MON, 03 JUL 2000 00:50:21 GMT
AIM Sarajevo, June 22 , 2000
Dnevni avaz, the daily which is the harbinger of the emerging media empire in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and which is owned by Fahrudin Radoncic, has declared an open war to its recent patron and protector, the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA).
This Sarajevan daily newspaper has its current account blocked every now and then, tax-collectors accompanied by police visit it often and scrutinise its books, while the heads of Avaz are pointing their fingers at federal prime minister Edhem Bicakcic as the initiator and giver of the order for the “hue and cry against Avaz”. The once idyllic marriage between the ruling ethnic party of the Bosniacs, SDA, and the newspaper most dear to it seems to be heading towards a divorce, and as customary in such situations, the dirty laundry is brought out in public.
Ever since its foundation in the end of 1995, this newspapers has enjoyed full support of the leadership of SDA in all forms, and its debt to the benefactor in power it regularly paid by obedience and advertising of political interests of this party. In return, the doors of all institutions headed by cadre from SDA were opened to the journalists of this media and information that could be published put at their disposal. In such a situation, journalists of other media who were refused information by party cadre who held state posts, came up with the short end of the stick both with their editors and the public.
Exceptional closeness with the leadership of SDA enabled this newspaper to play the role of a sophisticated party bulletin which, among other, carried announcements and precise lists of persons “sacrificed” in party purges. The best indicator of someone’s rating in the political leadership of SDA was the frequency of their appearance in this media and, of course, the manner in which this paper wrote about that person. On the other hand, individuals who had been “discarded” by the party leadership were then critised in the paper. For instance, nobody had to explain to former prime minister Izudin Kapetanovic (who was for consolation transferred to the post of minister of industries in the government of B&H Federation) that his political career was over after Avaz had published a series of articles on the luxurious apartment he had been given in Sarajevo although he already had one in Tuzla. The fact that a considerable part of the leadership of his party at the time, as they still do, lived in other people’s apartments did not help him save his post. Such media “executions” of no longer usable political cadre from the ranks of SDA were at the same time used as alleged evidence of Avaz’s “unbiasness”, even independence from influence of the ruling political party, because they were supposedly publishing critical articles on cadre from the ruling party. There were, of course, other important things that helped Avaz become the daily with the highest circulation, such as mass subscriptions of state and party institutions on all levels, but also the decline of quality and disorientation of its direct competition – dailies Oslobodjenje and Vecernje novine.
But, after April local elections in which the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) achieved respectable success, and SDA was defeated, the first signs of change of editorial policy in Avaz started to show. Leader of SDP, Zlatko Lagumdzija, and his party as a whole started getting more space in this paper, threatening to even reach the presence in the media of, for example, federal prime minister Edhem Bicakcic. This was an additional for SDA to sound the alarm that strings should be tightened because the ship was irresistibly sinking. After all, one of the first commentaries of this party occasioned by its more than poor election results was an accusation of the media for the present situation, especially the ones “least expected” to do anything of the kind.
Conflicts between the party in power and Avaz took place far from the eyes of the public until May 5, on the day when journalist of the year is proclaimed by the Association of Journalists of B&H (one of the six associations of journalists over here) and under the auspices of federal prime minister Edhem Bicakcic. To the amazement of all those who were present, but also the viewers of live TV coverage, the editor-in-chief of Dnevni avaz, Mensur Osmovic, refused to receive the award for the best newspaper in the past year because of a couple of days before in the government building, a journalist was threatened by the driver of the prime minister. This gesture divided the public. Some believed that this was a final split and the intention of Avaz to break away from SDA, because this party’s chances to preserve power in general elections scheduled for November were diminishing, while sceptics thought they recognised a carefully directed performance in which friends publicly quarreled on the stage, and then behind the scenes continued being friends. In the meantime the driver whose behavior to a journalist had been the immediate cause of the first public conflict between Avaz and the prime minister, was punished with a reduction of salary by 30 per cent, and in return Avaz was “treated” by a visit of tax inspectors in its premises.
When at dawn on June 6 tax inspectors entered Avaz’s printing works with the intention to count the printed copies, it was the beginning of true measuring swords. After a couple of hours, the employees took the copies of the newspaper and sent them to newsstands, and the tax collectors allegedly managed to count 2,906 copies of unregistered, “black circulation”. The owner of the paper, Fahrudin Radoncic, was threatened that his company would be shut down, and then the controversy was partly made up (rumour goes about a heated telephone conversations between Radoncic and Izetbegovic’s son Bakir), so that in the following few days the inspectors were enabled to enter the building and check the books.
When after a few days the inspectors were not allowed to enter the building of Avaz again because, according to allegations of the management of this newspaper, they did not have valid orders for checking, on June 16, current accounts of Avaz were blocked, and five days later, on June 21, inspectors entered the premises of Avaz, but this time accompanied by police. Despite the blocked accounts, Avaz is still regularly published thanks, as they themselves say, to the resoluteness of all employees to continue work although the possibility is announced of interruption of printing the paper any day.
According to unofficial information, the inspectors are mostly interested in financial documentation from the years 1996 and 1997, which is considered in Avaz as proof that the goal of the game is to find some irregularity in payments of commitments to the state which would lead to charging default interest for the past three to four years and increase the possible amount to an enormous figure. The leading people in the newspaper claim that the aim is to destroy Avaz in this way and they appeal on the local and the foreign public. Majority of international representatives present in B&H and a part of independent media and journalists’ associations have either condemned or expressed concern because of the behavior of tax administration towards a media.
The greatest mystery remains who is breaking up with whom, whether it is really a conflict between Avaz and SDA or just a conflict of this media with federal prime minister Bicakcic who is at the moment, after Alija Izetbegovic, the most powerful person in the party. It is highly indicative that in the conflict of Avaz with the federal prime minister Bicakcic, Izetbegovic is conspicuously standing aloof, and Avaz is still very careful not to directly go against Izetbegovic.
Since the struggle for Izetbegovic’s successor has publicly begun, and Bicakcic is at this moment the most powerful in it, the conflict with Avaz would in case of victory additionally strengthen the current federal prime minister. It seems that Avaz would at this moment wish to disassociate itself from SDA, especially because in November changes are expected on the political scene in favour of the opposition SDP. But if SDA will so readily give up on power and its “pet” among the media in which it had invested so much in the past years and whose help in pre-election months it needs so badly, will soon be shown by continuation of the fight between the authorities and this newspaper.
A final epilogue in black-and-white style in which either prime minister Bicakcic would depart from the scene or Avaz would end up locked up, is hardly probable. The more realistic outcome would be definite transit of Avaz into the camp of independent media with all the accompanying consequences, which no matter how improbable it may seem is not impossible, or a new compromise with SDA in which Fahrudin Radoncic would be given guarantees that “material and financial” integrity of Avaz would be preserved, the hue and cry interrupted, and in return Avaz would keep the policy of SDA as its editorial guideline for the sake of high national interests.
In any case Avaz and its owner Fahrudin Radoncic will sooner or later have to make a final decision and choose whether this newspaper will share the destiny of SDA to the end, be “principled” and back anyone who is momentarily in power regardless of the party and ideological commitments, or plunge into uncertain waters of professionalism and independent media. Whatever the decision will be, time for making it is slipping away.