SU-PRO-MEDIA | 15.08.2018 12:10 > 15.08 12:15

Spokepersons Hindering Access to Information

In addition to all travails accompanying the profession – from political pressure, to various threats, discord and lack of solidarity among colleagues, to, as a rule, being insufficiently paid – journalists face yet another obstacle in the form of institutions not willing to disclose information of public interest under their control. Sometimes such information does arrive but is incomplete, and sometimes it is complete but the story it was supposed to corroborate is no longer of interest.

“If you have enough time to wait for information, you will eventually obtain it. The problem is that we all have deadlines, and if we do not receive prompt answers, we cannot complete our stories,” says Ljiljana Smiljanic, a journalist with Al Jazeera Balkans.

Smiljanic adds that there are institutions which release the information sought only after the expiration of the legal deadline of 15 days, but there are also those rather old-fashioned ones, which deliver their answers via the postal service or fax. Her personal record in waiting for an answer was two months.

“I waited two months for an answer from the Republika Srpska Commission for Concessions at the time I was working on a piece about concessions for the construction of small hydro-electrical power plants… For two months I kept sending inquiries and phoning to the Commission and the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining which is in charge of the matter,” she says.

The Commission kept referring her to the Ministry and the Ministry kept referring her to the Commission, but Smiljanic would not give up. Eventually, she chanced upon both the Commission president and the minister at an event and finally arranged for the data she sought to be delivered to her.

“There are not many journalists who can dedicate that much time to a single topic and that can be that persistent,” Smiljanic says.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was the first country in the region to pass a law on free access to information of public importance. This is a special law, meaning that it applies always and without exceptions, and that the only limitations are prescribed by that law and none other.

The law contains a provision requiring a mandatory determining of the public interest in every specific case, which should serve as additional guarantee that the authorities will not hinder the access to information defined as confidential if its release is in the public interest.

But, what the law says is one matter, and what actually happens is something else. A research conducted by the Center for the Development of Media and Analyses from Sarajevo published last year shows that over one-half of Bosnia’s institutions, at all levels of government, does not abide by the Law on Free Access to Information.

Ratko Kovacevic, head of the Department for Communication and International Cooperation of the Indirect Taxation Authority, believes it is very important that both journalists and citizens can access information from relevant institutions.

“We are an institution that has been transparent from its very beginnings, and we always go public with both positive and negative developments… It is best to provide information transparently, because providing truthful and transparent data always turns out to be the best solution,” Kovacevic says.

In addition to the institutions ignoring in various ways the law in question, their heads rather frequently discriminate against certain journalists and media houses. The ministers and directors of public companies and institutions, appointed to their positions owing to their party affiliations, rather frequently classify the journalists into the suitable and the unsuitable ones.

BN TV has long ago been blacklisted by the Republika Srpska ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, whose ministers and directors were strictly instructed by the party top brass not to communicate with the station’s journalists.

“Discrimination exists. Institutions do not treat all media equally. As BN TV journalists, I personally, and all my colleagues, have not been allowed to enter the RS Palace for about three years, although we have applied for accreditation. Our applications were never approved. When the colleagues asked the president [RS President Milorad Dodik] what was the reason for that, he turned this into a joke, because, apparently he finds the matter funny. He said that there are procedures that may last as long as 20 years,” says BN TV journalist Danina Milakovic.

Indirect Taxing Authority spokesman Ratko Kovacevic claims that his Department treats all journalists and media equally and that there is no discrimination.

“We think that all journalists and media should receive information from competent institutions and be treated in the same way,” Kovacevic points out.

Quite frequently public institutions spokepersons are the major obstacle to journalists in their quest for complete and relevant information.

Al Jazeera’s Ljiljana Smiljanic says that in institutions headquartered in Banjaluka many spokepersons do their job properly, responding to journalists’ questions and arranging for statements by various officials. Sometimes, she adds, they offer information off the record which, albeit requiring additional investigation, is a good starting point for a story.

“On the other hand, those who understand their responsibilities in a different way are in the majority. They are doing their best to prevent the information sought to reach the journalists,” she stresses.

According to her, their understanding of their duty being to defend their superiors is a complete misconception.

“They do not understand that if a journalist asks for information, this means he or she already has certain data based on which they can still do the story,” Smiljanic says.

BN TV’s Danina Milakovic says that she cooperates quite well with many spokepersons who do not judge a journalist based on which party their boss is affiliated with.

“Unfortunately, most of them are just obedient servants. Some even do not answer the phone calls. I think this is completely wrong, especially because most of them are former journalists. They know what our job is like, how difficult it is to obtain information, what it means to work on the ground and try to communicate with various institutions,” Milakovic says.

She calls that “amnesia by choice” – a syndrome affecting many who change their profession for a position in public institutions.

“As soon as they enter their new, comfortable office, they forget how it is to work on plus 30 degrees Celsius, or on minus 20,” Milakovic concludes.


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