Maybe the world is not falling apart after all?

Maybe the world is not falling apart after all?

Tihomir Loza, political commentator, journalist of wartime Oslobođenje and Radio Sarajevo, describes his experience as a journalist in besieged Sarajevo.

How long did you work as a journalist/reporter in wartime Sarajevo in the 1992-1995 period and which media outlet did you work for?

I worked from the start of the war to May 1993 for Oslobođenje, and also as an outside contributor for Boro Kontić’s program Dežurni mikrofon on Radio Sarajevo.

Can you describe a journalist/war reporter’s typical work day in besieged Sarajevo?

At that time Oslobođenje had an office in the ZTP building, next to the Presidential Palace. I would usually drop by two or three times a week to consult with the editors and see my colleagues. As I was not reporting from the frontlines, my work activities actually did not differ in terms of content from those before the war except for the fact that they were taking place in entirely new circumstances. I often met with public figures, made interviews and so on. I would mostly write at home and then take the articles to the newsroom or sometimes dictate them over the telephone.


What is your most horrific experience working as a journalist/war reporter in besieged Sarajevo or other parts of B-H during the war?

I didn’t have worse experiences as a journalist than as a citizen. Like other Sarajevans, I witnessed many atrocities, from ordinary people being driven insane by fear and hunger, to the killing of civilians and deliberate destruction of civilian buildings. What affected me most is the hopelessness, the feeling that the world in which I had lived until then and in which I had felt comfortable had crashed, without hope of being restored any time soon.

What was the most positive experience or fun detail you remember during your work as a journalist/reporter in wartime Sarajevo?


The selflessness and solidarity of my colleagues at Oslobođenje and the Radio were very impressive. I did not spend nearly as much time as some of my colleagues in the famous atomic shelter underneath the already destroyed Oslobođenje building where the paper was being prepared at the time, but I saw enough to never forget their commitment to their profession and their courage.

Speaking of underground details, my ‘fee’ for items on the Dežurni mikrofon program was the right to fill two canisters with water at the Radio and Television Building, in the basement where there was always water – most likely because the installations were low. So, I would come with two empty canisters to make a radio item and then I would go back home to Mojmilo with full canisters, while Boro Kontić and his team laughed watching me from the windows as I hauled them.

There were many other funny details. Here is one: I think it was sometime in February 1993 when a colleague phoned me from England to say he was coming. The call went through a ham operator. Among other things, my colleague asked what to bring me. I named several things, I don’t remember what, and then the ham operator who had connected us interrupted our conversation: “Ask him to bring you meat, you fool! Meat, meat!”

How did you select stories to report about in the besieged city? What kind of stories did you cover during cease-fires?

Sometimes I received assignments from editors for reports or interviews. For commentaries, I mostly suggested the topics myself. As for cease-fires, I don’t remember that any cease-fire lasted in the time that I was in Sarajevo. If I am not mistaken, the first cease-fire on the Sarajevo front that held for a long time was the one from February 1994. I was primarily a political commentator and I mainly wrote about political issues.

Did you form friendships with international journalists who came to report from besieged Sarajevo? What was your view at the time on international media coverage of the war in B-H and has it changed after all this time?

Yes, I did, I had contact with several foreign journalists. Generally speaking, my view of war reporters is very positive. They are a specific kind people. If you are ready to go from one conflict to another to inform the rest of the world about that conflict from the inside, that deserves a lot of respect, in particular in situations where other information is non-existent, as in Syria now, or is very scarce, as was the case in our country. Not just the international public, but also the governments often first hear the key facts about such conflicts from reporters. Foreign journalists got the first concrete information on the camps in Bosnia or the scope of the crimes in Srebrenica.

How much has your position as a journalist made life harder/easier for you in besieged Sarajevo?

I think that journalists, at least during the time when I was in Sarajevo, generally were in a mildly privileged position. Accreditation of any kind helps in a situation of war and journalist accreditations opened doors in Sarajevo. Life had stopped in many areas; few people went to work; schools did not work at first. Journalists moved around more than other people and perhaps knew a little more about what was going on, although that was not necessarily always the case. The community relied on media, not only as a means of communication, but also as some kind of confirmation that things still exist, that something is keeping them together, that the community is surviving.

You are sitting in a cold apartment without water or electricity, with a little boiled rice for dinner. Mladić’s artillery provides the background music. It’s the end of the world. But your radio, which works because it is connected to the telephone line, airs the news. A reporter from the Interior Ministry says, I really quote here, that “PAM (anti-aircraft machine-gun) and its twin PAT (anti-aircraft gun) are firing from Špicasta stijena.” The next news is that a senator, a proven humanitarian and friend of Bosnia, who is also a pleasant and nice man, has called for air strikes and lifting the arms embargo”.

Maybe the world is not falling apart after all? Maybe things really are under control in some way, because if the radio says there is firing going on, then there really is firing going on, and on top of that it knows exactly where they are firing from and which guns are used. The senator is not irrelevant either; hey, it’s a senator, no less? As heralds of such an attractive idea – that the community still exists, and with it some hope – maybe journalists had some kind of privileged social position.

I had the feeling that even groups that were involved in looting, illegal arrests and similar talents shied away from journalists. One such group at the beginning of the war gently knocked on my parents’ door, of course with the excuse of looking for weapons. As there were no weapons, or money either, the visit might have extended unpleasantly, but it had an unexpected happy ending when the fearless defenders asked their hosts about their children and they told them their son works for Oslobođenje and even backed their statement with proof in the form of a fresh newspaper with my article. Afterwards, of course, there were periods when radical groups purposefully harassed journalists in Sarajevo.

Did you encounter censorship or were you in a situation to apply self-censorship in some of your reports from the war? Can you describe such situations and dilemmas?

No, no one even tried to censor my items, at least not the editors I worked with, and there were not many negative reactions either from the structures that usually interfere in media in times of war. Actually, I remember just one strongly negative reaction to one of my items on the radio by some municipal political party board; it contained, if I remember correctly, some indication of a threat between the lines. But it was nothing terrible; it’s all in the day’s work. In short, no one put open pressure on me or censored my items.

I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that I and the media outlet I worked for were not particularly important to the authorities. The primetime TV program, the radio news, and afterwards a daily paper which they created were important to them. The second reason is the fact that the structure that came to be established as the sacrosanct authority in territories controlled by the Army of B-H during my time in Sarajevo was still looking for footholds and levers to establish its rule. In my time they had not yet fully discovered the magical world of media manipulation. As a result, there was room for relatively free journalism in Sarajevo in that period.

Self-censorship is a different matter. In brief, I think it was present in my case to a relatively small extent, but certainly not in the sense that I was often in a situation of wanting to say something, but was prevented out of consideration for someone or something or in fear of anyone.

Do you think the local and international media coverage of the war in B-H was generally objective?

It is hard to achieve very high analytical objectivity in situations such as the war in B-H. I think that neither we nor foreign colleagues were objective. I can certainly say that I was not objective, although actually today I can calmly stand behind everything I wrote. I think that my stories and the stories of my colleagues who wrote about the same things in similar forms at that time in Sarajevo were actually cries of desperate people more than serious analytical or investigative journalism. We were working in strictly determined frameworks.

A Bosnian journalist could only see what was happening on the side that he or she was physically on and their opinions were in the framework of the ruling narrative in that environment. In other words, objectivity and impartiality were out of the question among local journalists. This does not mean that the whole media production during the war belongs in the same trash can. The issue of intent is more important in this regard than objectivity or impartiality.

Many media and individual journalists were not only tools of war propaganda which created conditions or justification for expulsions of civilians of the wrong ethnic background; in their creative zeal they actually became actors of expulsion, often going beyond what the political masters demanded of them. On the other side of the spectrum, some media in Sarajevo, such as Oslobođenje, Dani, or some RTVBiH programs such as Dežurni mikrofon, despite the absence of conditions for good quality journalism, tried and to large extent succeed at least in not contributing to spreading hate and in maintaining some standards of basic civil decency and responsibility. The difference between these two approaches and their results is enormous and, among other things, measurable –  and in my opinion it should certainly be measured – both in moral and criminal terms.

The war in Bosnia triggered strong emotions in people. Not only were foreign journalists and others who thought and wrote about Bosnia not immune to that; they were often more fiery than we were. That resulted in an enviable amount of zealous commentaries, often by authors who were able to think coolly and rationally on other issues. On the other hand, I think the reporters who informed the international public from Bosnia all in all provided a basically truthful picture of the war in B-H. Foreign journalists of course were in a better position because they could move around, although not always. They reported the most important things and that’s what matters.

It is hard to achieve high analytical objectivity in situations such as the war in B-H, especially during the conflict. Most journalists’ reports focused on one issue, usually one place. In such items there is often no room to try to provide an objective, broader picture of the conflict, especially in situations when the conflict is very fragmented, such as in Bosnia. You can provide in one item a very detailed, truthful picture of an event in some part of the territory engulfed by conflict, without at the same time providing an “objective” picture of the conflict as a whole. That is actually the nature of reporting journalism.

The issue of impartiality and curiosity is more important to me here. Did the reporter approach an issue with the intention of verifying his or her preconception or to find and disclose new facts to the public? Unlike us, foreign journalists were in a situation where they could be impartial and investigative and I think that is what they did in a sufficient number of cases. As a result, average news consumers in other countries, especially western countries, received a picture that was truthful as a whole, although there were many individual items that were colored with bias, dealing with rumors, random figures, or were simply a result of negligence or incompetence.

How do you see the role of international media and the progress of the war in B-H? Were media reports an important factor in stopping the war in B-H?

Regarding their role in stopping the war, I think that the media were a decisive factor in the following way: We who knew B-H from within could see from the very beginning that the war in B-H was completely isolated. There was no danger that it would spill out to neighboring countries because things in those countries were completely controlled by the regimes there.
Many analysts in the West, however, believed that the danger that the war would spill out of Bosnia was real and that outside involvement might contribute to spreading the conflict. Therefore, the dominant opinion from the beginning was that there would be no foreign intervention.

Meanwhile, it was clear already in May 1992 that regardless of the political content advocated by the parties to the conflict and the legitimacy and legality of their goals, the war could only be ended with outside intervention focused on the most important individual element that generated the conflict militarily – on the huge superiority in heavy arms on one side. Without the artillery superiority of the Serb side, either there would have been no war or it would have ended in a relatively short time in the same position in which it ended in 1995 when that artillery was destroyed by outside intervention.

The opinion that intervention is a dangerous thing that can only make the situation worse and perhaps lead to spreading the conflict, however, remained dominant for nearly three and a half years. That opinion coincided with the fact that the Bosnian war did not threaten any vital interest of western countries, precisely because it was taking place in an isolated area, without internationally important transport infrastructure and without anyone’s big economic interests. The only tangible negative consequence of the war in B-H for western countries was refugees, but even that element was partly alleviated by the fact that a large portion of them were educated people in their prime years.

What finally forced the western governments to intervene and end the war the only way possible – by destroying Serb artillery, primarily around Sarajevo – was shame over the fact that mass expulsions of civilians were happening in the middle of Europe and that nothing was done to stop them by the military powers that were using Europe’s security as the main reason for maintaining their expensive military structures. That shame was accumulating from April 1992 and in the summer of 1995 it reached a level that was no longer bearable for those countries. This coincided with several other elements in favor of intervention, but the shame was certainly the most important one. A key element in the genesis of shame were media reports on the horrors of the war in B-H.

If you reported from other war zones after 1995, could you make a comparison with your experience in reporting from the war in B-H/besieged Sarajevo? Are there similarities? What are the main differences?

I worked in Croatia and in Kosovo during the conflicts, but I was not a reporter from the frontlines. My job there was primarily to interview political and other actors of these conflicts. If I compare my work in Zagreb between 1994 and 1996 and afterwards in Pristina or Belgrade with my work in Sarajevo in 1992 and 1993, the first thing that comes to mind is that I had felt freer as a journalist in Sarajevo.

Croatia and Serbia at the time were ruled by regimes which had developed methods of control, intimidation and putting red tape obstacles before journalists. While I was in Sarajevo, the authorities did not focus yet on the whole media scene, but only on several programs that they considered important. What could happen to you as a journalist was that an armed group temporarily prevented you from doing your work, probably acting on its own. For instance, I remember that three colleagues were arrested in the fall of 1992 by one of those units which gathered the crème of Sarajevo criminals because the beloved unit commander did not like their items for some reason. But they were soon released because someone had seen them being taken away and notified someone else who then intervened, as things go in Sarajevo.

A group of “new” faithful, as they would be called today, started to harass me in March 1993 because I had come to a mosque to interview an imam with a camera in my hand and it was supposedly sending coordinates to the enemy and who knows what else it was doing. But then a friend of mine who was in the neighborhood came by, shouted a little at these fighters against cameras, and the matter was resolved. In Sarajevo I just did not have the feeling that I was working in an omnipresent regime which had persecution of journalists as one of its priorities. It did not occur to me to be careful what I was saying over the telephone or that I was being followed or snitched on.

In Serbia and Croatia, however, I had to take these things into account, not so much for personal protection, but more in terms of protection of a reasonable level of confidentiality of what I was doing. In addition to listening in on conversations and spying on journalists in other ways, the regimes in Serbia and Croatia had developed a number of red tape obstacles aimed at making journalists’ work harder and reminding journalists at every step that the regime was watching them. These red tape obstacles were then a useful tool for police in harassing journalists, which was obviously part of their job description.

In Kosovo, for example, police constantly asked journalists for all sorts of certificates, permits, etc. At the Grand Hotel in Pristina, one time they went from room to room at dawn, waking up journalists and asking for “permits for filming”. I did not have one as I was not filming, so the pillar of the regime focused on an American visa in my passport, without the poor guy even knowing what to ask about the visa and therefore improvising because his job was to harass journalists.

In Belgrade for a long time after the fall of Milosevic, most likely by inertia, decrees were in effect under which foreign journalists needed work permits from the Federal Secretariat of Information and they had to report their stay to the local police station, which is all nonsense unless your intention is to make journalists’ work difficult. In Sarajevo such organized harassment of journalists by the state did not exist during the war and it could not be present after it either due to the international presence.