BANJA LUKA, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Sitting in a coffee shop pecking at a piece of chocolate cake, Vladimir Kovacevic swiveled in his chair to make sure nobody was watching. Then he furtively pulled a can of pepper spray from his pocket.
"It's not usual here to carry this around," Kovacevic, an investigative journalist who works at the private BN TV in Banja Luka and runs his own blog, told Foreign Policy. "I'm not afraid, but now it's not the same."
More than six months have passed since he was severely beaten, but he can still recall the details from that fateful evening. The two masked attackers jumped him outside his front door and struck him with metal rods on his head and chest, leaving him bleeding on the street. At the time, Kovacevic was working to expose high-level corruption in Republika Srpska, a Serb autonomous region and one of the two political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The attack on him provoked hundreds of people to take to the streets of Banja Luka, which was already riding a wave of massive demonstrations after the death of 21-year-old David Dragicevic, in which state authorities were allegedly involved. His mysterious disappearance and death in March 2018 shook Republika Srpska as no other event in its recent history.
The prosecutor's office in Banja Luka, in an email from spokesperson Maja Vidovic, refused to comment on Kovacevic's case, saying that the attack is still being investigated.
For Kovacevic, however, there's scarcely any doubt that there were political motives. His only uncertainty is who exactly ordered it. "All the main public institutions in RS are captured by members of the governing structures or their families, and they're not necessarily interested in finding out the truth."
The police, who have treated the case as attempted murder, detained one of the alleged perpetrators, but the second suspect went into hiding outside the country. One hunch is that the order came from a local oligarch—Kovacevic refuses to put his name in print, fearing a lawsuit or worse.
In this past gloomy year, when murders of journalists shocked Slovakia, neighboring Montenegro, and later Bulgaria, the beating of Kovacevic drew immediate international attention to Bosnia. It may not be the Balkans' scariest place to be a journalist—Reporters Without Borders in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranked Bosnia 62nd globally, behind Slovenia at 32nd and Romania at 44th—but, year after year, examples of intimidation of reporters are increasing thanks to a lack of transparency of media ownership, cozy relationships between politicians and criminals, an ineffective judiciary, and a deeply polarized political climate due to the country's ethnic and territorial divisions.
In the last six years, BH Novinari, the association of Bosnian journalists, has documented 121 cases of violence, 44 physical attacks, 21 death threats, and 48 serious cases of harassment or verbal pressure. Only a small minority of these cases have been decided in favor of journalists.
BH Novinari, the association of Bosnian journalists, has documented 121 cases of violence, 44 physical attacks, 21 death threats, and 48 serious cases of harassment
Located in northeastern Bosnia, Republika Srpska shares many of the problems troubling the whole country: clientelism, high unemployment, foreign meddling, and limited space for professional media. Yet what separates it are "tighter connections between journalists and politicians," Borka Rudic, the head of BH Novinari, told FP.
This is the main difference between Bosnia's two entities: in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, media organizations toe their respective ethnic lines and present viewers with content reflecting the worldviews of Croats, Serbs, or Bosnian Muslims. By contrast, in Republika Srpska they are divided into pro- and anti-government outlets. Even Kovacevic admits that BN TV, where he earns his living, has openly supported the opposition to the current government. "You either follow the political agenda or you're out of business," Rudic said.
Republika Srpska has for years been ruled by Milorad Dodik, a pro-Russian Serb nationalist and head of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party. Politically, he's much closer to Serbia and its president, Aleksandar Vucic, than to Bosnia's government in Sarajevo. After Dodik won the Serb community's seat on Bosnia's three-person presidency in October 2018, his power has been further cemented.
Dodik has a long history of lashing out at journalists, ranging from refusing questions at press conferences to accusing individual reporters of anti-patriotic behavior
Dodik has a long history of lashing out at journalists, ranging from refusing questions at press conferences to accusing individual reporters of anti-patriotic behavior, spreading falsehoods, and accepting foreign funds. According to Sinisa Mihailovic, the editor in chief at the RTRS TV channel, a pro-government public broadcaster, Dodik is just "rhetorically expressive" and can't be blamed for denouncing the press.
"He's a high-caliber politician, one of the most gifted in the Balkans," Mihailovic told FP during an interview in his office in Banja Luka, which, tellingly, is located adjacent to the headquarters of the Republika Srpska government. Freedom of expression exists in Republika Srpska, Mihailovic insisted. "In every kiosk you can find a bunch of newspapers from Sarajevo, Zagreb, and Belgrade," he added, suggesting that quantity ensures a healthy diversity of views.
He is right that Bosnia's media market is one of the most prolific in the Balkans. According to the latest data from the International Research & Exchanges Board, there are nine daily papers, 189 other periodicals, 141 radio stations, and 41 television stations serving a country of just 3.8 million people.
In such a divided country, however, almost every outlet is linked to political parties or ethnic groups. "Our tragedy is that the media are being used to spread fear and paranoia in order to create an atmosphere of permanent conflict, an atmosphere that helps politicians to keep their power," Srdan Puhalo, a popular blogger from Banja Luka, told FP.
As in many other countries, it's the internet that remains a free zone with a few small portals—such as Buka, Impuls, eTrafika, and Kovacevic's blog—offering opportunities for honest and uncompromising reporting. But in a country where 66 percent of population gets most of its daily political news from TV and nearly 40 percent of people don't have access to the internet, their audiences are limited. Traditional media still dominate the landscape, particularly in rural areas.
Facing the choice of either adapting and censoring themselves or living in fear of a violent attack, only a few have continued publishing as independent journalists—and most of them have paid dearly for it.
Dragan Bursac, a columnist for Buka and Al Jazeera Balkans who won the 2018 European Press Prize, has been living under police protection for nearly two years.
Dragan Bursac, a columnist for Buka and Al Jazeera Balkans who won the 2018 European Press Prize, has been living under police protection for nearly two years. Threats on social media were always part of his job, and even occasional vandalism of his car didn't scare him off. But when one morning he saw the words "You are dead" scrawled on his front door, he thought he and his wife could be in real danger.
Unlike Kovacevic, Bursac hasn't exposed corruption. He's covered a topic that provokes even stronger emotions in Republika Srpska and Serbia: the Bosnian genocide and other war crimes. "Hate is the only thing that sticks people together here," he told me when we sat down at a hotel in Banja Luka, one of the few spots identified as safe for him. "Every election is a choice between far-right, which is the opposition, and farther right, which is Dodik."
After living for three weeks in the countryside when he first fled, Bursac was finally promised police protection. "Everyone asks me: Why don't you leave and get some well-paid, safe job?" Bursac said. According to BH Novinari, the average salary for a local journalist ranges from $175 to $465 per month; it's often double that working for state-owned media. "That's the point: if I decide to leave, I will leave on my terms. I know my writing won't change people's minds, but this is what I do."
Slobodan Vaskovic, one of the most influential and dogged investigative journalists in Republika Srpska, understands Bursac's dilemma all too well. In November 2016, he fled Bosnia and since then has been living in exile in a country whose name he refuses to reveal. He said that after several attempts on his life, as well as public threats and lawsuits filed by leading politicians, he felt it was time to leave.
"I had to leave Bosnia because the ruling system I was hitting was about to hit back," he wrote in an email. In his blog, called Sa Druge Strane ("From the Other Side"), Vaskovic has for years denounced the misdeeds of the ruling elite, often with use of inside sources, earning a reputation of one of fiercest and well-informed critics of Dodik and his inner circle. "There are only few politicians in Bosnia who aren't involved in criminal activity, but the worst thing is that this fact has become generally accepted," he argued. "This has led to a completely corrupt system in which those who are in power are praised, and those who point to their bad practices are persecuted."
I turned to the Ministry of Interior of Republika Srpska to ask why journalists don't feel safe there. Mirna Miljanovic, a spokesperson for the ministry, pushed back in an email: "It was the police who identified those who attacked Kovacevic and caught one of them." She added, "The police have also granted protection to Bursac and have been looking for people who threatened him. The police offered the same protection to Vaskovic, but he refused."
Bosnia's politicized and increasingly dangerous media landscape can be blamed on many different actors—including politicians who use media to win elections, audiences who have low expectations for accuracy, and journalists themselves. But, according to some critics, the original sin was committed by those who established the media market in Bosnia in the 1990s after the war: Western governments.
One of the most striking examples is the fate of Nezavisne novine, a daily newspaper based in Banja Luka. Co-founded in 1995 by the U.S. government, it has historically taken a liberal stance and first gained prominence for critical coverage of Bosnian Serb war crimes. But later—in a move that surprised many, including the Americans—Nezavisne novine became a firm backer of Dodik's nationalistic policies. The Banja Luka-based Alternativna TV, financed by the U.N. High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, faced a similar fate. More than a year ago, a majority stake (56 percent) was taken over by Slobodan Stankovic, a local tycoon and Dodik's friend.
Nezavisne novine had been linked to the Dodik family from the very beginning (his brother was its first editor-in-chief), and it simply followed Dodik's own political transformation from a liberal reformist into hard-line nationalist, a turn unforeseen by the West. The Alternativna TV takeover was proof that Dodik and his allies can shape events not only politically, but also with economic muscle. According to local media, the purchase cost $2.3 million. Unsurprisingly, in Banja Luka, one still hears that Dodik is "America's man"; the assumption is that it was the United States and other Western governments that unwittingly helped him to become the strongman he is today.
The Alternativna TV takeover was proof that Dodik and his allies can shape events not only politically, but also with economic muscle.
"Western players put lots of money to encourage media to be 'free and independent,' but in fact they were using them for their own purposes and had little idea about local circumstances," Srecko Latal, a former Associated Press correspondent, told FP. In Bosnia, he added, at the core of every problem there's a foreign mistake or failed experiment.
"There are a lot of things the West can be blamed for," one Western diplomat close to the situation, who insisted on anonymity, conceded. "But just imagine how the media would look without the West," he said, noting that, whatever happened in the past, Dodik is on Washington's blacklist today.
For Kovacevic, who nearly lost his life, it's cold comfort. Like dozens of journalists interviewed in Banja Luka, he's been considering his options, insisting he doesn't want his two kids growing up in this country.
"It's always about how deep I can go," he said. "I can write about everything, but don't know what will happen to me or my family tomorrow."