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World Perspective | MEDIA

After Surviving 2 Wars, Peace May Be Deadly for Bosnia Paper

July 11, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Rarely has a newspaper been so completely identified with a nation's survival.

The scrappy Oslobodjenje daily was born 55 years ago out of resistance to Nazi occupiers and earned worldwide fame this decade when ethnic warfare engulfed Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Day after day, as its reporters were being killed, its offices shelled and this city strangled by a besieging Bosnian Serb army, the paper published. Sometimes with only four pages, sometimes on old yellow paper, but every day it appeared, proclaiming to the world that Bosnia would not be destroyed.

"Each day, if Oslobodjenje was on the street, it meant we were still alive," said Jakob Finci, the Bosnian head of the Open Society Fund charity in Sarajevo.

But now, staggering under wartime debts, inept socialist-style management and an inability to compete, Oslobodjenje is all but dead.

Its editors and managers predict glumly that the paper may not last long enough to cover Bosnia's elections in September. The top editor speaks of bolting and setting up a new newspaper with the venerated name and a core of the paper's best reporters.

"This is not the way I wish to kill Oslobodjenje," said Editor Mehmed Halilovic, "but the alternative is for us all to sink like the Bosnian Titanic."

For years, the paper has existed largely on donations, prizes and the kindness of international admirers while a debt rumored to approach $3 million accumulated steadily.

More than 2 1/2 years after the war ended, the paper's sources for cash are drying up. Reporters have not been paid for months, and many are leaving. Circulation is sluggish. The tiny bit of advertising in the paper remains tiny.

And the question of who owns the paper in postwar, post-communism Bosnia remains unresolved. Until that is settled, no new investors can be expected to supply the money to salvage the company, Halilovic said.

Some in Sarajevo, the capital, say Oslobodjenje for too long has rested on its laurels, always relying on big-buck saviors to bail the paper out. Other publications have emerged in Bosnia that are more feisty or have marketing plans aimed at building circulation--or have the blessing and money of ruling parties.

Although it started a profitable English-language news agency, Oslobodjenje has only recently made an attempt to circulate in the Bosnian Serb-controlled half of Bosnia. More innovative competitors like Vecernje Novine have started new editions to attract new readers outside Sarajevo.

And while weekly newsmagazines publish hard-hitting investigative stories, Oslobodjenje rarely breaks stories and does a great deal of "news conference" journalism.

'I know we are not doing enough investigative journalism," Halilovic said. "But how can I motivate journalists when they don't get their salaries for 60 days? How can I punish them when already they are punished by the fact they work for Oslobodjenje?"

In some ways, the paper that survived communism and two wars got caught in its past, unable to move ahead, keep up with the times and forge a new identity.

Oslobodjenje, or Liberation, was born as an underground newspaper for Partisan rebels in Bosnia who fought Nazi occupation forces in World War II and later helped form the Yugoslav federation's Communist government under Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

It flourished dutifully as the mouthpiece of the Communist regime before blazing trails of journalistic independence at the end of the 1980s. The paper gave relatively open coverage to Bosnia's first multi-party elections in 1990; the next year it fought off efforts by nationalistic parties to impose ethnic quotas on Oslobodjenje's leadership.

Once war broke out in 1992, however, the paper toed the government line and defended Sarajevo's struggle against Bosnian Serb attackers.

"The sad thing, if Oslobodjenje ends, is that it's the end of a great tradition," said Tom Gjelten, author of a book chronicling the newspaper's history. "It will not be a huge loss in terms of its journalistic contribution to Bosnia. But it had such a glorious tradition . . . and it would be sad to see that go."

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