exclusivity had become the prevailing ideology, fostered with Nazi-style consistency from kindergarten and primary school to the factory gates and hospital wards. When this is the dominant state of mind, even the most morbid of lies, presented as media
patriotism, found ready acceptance among many. Oslobođenje could count on only
one of the three rigidly ethnically divided media markets, and was sold almost exclusively in Sarajevo. To underline what that means, one of my valued colleagues recently, in a public speech, referred to Sarajevo as “the last free territory” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is the “clean air” I spoke of at the beginning of this speech.
But does it not seem strange that Oslobođenje was not to the liking of the
international community either? At first, we ourselves were puzzled by this, but we soon realized what the problem was. After Dayton, the West had invested billions of dollars and vast quantities of energy in the reconstruction of my country. The strategy was to build a stable peace and the institutions of state – and nothing more.
Realizing that using tanks to rebuild the war-torn multi-ethnic society would be a very expensive and perhaps impossible task, the West sought no more than to install a multi-ethnic government. Anyone who questioned this strategy was seen as an impediment. The West had no desire to listen to the nostalgic tune of life in Bosnia before the war, a lifestyle that reminded it too closely of the communist era. All it wanted was reconciliation – it certainly did not want to hear the truth about the war. The catchphrase, right from the start, was: “Forget the past and think about the future.”
The West was acutely sensitive to criticism of the Dayton Accord, which was something on which Oslobođenje laid great emphasis. The Accord incorporates
several disastrous errors, and lays the groundwork for a state that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
In short, Oslobođenje published everything the West didn‟t want to hear. The
paper was the mirror of its errors and failings in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And as everyone knows, it is not the mirror that is at fault if the face it reflects is imperfect.
Be that as it may, no sooner was the war over than the international community opted for the air media as its political partner. But this was a delusion. The air media became factories turning out primitivism and pulp fiction, and at times even nationalist hatred. It is said that about 20 million dollars were invested in a television station in Sarajevo, but the results were modest in the extreme. Millions of dollars went down the drain as surely as if they had been lost at the gaming tables. The people who caused this débacle, however worthy their intentions, should file for intellectual bankruptcy – their own.
There is no such thing as a western without its bad guys. I should now like to tell you that another Sarajevo daily has an important part in this particular tale.
As you have heard, by the end of 1993 it was already clear that the final outcome of the war would be the ethnical partition of the country. The Army of which Alija Izetbegović was commander in chief was in no state, even if it had
wanted, to prevent the partition unaided. The coexistence of Bosniacs, Serbs and Croats was no longer the imperative of the Bosniac resistance. At that time, Izetbegović still needed Oslobođenje, but was already thinking about a daily that
would be exclusively Bosniac. The guardians of his coffers found a quick-witted, street-wise type, a former journalist from Montenegro, who had turned up in Sarajevo during the war with nothing but a plastic bag, and gave him several million marks to
launch just such a daily. And that is how Dnevni avaz, now the largest-circulation
newspaper in Bosnia and Herzegovina, came into being.
For several years, Avaz faithfully served Izetbegović‟s purposes, but when it
judged that the leading Bosniac party was going to lose in the elections, it adopted the cause of the likely winner, the Social Democratic Party. Now, Avaz is once again on
the side of its original mentors. From the very start, it adeptly manipulated the religious and national sentiments of the Bosniacs. In recent months, its pages have been full of articles detailing the many injustices and inequalities inflicted on the Bosniacs, and castigating those who claim otherwise. Avaz has thus become what
might be called the ID card of genuine Bosniac Muslims.
Of course, every democratic European country has its own Avaz, a newspaper
whose empire is media populism. According to Gianni Vattimo, the Italian philosopher, media populism is dangerous because modern representative democracy relies largely on the political potential of the media, with potential equated with circulation numbers.
As we have seen, Oslobođenje‟s war-time editorial team made superhuman
efforts in impossible conditions. When the war ended, the newspaper shared the fate of its own country. Desperately short of funds and supplies, with no printing press of its own – for it had in effect been confiscated – it became a refugee in its own city. Its
journalists worked in cramped, hired premises, moving from one place to another. The glass-fronted cases of the editorial offices were full of the international awards and accolades the paper had collected, reminding us of better days. But not one of these awards had any exchange value in the bank; all that happened was that the dust of oblivion accumulated on their once shiny surfaces. Sic transit gloria mundi.
There can be no good newspaper without good journalists; and good journalists need to be well paid. No one wants to work for nothing. However, Oslobođenje lives from hand to mouth, as if afflicted by a fatal illness. Salaries are paid later and later as time goes by, and the paper‟s losses are mounting. Attempts to rejuvenate the editorial team with young journalists have yielded only meagre results. Although the paper‟s former glory may attract them, unlike the old guard, they have no sentimental attachment to the paper and are unwilling to work all day for little more than modest pocket money. They might hang on for a few months, but then they find jobs as translators or officials in one of the embassies or international organizations that abound in the country.
I cannot pass over in silence one of the saddest days in the history of Oslobođenje – 21 May 2001. That morning, for the first time in 58 years,
Oslobođenje‟s readers had no paper to turn to. The journalists had gone on strike, demanding that the board of directors and the editor in chief be sacked and calling for their twelve overdue salaries to be paid. The first two demands were met – the third
has not yet. The agony came to a head a year after the problematic privatization of the newspaper. The strike lasted four days.
I am sure that there is no one here who has not seen the famous photograph of the Oslobođenje high-rise building, burned out and fallen in on itself. It is a photograph that has done the rounds of the entire world. I doubt if there is a single
foreigner who has returned home from Sarajevo without a photograph of himself with the famous concrete ruins in the background. But a year ago, the famous image vanished for good from the townscape of Sarajevo‟s western reaches. Two handsome great skyscrapers have risen from the foundations of the old edifice, with a rotating tower at a height of 65 metres. This is now the business and production centre of Dnevni avaz, owned by the gentleman who came to Sarajevo during the siege carrying a plastic bag, and who has made good to become one of the wealthiest people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Avaz bid for and won the tender to purchase the former
printing press of Oslobođenje, whose journalists have become tenants in what was
once their own building.
The site now presents a unique image: two opposing dailies, one ostensibly created with funds of dubious origin, and the other as poor as a church mouse, both under the same roof. There is a certain symbolism in this. For although the one is the antipodes of the other, both Oslobođenje and Avaz, in their own way, symbolize the
breakdown of a civilization, the disappearance of the middle class, the decline of morality and the establishment of a mafia state and a value system of which only a cretin could be proud.
As we have seen, Oslobođenje has survived several different lives. It should
have died in 1990, when the nationalist parties came to power. It should have died when it was bombarded by tank shells in May 1992. And it should have died when ththe war came to an end. But it refused to die. Whether it will survive to see its 65 or th70 birthdays, I don‟t know. Our little empire of freedom that we had begun to conquer even before the fall of communism is now bounded by the barbed wire of transition and caught in the net of chronic poverty. And that is how freedom dies.
But there is always a way out. The destiny of Oslobođenje depends on many
factors, but most of all on whether it will find someone to help it back onto its feet, either in my country or in Europe, to rediscover the values that Europe has inscribed on its flag.
Thank you for your attention.
Columnist, Oslobođenje Sarajevo