In Bosnia-Herzegovina, inclusion isn’t an ideal. It’s essential. Ten years after the 1992-95 war, citizens still struggle with the painful aftermath of inter-ethnic hatred. Journalists risk their lives when they challenge the status quo.
“I have had direct threats, a gun in my mouth, they threatened my kids,” remembers Zoran Sovilj, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Kozarski Vijesnik.
Sovilj runs a newspaper and broadcast outlets in Prijedor, once a multiethnic town. During the war, Bosnian Serbs threw Bosniak Muslims and Croats into two concentration camps in the region. Hoping to wipe out the memory of social difference, they massacred an estimated 3,000 people. Distress hovers over the city, its buildings still pockmarked from war.
But now, even as investigators continue their search there for hidden mass graves, 23,000 Bosniaks have returned. They are attempting to rebuild their destroyed homes, seek work, and patch their lives back together.
In the news, Sovilj has exposed the organized crime and corruption that settled in after the fighting stopped, and he has dedicated himself to battling the manipulation that turns people against each other. The television station has been able to air shows that had been “unthinkable before,” Sovilj says, shows that have included Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Serb leaders discussing the need to live together. “To heal you need more than 10 years,” he says sadly. “But it’s important that people are clear that they have to live side by side.”
In plenty of towns, though, children are growing up with no knowledge of other ethnic groups. That was why I was invited to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina recently, in order to teach journalists why and how to include all parts of society in the news. After spending some time there, I realize there is a lot we can learn from each other.
In many areas of Republika Srpska, the Serb portion of the country, journalists looked at me blankly when I talked about media’s important role in civil society. I pointed to some U.S. history as a parallel: the urban uprisings of the late 1960s, for instance, when the Kerner Commission pinpointed the isolation and neglect of African Americans by news media as a central cause.
But my listeners resisted. “There’s no one to report about,” they would point out, “our town has been ‘cleansed.’ ” Or, they would raise other, quite legitimate objections. Readers and viewers didn’t want to hear about other ethnic groups. Advertisers would pull out. They might lose their jobs.
Besides, they told me, we don’t have “minorities” here. We don’t have “race.” Racism is your problem, they insisted.
At Radio and Television of Republika Srpska, one senior journalist wouldn’t buy it. Journalists have a responsibility toward their audiences, she said. For honest, complete coverage, they must include everyone in their reporting.
She’s not the only one to think so. Azemina Smajlbegovic owns Radio ZOS in Duboj, a region straddling Bosnian Serb and Bosniak-Croat regions. She started the station 10 years ago, determined to give voice to all the people who live there. When authorities barged into the station to protest a show airing about sexual abuse of teenagers, Smajlbegovic kept broadcasting and turned the microphone on them.
Zeljko Kopanja edits Nezavisne Novine, the first paper in the Serb-dominated area of the country to report on war crimes committed by Serbs. Kopanja paid for this with both legs — lost to a bomb placed in his car. Yet the gray-haired editor has not lost his fire for truth-telling one bit. His staff includes Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks working in both parts of the ethnically divided country.
“Few media hold onto the holy rule that you should listen to the other side,” says Kopanja. “But the more our readership is growing, the more people are accepting the concept of a normal (multi-ethnic) state.”
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the danger of excluding some groups from the news is evident. In the United States, the situation is not so obviously dire. But we, too, are undergoing a dramatic population change from coast to coast. By 2050, the U.S. census predicts, the nation will be a majority of none.
Unfortunately, journalism has not kept up. Nearly half of U.S. newsrooms still employ only white people, according to recent American Society of Newspaper Editor figures. We continue to portray society as if the only people who matter — at least in a positive way, most of the time — are white. Or male. Or straight. Or physically able.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, journalists risk their lives to tell the truth. They know distrust and fear up close. They know what can happen when some people are shut out from public discourse.
Maybe it’s time we took on some of their passion.
Sally Lehrman, SPJ diversity chairwoman, wrote News in a New America, a fresh look at achieving inclusion in the media. Contact her at email@example.com