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THU, 25 OCT 2001 00:24:24 GMT

Sarajevo: Newspapers in the Wringer

Publishers Overwhelmed by Panic

The privatization of the largest printing company in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Sarajevo-based Oko, caused panic among publishers of weekly and daily newspapers. The future of the Oslobodjenje newspaper, the oldest in Bosnia, is now in the hands of Avaz, its main rival.

AIM Sarajevo, October 8, 2001

The Avaz publishing house, publisher of the most widely read Bosnian daily newspaper Avaz, which was once very close to the Party of Democratic Action and today favors the ruling Alliance, is the new owner of the Oko printing company. Its sole rival for control over Oko was a group consisting of the Sarajevo-based daily Oslobodjenje and the Slovenian Kmetska Druzba publishing house, but they dropped out early in the race.

Even as offers for the company were being made, it was obvious that Avaz was the most serious prospective buyer because, according to unofficial sources, Oslobodjenje offered about DM2 million, while Avaz offered much more, some DM7 million. Oslobodjenje was later eliminated because Bosnian laws state that a company owing money to a state-run enterprise cannot seek to buy it in the privatization process, and the paper owed about DM2 million to Oko at the time. That was the end of it as far as the cantonal privatization agency in Sarajevo was concerned, and it selected the other best offer. Exactly how much Avaz intends pay to the state for the printer will be known in about ten days, when the deadline for complaints expires. The financial aspect of the Oko privatization story is the least important. Something else is at stake here, because Avaz could easily monopolize the press market in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other newspapers are rightfully worried because Avaz already owns a printer, one of the three existing in Bosnia, Oko being the second and Alden Print, publisher of the Jutarnji List paper, being the third. It is, therefore, entirely in order to ask why Avaz needs another printing company.

Employees of Oslobodjenje, which used to be printed at Oko, have the greatest reason for concern. The oldest Bosnian daily newspaper has been having financial problems for years, which is confirmed by its debt to its printer. Because of that, Oko employees were very vocal in denying Oslobodjenje the right to buy their company, seeing in the paper one of the causes of their shortage of money, which, among other things, resulted in salaries being months overdue. The only thing Oko employees want is an owner with money, who can pay their salaries, and Oslobodjenje was not promising in that respect. No one knows what Avaz will do when it takes over. It could insist on collecting Oslobodjenje's debt, which is a legitimate right of any creditor. In that event, Oslobodjenje might be forced to declare bankruptcy and shut down. The other possibility is for the new Oko owner to offer a debt-equity swap, which would practically make it Oslobodjenje's co-owner or its biggest shareholder. How this would affect the newspaper's editorial and personnel policies remains to be seen. There is, of course, the possibility that everything will stay the same, and that Oko will continue to print the Oslobodjenje and further increase its debt, but no owner in his right mind would accept something like that unless he is after something other than profit. But such causes are usually championed by humanitarian organizations and charities.

The two leading Sarajevo magazines, Slobodna Bosna and Dani, which were also printed by Oko, are no less worried either. In their case the money is not the issue. Slobodna Bosna has been at odds with Avaz, and its owner, Fahrudin Radonjic, for quite some time and its workers now fear that printing services could be denied to them as retaliation. Radonjic has denied trying to form a monopoly, quoting the fact that there are three printing companies in Sarajevo, and promises all papers that were printed by Oko, including the Slobodna Bosna, that nothing will change apart from printing prices going down!

International community representatives have so far refrained from comment. Although the OSCE voiced certain degree of discomfort over the possible monopoly, stressing that privatizing the largest printer in the country is not the same as privatizing an "ordinary" company, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) merely warned that a competition bill, which was supposed to set the rules of the game in such cases, has been forgotten in some drawer in Bosnian Parliament for over a year. The lack of any regulations defining monopoly and ways and means preventing it, was what led to two of the three printing companies in Bosnia being controlled by a single organization in the first place. Was the competition bill not passed out of negligence, because representatives of the people are preoccupied with "more important matters," or don't have enough time because of their travels around the world and endless debates on the jurisdiction of Bosnia and its entities? Maybe it was not supposed to be passed at all, creating a loophole that will be closed when privatization ends and the spheres of interest are divided as agreed on beforehand. Objectively, a publishing monopoly would make disciplining disobedient publications easier, which is the unrealized dream of all nationalist parties and the new authorities alike, which have come under fire from independent media outlets, and are growing nervous, causing them to shy away from the public and resort to pressures on the media. By purchasing the Oko printing company, Fahrudin Radonjic is finalizing the creation of his media empire, inevitably becoming a major political player in the process with less than a year to go before new elections. The situation could drastically change only if, thanks to foreign capital, Sarajevo were to get another modern printer, because the existing three have obsolete equipment. Until then, local newspapers will be denied the blessings of market competition, and will think twice before opting to confront Avaz.

Tanja Ivanova

(AIM)