Government Millions for Private News Outlets in the RS

The government The Republika Srpska (RS) has donated 14.5 million KM to media in the entity over the past three years, of which 3.9 million KM went to boost financing of five daily and weekly newspapers.

Željko Kopanja, owner of Dnevne Nezavisne Novine, said that he was tired and that he wanted his son to take over.

The government The Republika Srpska (RS) has donated 14.5 million KM to media in the entity over the past three years, of which 3.9 million KM went to boost financing of five daily and weekly newspapers.

More than half of this amount went to two newspapers owned by Željko Kopanja, friend and former business partner of the RS president Milorad Dodik. Nezavisne Novine got 1.2 million KM, and Glas Srpske 910,000 KM. The money was given according to a new program promoting self-sustainability of media which Dodik initiated in mid-2009.

Srđan Puhalo, a Banja Luka-based media analyst, said that behind the smoke and mirrors of coming to aid media the funds were distributed to favored news outlets.

Srđan Puhalo, Banjaluka-based media analyst, thinks that the RS Government will give a lot of money to media this year because of the local elections.
Photo by CIN

Reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) have asked the RS Ministry of Finances on several occasions for a full disclosure of government grants that went to the media. Instead, CIN received only aggregated data for the period between 2002 and 2008 which show around 15 million KM being spent on media. According to the data CIN reporters culled from the RS Official Gazette, this money was mainly used to finance the RS State News Agency (SRNA) and the RS Broadcasting Corporation (RTRS).

Over the following three years, the RS government spent nearly the same amount, but this time the much bigger portion of money went to privately owned news outlets.

Most of the money was allocated in 2009 when, on top of the planned 2 million KM going to media, the government added another 5 million when it rebalanced the budget. In comparison to the earlier years, the money was shared among some 70-odd media outlets. Nevertheless, the biggest amounts went to weekly and daily newspapers Fokus, Press and Reporter, and the newspapers Kopanja owns.

During 2010 and 2011, the government spent an additional 7.5 million KM to finance mostly private news outlets.

Together from the Day One

The Nezavisne Novine were incorporated in the Register of Public Media on Dec. 12, 1995. The Laktaši-based Igokea company Dodik owns filed the incorporation request. The court disposition on the incorporation of the newspaper says its mission is to affirm the strategic interests of the Serb people leading to its unification with Serbia. The first editor-in-chief was Dodik’s brother Goran, while the first issue was printed on Dec. 25, 1995, in Serbia.

‘We started out with 3,000 marks which we borrowed and we printed it in Belgrade, because no one wanted to print us here’ said Kopanja, one of the founders.

Four months later, the News, Publishing and Printing company Nezavisne Novine was incorporated in the Banja Luka Basic Court. The founders were Igokea and Kopanja, who was also named the director, with the founding capital of 500 dinars each.

RS president Milorad Dodik established Nezavisne Novine in 1995.
Photo by CIN

At the end of July 1997, Igokea left Nezavisne Novine, while Kopanja in April 1998 merged the newspaper with the newly established firm the News, Publishing and Printing company Dnevne Nezavisne Novine. The founders of this company were Kopanja and his wife Nataša.

After the rocky start, the project began to develop. Kopanja said that Nezavisne Novine received the financial assistance from the American government, USAID, The European Commission, various non-government sectors and George Soros Foundation.

‘I received for this from Swedish government at least over 1 million KM since 1995. From the American government (I got) over 2.5 million dollars.’

He added that the support of the foreign organizations had lasted two or three years when the local authorities picked up.

At the time, Nezavisne Novine and Integral Inženjering company became majority owners of Glas Srpske, the corporation that until than had been in the majority state ownership.

During the first year of co-financing, the RS government gave 600,000 KM to Nezavisne Novine and Glas Srpske in 2009.

The contracts were signed in the beginning of November. Nezavisne Novine and Glas Srpske have pledged to keep the current number of employees during nine months, to pay the back taxes, as well as the obligations and contributions for the employees. If they did not fulfill their obligations, the government could ask them to return the money.

According to financial reports, Dnevne Nezavisne Novine had 142 employees in 2009. A year later, this number went down by five. At the same time, the number of employees in Glas Srpske was decreased by two.

Kopanja said that it was possible that there were some perturbations within the group, but he added that nowadays they had more employees than they needed.

The RS Ministry of Finances refused to disclose to CIN reporters the reports on the spending on funds with an explanation that those were confidential.

Nezavisne Novine had 7,000 KM of profit in 2009 and 600,000 KM in 2010.

Millions for media support to the government

The RS government in 2010 decided to give out money to private media. In mid-June Dodik signed the Decision on the Allocation of 5 million KM to media. According to this document, TV and print media should get 4.4 million KM, while radio stations would get 550,000 KM. The call for applications was put out on July 1, with A 90-day deadline. The call listed the same conditions from the previous years, but omitted the obligations to show proof of paid taxes and workers’ contributions, and the guarantee of continued employment. Apart from the RS Official Gazette, the call was only published in Glas Srpske.

Nezavisne Novine received 150,000 KM from the RS government for the sale in Serbia.
Photo by CIN

However, from July 9 or eight days after the call was published, the RS government issued a decision denoting 2,360,000 KM, even though the deadline for applications had not yet passed. One third of the amount was given to Kopanja’s newspapers – Nezavisne Novine and Glas Srpske. RTRS received one million KM, Fokus 360,000 KM, Press 200,000 KM.

Just 20 days later was decided on the allocation of the additional 1,650,000 KM. The money was given to nine media outlets, in the range between 50,000 KM to 400,000 KM, whereas the biggest amount went to BN Television. In this way 80 percent of the money allocated for financing of media was disbursed by Sept. 30, the day of the closure of the call for applications.

The RS auditors criticized the manner in which funds were allocated in a 2010 report saying “The funds were allocated without specific criteria according to discretionary decisions of the RS government.“ The auditors added that media which responded to the call were unaware of this information which made them conclude that “This led to a missed opportunity to achieve transparency of government spending as well as to achieve the real competition based on the quality of projects.“

Soon after the RS Government had allocated the bulk of the money from the 2010 call for application, the campaign for General Elections in BiH began.

According to investigations on the media reporting during the election campaign in September 2010, carried out by Sarajevo-based Media Plan Institute, Nezavisne Novine and Glas Srpske openly sided with the ruling party of Dodik. They reported in detail from every election rally and presented Dodik as the guardian of the RS.

Preparations for local elections

The RS government continued to give out money to media in 2011. The budgeted 1.6 million KM, the RS National Assembly increased to 3.6 million KM through a rebalance. In comparison with the previous years, the media did send in their projects in 2011. Until the end of the year 1.4 million KM was spent, half of which was given to Kopanja owned newspapers.

Money was split among four projects: the distribution of Nezavisne Novine in Serbia was supported with 150,000 KM, and the opening of a Nezavisne Novine office in Washington with 95,000 KM. The polls on the state of society and confidence in the RS institutions and administrative barriers to incorporation and getting a new company off ground in the RS, were supported with 210,000 KM and 225,000 KM respectively.

In the decisions on the allocation of funds reads that the public polls were to last between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2011. The RS Prime Minister Aleksandar Džombić signed this document on Aug. 18, or a little more than a month before the project was about to end.

Kopanja said that this investigation was done together with Strategic Marketing, a Belgrade firm, based on whose results Nezavisne Novine were to carry out analyses and publish stories.

He added that he had not received more than 2 million KM in the past three years because of his friendship with Dodik and that the money has not biased the media he owned in favor of the authorities. Rather, he said, there was a measure of self-censorship in the minds of the reporters and editors:

‘Probably there is, I won’t say a moral obligation, but some feeling that the government has helped the company in the turbulent times.’

The rebalance of budget approved additional funds. Yet, at the end of 2011, an amount of 2.3 million KM was unspent. The government allocated for media financing 1.4 million KM in the 2012 budget.

Although the contracts make it clear that there was going to be a monthly oversight into the spending, the RS Ministry of Finances has yet to present to the public its two annual analysis that it was under obligation to carry out. The ministry’s officials claimed that there was a report for 2009, but CIN reporters were not allowed to see it, despite repeated requests. The Supreme Office for the Republic of Srpska Public Sector Auditing in one its report stated that neither this nor 2010 report existed. interests and the champion of its independence, who was bravely facing off the Federation of BiH.