The critical point of PSB in Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Sanela Hodžić 

Public service broadcasting in Bosnia and Herzegovina has hit the bottom, with the political class showing no will to ensure its financing.

The previous, growingly inefficient1, mode of collection of RTV license fee has expired, and out of several possibilities mentioned by different stakeholders: collection of fees through telecom and cable companies, through electric bills, through internal collection service of public service broadcasters or as media taxes or funds, none was adopted by mid 2016.

In the most difficult position, out of three public service broadcasters2 seems to be the state-level one, BHRT, which has been largely orphaned in the previous distribution of the revenues. The two entity-level broadcasters, although obliged by the Law on Public Service Systems to transfer part of their revenues to BHRT3, have failed to do so for years, with BHRT estimating there are around 25 million BAM i.e. around 12.8 million Euro of such debts (RTVFBiH 16,5 million, and RTRS 8,8 million BAM).4 This breach of the law was, however, never adequately addressed by the state institutions.

In March 2016, the Board of Governors of BHRT announced that its broadcasting will be ceased by the end of June 2016, as a direct consequence of its aggravating financial crunch.5 This was later postponed, amendments on collection of RTV fees submitted in the parliamentary procedure during the summer 2016 envisaged possible way out, but soon all the doors were shut.

As it is, BiH might as well become the only country in Europe without state-level public broadcaster.

Politics working against the PSB system

It was the international community, i.e. the Office of High Representative (OHR) that imposed the framework for the reform of PSB by early 2000s, but it failed to promote it so to ensure its full implementation.

Given the growing political fragmentation in the country, it was as if the seeds of the PSB were doomed to mutate and vastly rotten. The very basis of dominant, ethno-national politics is working against the existence of the PSB system in its current form. Tarik Jusić, executive director at the Center for Social Research Analitika, observes that OHR, as the primary creator of the model of PSB system in BiH that is largely obstrued by decision-makers at the state and entity levels and by some of the PSB broadcasters themselves, bears some responsibility for what we have now, but he also adds: “Obviously, the question here is: is it the model that causes such implementation failure, since it is not a good model, or is it the local political and financial interests that would undermine any model, no matter how good or bad it is? I think the reality is somewhere in between, as is often the case when international media assistance meets the realities of transitional societies”. Since mid 2000s, OHR has almost completely stopped its engagement with respect to the media reforms in BiH. Journalist Zija Dizdarević believes that international community should have protected the PSB system: “It is shameful that international authorities, which are greatly responsible for the situation in the state and at the nonfunctional public service broadcasting, have given up on this significant segment for the future of BiH and its society.“

Left in the hands of the local political class, PSB was never reformed as initially envisaged. The Corporation of the PSB, a body which was meant to manage technical resources and developments, to take care of the collection of revenues, to commission programs and to represent the PSB in the international organizations, was – indicatively – never established, while the failure to assure distribution of revenues between three broadcasters, as envisaged by the law, is an obvious sign of political negligence towards especially the state-level broadcaster.

The political elites chose to invest their interests in the entity-level broadcasters. The ruling party in Republika Srpska is following a separatist political line, which incapacitates and cuts the state-level broadcaster out of the picture. Croat political leaders have campaigned against the system as well, arguing that Croat interest are not well represented and demanding for a channel in Croatian language6, which lead to situation in which the parts of the country with Croat majority have had extremely low license fee collection rate.

Meanwhile, all parts of PSB were exposed to direct political interference, to different extent. It took a form of politicied appointment of management of the three broadcasters, which largely assured the political servility and involved questionable professional credentials7. Entity-level broadcasters, in particular RTRS, are frequently mentioned for biased reporting8. In fact, based on the claim that RTRS is merely a service of the ruling political party in Republika Srpska, and thus not entitled to be financed by the citizens, the main opposition party in Republika Srpska is advocating for complete abandoning of the license fee collection.

Recent proposal for the amendments of the Law on PSB System was that the license fee will be collected by both, telecom and cable operators, as well as that additional funds9 will be established on the level of state, entities, and Brčko district10 for funding of public service broadcasters. The proposal was soon changed to the one foreseeing the collection of the license fee through electric bills, and split of revenues between three broadcasters in the ratio 40:30:30 (BHRT:RTVFBiH:RTRS). But on 19 July the proposal finally did not pass the Home of Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly11, primarily due to lack of votes from Republika Srpska.

The compromise was not expected in the months preceding the local election, held in October. The current attitudes towards public service system are deeply entrenched in the ethno-national politics and are likely to be maintained by the political class in order for them to appeal to the ethnically-specific electorate. Such politisations, threatening to put an end to the state-level public service broadcasting, are in itself already contributing to fragmentation of the country.

Any future decisions on direct funding of PSB from state budgets, possibility of which is formalised in the changes of the Law on RTRS from 2013 (unlike BHRT and RTVFBiH), might seem as the only salvation under these circumstances. However, without strong guaranties of editorial independence, it is likely it would only cement and deepen the political servility of public service broadcasters.

What is happening in the meanwhile

BHRT prolonged the deadline and continued broadcasting, but limited its production to informational and sports programming only. BHRT managers also confirmed they will reduce services to RTVFBiH which will possibly soon affect their functioning as well12. After the recent failure of state parliament to adopt solution for collection of RTV license fees, Board of Governors of BHRT issued a statement saying the ending of then BHRT broadcast is now a matter of days13.

The recent broadcasting of EURO 2016 was only made possible due to understanding of European Broadcasters Union (EBU) despite the debt of BHRT towards EBU that over the years piled up to several million franks14. This however seems to be the last favour and PSB is likely not to get any slack from EBU in future, until the debt is paid off. Coverage of the local election by the state-level broadcaster remains under a question mark.

„Unfortunately, we do have plans, but the question remains whether BHRT will be able to finance those plans. With serious efforts, we maintain to produce reduced program content, with emphasis on news program. BHRT has fulfilled the obligations to cover anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, European Championship in France, Olympic Games in Brazil and Sarajevo Film Festival and that was achieved through a substantial sacrifice on the part of employees. How our television program is going to look like in the next few months depends on the banal fact whether BHRT will have enough money to provide minimum of the production“, said Emir Habul, Secretary General of the BHRT Steering Board.

BHRT management announced it will, together with management of RTRS and RTVFBiH, engage in negotiations on possible extension of previous license fee collection mode, as well as in negotiations with the managers of the three electric companies, aiming to arrange new mode of collection through electric bills. So far no progress in this regard has been declared.

The value of PSB for the BH society

There are several indications of the lack of transparency and bad management over the public service broadcasters. Most notably, the trade union organization in BHRT pointed out multiple problems, including non-transparent spending, nepotism, corruption and failure of management to find and continuously insist on solutions for its sustainability15. Members of the boards of governors in PSB in general are appointed through politicised procedures and are largely considered to be part of the politics that hindered the transformation of PSB.

Performance of the three broadcasters has been often criticised for political bias and lack of investigative, niche and programming on marginalised groups. Available data point to low audience rates as well. The state-level broadcaster has the lowest audience of 4 to 6 percent; somewhat better is the audience reach of RTRS, while the highest reach of RTVFBiH, amounting to 12-13 percent, is usually attributed to an increased commercialization of its content. In the course of these dramatic moments, the professional community has initiated some debates, but there were no reactions of the public in defense of the PSB, except for some social-networks discussions. Thus the PSB system seems to be not only orphaned by the political class, but given up by the public as well.

Meanwhile, different analysts, media experts and practitioners express their concerns and point to the indispensable role of PSB, in particular in a post-conflict, fragmented society, such as BiH. “In a fragmented country, primarily divided along ethno-national lines, it is particularly important to have a state broadcaster, providing that it does not become a political asset in the hands of the ruling political elite, whose interests are in the weakening of the state and thus in weakening of the public broadcaster. That is exactly what PSB in BiH is experiencing under the baton of the political power structures. Politics deliberately misuses the role and significance of the public broadcaster at the state level (…) while at the same time there is a lack of public awareness about the significance of the state broadcaster”, said Tanja Topić, political analyst from Banja Luka.

The bottom line is that BiH, as a deeply fragmented country, cannot afford to lose the state-level public broadcaster that at least in theory should have the cohesive role and contribute to the integration of the fragmented public space in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Journalist Zija Dizdarević believes that BHRT will not be shut down, but he adds that it is important to: “…fear that its survival might be a result of unhealthy political compromises”, reminding that PSB must act with a core awareness that it is a public service, responsible only to the citizens. The professional community and the public should assure that the current turmoils will not be misused to further taint the role of PSB. Its financial sustainability and independence of its funding from the political bodies should be the minimum guaranty without which PSB does not stand any chance. But this chance will be seized only if thorough reforms follow.

Hilma Unkić contributed to the article

The article was originally published by the South East European Media Observatory

1Through land-line phone bills; The growing cancellations of land-line use lead to sharp decline in the collection of the fees. Although the initial contract concerning the collection has long expired, in the absence of the agreement on other solutions, it has been already prolonged several times.
2The PSB reflects the adminstrative structure of the country, with one state level broadcaster, Radio-television of Bosnia and Herzegovina BHRT, and two entity-level broadcasters Radio-television of Federation BiH, RTVFBiH and Radio-television of Republika Srpska, RTRS.
3Revenues were to be distributed so that 50 percent goes to state-level broadcaster, BHRT, and 25 percent for each entity broadcaster, RTRS and RTVFBiH. In practice, BHRT had been denied the share of advertising revenues, as well parts of the license fees that collected by the internal office of entity broadcasters.
4RTVFBiH, however, renders these numbers false, and asks for the judiciary to establish the exact amount, also stating that on the other hand BHRT has violated the Law by not acquiring any program from RTVFBiH, due to which RTVFBiH was inflicted damage of more than 35 million KM.  More at: http://faktor.ba/rtv-fbih-ce-tuzilastvu-bih-prijaviti-pojedince-iz-bhrt-…
5The trade union of BHRT however contested this decision deeming it as unlawful and stating that only Trade union itself (besides the founder of BHRT, Parliamentary Assembly BiH) can make such decision; See article published here http://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/sindikat-bhrt-a-odrzat-ce-vanrednu-sjedni…
6A seemingly legitimate demand, but flawed for several reasons, some of which being:  better representation can be sought within the existing system, especially given that sustainability of even the existing three broadcasters seems to be currently unfeasible; there are no clear indications about how the interests of all three major ethnic groups or the minorities are currently presented, which should be the basis of any policy changes; Overall, the exclusive demand for separate channel seems to hold more of the appeal for the Croat electorate than would the monitoring and sustainable reforms.
7See more  for example in a report published by SEE Media Observatory in 2013, available at: http://mediaobservatory.net/radar/flash-report-bosnia-and-herzegovina
8RTRS is believed to be utterly instrumentalised for the interests of the ruling party in Republika Srpska, while RTV FBiH seemed to have shifted political loyalty between major political parties position of which somewhat varied in the power-sharing arrangements in Federation of BiH. State level broadcaster is usually referred to as the most independent, but also a broadcaster that often lacks engagement on political issues and has the lowest audience reach.
9This of course raised concerns about possible politicizations, but also about more taxes being imposed on citizens. In Republik Srpska a law that envisages taxes of 0.9 percent for funding of RTRS seem to have been already drafted. More at: http://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/pandurevic-da-li-penzioneri-moraju-placat…
10Brčko District is a self-governing unit within Bosnia and Herzegovina, covering the territory of less than 500 km2 at the southeast part of the country.
11Source: http://www.radiosarajevo.ba/vijesti/bosna-i-hercegovina/nista-od-naplate….
12More at http://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/bhrt-prolongirao-gasenje-programa-najavil…
13See http://www.radiosarajevo.ba/vijesti/bosna-i-hercegovina/pitanje-dana-kad…
14See https://www.ebu.ch/news/2016/06/bhrt-to-broadcast-football-champ
15See http://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/radnici-bhrt-a-molimo-drzavu-da-nas-spasi…

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