Coming off the glow of Sunshine Week, this post serves as a reminder to the difficulties journalists and citizens can face. Here we look to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the country’s haphazard regional information access systems.
Last month, I caught up with Dino Jahić and Azhar Kalamujić, co-authors of the 2009 Corruption Notebook: Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dino and Azhar are both investigative journalists at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a Sarajevo-based journalism organization tracking corruption stories across the Balkan region. Dino and Azhar spoke with me about the often frustrating process of accessing information in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) decentralized system and the chances that Bosnia will shake its stigma as the most corrupt country in the region.
The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) has built its reputation on the close analysis of detailed government documents. Whether evaluating budget expenditures, officials’ asset disclosures or customs reports, access to government records is essential to the work of CIN’s reporters. However, BiH’s regional-based differences in the mechanisms and standards for citizen access to information make obtaining and comparing government information difficult if not impossible.
The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was created on a model of a decentralized governance structure in order to accommodate the historically deep ethnic conflict. As a result, BiH is split into two governing bodies, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, with the sub-national governing structures, called cantons, allowed wide discretionary power to adapt and implement national and more regional regulations.
Access to information is just one example of how this decentralized system produces difference in interpretation and implementation of policy at sub-national level. While a national right to information does exist in BiH, data is not stored or categorized in the same way on the regional level. Even the request for information forms differ in each canton. Dino notes that “sometimes they [the cantons] don’t have records at one place so they collect it after our requests.” The fact that information standards are not applied uniformly across cantons creates unfair disparities in public access to information and cripples the media’s watchdog potential. More troubling is how these information disparities reflect a textbook example of decentralization gone badly.
Dino continued, “For example, Sarajevo Canton got all the data for the past three years together only after we requested it, and, after seeing how much money commissions spent, they changed some regulations.” Dino suggests that because clear information channels do not exist at the canton-level, oversight of regional bodies cannot be properly performed. Dino referenced many CIN reports, including this one, that show how a lack of standardized regulations across the country at the regional level has left cantonal committees open to unfair appointment and monitoring practices.
These differences in canton-level information disclosure and record keeping policies are also problematic when journalists try to compare information between regions. For instance, a simple question about governmental funding allocations is answered in a different format for each region, making cross-regional comparisons either a labor-intensive hassle or completely impossible. Dino says that journalists from other media organizations are often constrained by tight deadlines and cannot wait for the government to respond to their requests. Pressure from editors and media owners to produce stories quickly is so severe that it often means journalists must forgo necessary fact-checking.
Why work at CIN?
CIN’s organizational approach to journalism is different. CIN grants journalists the time necessary to perform the due diligence needed to accurately report their stories. It is this emphasis on precision that attracted both Dino and Azhar to work at CIN.
Dino came from a TV station where he worked on similar crime issues as he does at CIN, but the turn around time in TV was too quick, he felt. Dino says he couldn’t provide the details needed to fully flesh out a story for his viewers. With only one week to produce each story, he felt he “couldn’t go deep enough” into the material.
Azhar had a similar experience in his previous work at a daily newspaper. He said that CIN is the only media house in Bosnia that allows reporters to do “real” instigative journalism as opposed to regular writing and reporting of simple news stories.
Without the pressure to churn out stories quickly, CIN’s journalists can go after information again and again and again, and, their persistence has paid off, literally. Recently, monetary sanctions were put in place to pressure agencies to release information and to hold them financially accountable to citizen requests.
CIN’s trademark attention to detail has helped to place pieces in well-known newspapers and magazines across the region. Dino carefully classified “some but not all” of Bosnia’s media houses as harboring obvious political allegiances. (See the 2009 BiH integrity scorecard for more information on the increasing politicization of media in the country, especially in the Republika Srpska.) CIN’s professional relationships with these outlets allow the organization to maintain its independence while also utilizing the reach of mainstream media. Often times, CIN reporters see responses to their investigations stemming from greater citizen awareness and the government’s need to “save face.” CIN has also expanded its public reach through video reports and documentaries broadcasted on major television stations. Azhar stated that “of course, TV is much more powerful [as compared to written word] with its pictures and video.”
The all-too-common missing link: political will
In their work, Dino and Azhar are constantly engaged in investigations of greed and impunity. Despite this, the 2009 Corruption Notebook: Bosnia and Herzegovina, which they co-authored, gives the upbeat impression that BiH may actually be making changes to shed its stigma as the most corrupt nation in the Balkan region. When I asked the authors what concrete changes have caused this shift in perception, they pointed to an increase in police investigations into corruption. While this is a start, they note that the political will to truly tackle impunity issues is still lacking. The allegiance between media and politicians works to protect those in power, quashing many stories that should be told. CIN is working to fill that gap
Without the greater political push for information transparency, Bosnia’s disorganized information structure will remain, hampering effective journalism and stifling any inertia towards open government.
— Norah Mallaney