TV control is now the battlefield in Bosnia

The SAS and American aircraft have joined in, says Andrew Gumbel in Banja Luka
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The Independent Online
A new war is being waged in Bosnia. This time it is not a fight for territory, at least not in the traditional sense, but a struggle for the hearts and minds of the Bosnian Serbs. The surprisingly large number of people taking part includes two rival factions within the Bosnian Serb body politic, their police forces, international diplomats, election monitors, peacekeepers, Pentagon strategists - and even the SAS.

The battleground is television. Anyone who has struggled over the past two months to understand the strange power struggle between the Bosnian Serb President, Biljana Plavsic, and loyalists of her predecessor, the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, need think no bigger than the small screen.

The media, television in particular, have been at the heart of their tussle. Information is so scarce in Serb-held Bosnia, and education levels so low, that whoever controls state television effectively controls the country. The media have been a consideration in every key event of the summer - from Mrs Plavsic's decision to break away in the first place, to the campaign for this weekend's municipal elections being held all across Bosnia.

So important is this struggle that the West has deployed aircraft capable of jamming TV transmissions and broadcasting substitute programmes. It also accounts for a mysterious recent shoot-out in which the SAS killed a Serb former police chief.

Mrs Plavsic first burst into the limelight by accusing Mr Karadzic and his publicly visible acolyte, Momcilo Krajisnik, of running Serb-held Bosnia into the ground through the organisation of a gangster black economy. One of her motives for speaking out looked to be the way in which she, from her power base in Banja Luka in north-western Bosnia, was being marginalised by the men from Pale, Mr Karadzic's mountain HQ above Sarajevo.

How she did know she was being marginalised? The Banja Luka television studio, which operates from the same floor in the presidency building as her office, found that its broadcasts were being withheld or tampered with by censors in Pale.

At this point she enlisted the help of the international community, swallowing her nationalist pride and selling herself as a democratic pluralist as the price for world support. And the world responded with an intriguing act: SAS members with the international peacekeeping force SFOR, swooped on two men in the north-western town of Prijedor who were wanted on war crimes charges: the first time the international community had dared to fulfil this part of its mandate under the Dayton peace accords.

It now turns out that television was an important part of their choice of prey. One of the men, killed while resisting arrest, was Simo Drljaca, the former Prijedor police chief. Through him, the Prijedor police had remained loyal to Pale; they also controlled a crucial transmission station on Kozara mountain, between Prijedor and Banja Luka.

One effect of Drljaca's death was that the Prijedor police switched to Mrs Plavsic's side, once she won over the security forces in Banja Luka itself in late August. Soon afterwards, her men took control of the Kozara transmitter and Banja Luka began broadcasting its own programmes to northern Bosnia.

The international community applauded, partly because it wants to encourage whatever political pluralism it can get in Serb-held Bosnia, and partly because Mrs Plavsic's news service was much less aggressive and overtly partisan. SFOR helped by seizing a key transmitter under Pale's control at Udrigovo in north-eastern Bosnia, and simply switching it off.

In response, Mr Krajisnik's men rounded up a band of opposition leaders who tried to seize a transmitter at Duge Njive, near Doboj; then, on the day SFOR seized Udrigovo, his supporters staged open revolts against the peacekeepers in the nearby towns of Brcko and Bijeljina, stoning soldiers and international police and destroying scores of military vehicles.

Throughout, Pale television pulled no punches. It dubbedSFOR "SS-FOR" and screened tampered footage appearing to show international officials beating up and mistreating Serbs. SFOR temporarily lost its nerve and agreed to hand back the Udrigovo transmitter - on two conditions: Pale should stop the gratuitous attacks on its reputation and should grant opposition parties an hour of air time each day in the run-up to the elections.

Pale has only half-respected this agreement. On the night it regained control of Udrigovo it showed tongue-in-cheek footage of SFOR soldiers stroking doves one minute, then releasing and shooting them the next.

The international community's latest move has been to station three aircraft in Brindisi, southern Italy, capable of scrambling television pictures and broadcasting others. According to SFOR sources, this is a clear message to Mr Krajisnik: either broadcast what you have agreed to, or we will broadcast Mrs Plavsic's television in its place.

If the international community hoped that the TV war would ease some of the political censorship on the air, it has to some extent been vindicated. In Mrs Plavsic's sphere of influence, election campaign coverage has not only been less venomous but also remarkably indulgent in giving air time to all parties.

"I've visited 38 private radio stations and all but one is giving free air time to the SDA, the Muslim nationalist party," said Fabio Gergolet, a spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is organising the election. "This would have been absolutely inconceivable two months ago."

These are early days in the war. No similar process has yet occurred in Muslim- or Croat-controlled areas. But the international community at last seems to have an effective strategy: "We had to start in Serb Bosnia," one official said. "After all, they were the ones who started the war."