Gareth Davies Velma Šarić

Velma Šarić is the Founder and Executive Director of the Post-Conflict Research Center. She has over 12 years of journalistic experience working for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. In addition, she has worked as a producer and consultant on a number of films, including “Uspomene 677”, “In the Land of Blood and Honey”, and “I Came to Testify” and “War Redefined” from PBS’ “Women, War, and Peace” TV series. Last year Velma and the Post-Conflict Research Center were awarded the Intercultural Innovation Award by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations. She is also the founder of Balkan Diskurs, a non-profit, multimedia platform dedicated to challenging stereotypes and providing viewpoints on society, culture, and politics in the Western Balkans. This interview provides an insight into the role of Balkan Diskurs in the existing media landscape, its aims and its initiatives.

GD: Can you tell us a bit about how and why Balkan Diskurs was formed?

VS: Almost twenty years after the end of conflict in the Western Balkans, the media landscape continues to exacerbate tensions between communities across the region. For example, in my country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country’s three main constituent ethnic groups – Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats – remain divided over interpretations of the past and politics of the present, whilst minority groups are subject to high levels of stigmatization. The majority of the country’s media is highly polarized along ethnic and political lines. These outlets rarely report on the experience of other ethnic groups in a fair and balanced manner and rarely focus on the plight of minority groups within the country. Indeed they actually exploit information to promote ethnic stereotypes and influence negative perceptions and attitudes towards members of other ethnic groups.

Simultaneously, there is a lack of accessible objective, independent media across the region exposing youth to progressive ideas, education and experiences that promote concepts of respect for others, inclusion, and harmonious inter-ethnic relations – all of which are essential to the development of sustainable peace.

Balkan Diskurs was set up by a regional network of journalists, bloggers, artists, and activists, in response to this lack of objective and independent media in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans region. It’s dedicated to challenging the negative influence of media – skewed media reporting and the misuse of negative stereotypes – and promoting invigorating, relevant reporting through providing a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives that can be found in a single place. It’s also a site that is looking to the future through its educational work with young people across the region.

GD: How long has the magazine been around?

VS: The website went live last August and we’d completed our first round of training with local youth in late October. Initial support was provided by the South East European Media Observatory and the European Union Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) through the Center for Independent Journalism Budapest (CIJ). We also received support from Rising Voices, and we haven’t looked back since! Over the last 6 months we’ve published over 60 articles, photo-essays, interviews, and academic papers, and our audience is growing month-on-month.

GD: Could you tell us a bit about your own background?

VS: I was born in 1979 in Vlasenica in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and grew up in the small industrial town of Kladanj, which is an important transit point halfway between Tuzla, Sarajevo, and the Drina River. My father was a social worker and my mother worked as a tailor at a local clothing shop, and when I was 10, my only brother, Safet, was born. We lived a simple, yet happy life before war broke out in the former Yugoslavia.

At the start of the genocide in Bosnia in 1992, I was 12 years old. I spent the next 3 years under siege and constant shelling until the end of the war in 1995. The experience of the war and its aftermath affected me so deeply that I decided to make it my mission to help my country recover from the legacies of war in any way that I could, so, with limited financial support and amidst the instability of a still fragile post-conflict environment, I managed to put myself through school and was able to obtain a degree in Political Science from the University of Sarajevo. During my time at university from 2003 to 2008, I worked as an expert associate on research related to genocide, international law, and war crimes. It was also during this period that I taught myself English so that I could work with members of the international community who trying to help my country recover. I was especially inspired and encouraged by Dr. Eric Markusen, a great scholar, educator, and most of all, friend. He believed in me and introduced me to the world of genocide scholars and experts from all around the world. 

After my time at university I became a Sarajevo-based correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) during which time I focused on covering war crimes trials and issues related to war crimes prosecutions in the region. During my work as a journalist I was able to work with many incredible people throughout Bosnia, the region, and the world who would come to me asking if I could assist them with projects related to transitional justice and peacebuilding. Suddenly, I was doing jobs for filmmakers, photographers, scholars, NGOs, and others seeking to execute conferences, workshops, documentaries, reportages, exhibitions, and projects that contributed to reconciliation in Bosnia and the greater Balkans region.

The story of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) really began in Sarajevo in the summer of 2010. That summer, I had designed and organized a study abroad program for American university students from Colorado. One of the students that took part in that program was Leslie Woodward. One day Leslie asked me why I didn’t just branch out and start my own organization. I explained to her that it was risky and that I didn’t know if I could do it by myself, to which she replied, “Well what if I moved here and helped you do it?” A year later she was here and we've never looked back.

GD: Would it be fair to say that Balkan Diskurs occupies a position where it ‘writes back’ against mainstream media?

VS: In a way – yes. The platform is dedicated to addressing the lack of integrity and transparency within Bosnia’s mainstream media. It aims to provide viewpoints that cannot be found in other media. It’s a place where our diverse range of contributors can write without fear of censorship, and our audience can read independent, objective reports that matter to everyday people in Bosnia and the Western Balkans.

However, Balkan Diskurs is about more than just “writing back” against the mainstream media. The work on the site connects themes across borders and aims to help people explore controversial – often divisive – issues from a diverse range of perspectives. Regular topics include transitional justice, inequality, corruption, and human rights. In this way, the site is also helping cultivate an environment for sustainable peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the greater Balkans region.

GD: I noticed that Balkan Diskurs has an emphasis on citizen journalism and education. Can you tell us a little more about those initiatives?

VS: Youth in Bosnia are not given the space to express their views, or share their concerns, ideas, and opinions about the issues that directly affect them without fear of reprisal or censorship. At Balkan Diskurs, we believe that it’s extremely important that these voices are heard and that young people are taken seriously as stakeholders and decision makers in this region’s transitional and peacebuilding processes.

Media literacy levels in the region are low though, and because of this young, regional talent must first be cultivated to practice journalism, multimedia, and blogging that lives up to international standards in order to meet the hunger for unbiased, relevant topics in the region of the former Yugoslavia. This is exactly what we’re trying to do through the citizen journalism training courses. We’re looking to the future.

Last October we ran our first workshop entitled “Media Literacy and Resisting Manipulation”. We received an overwhelming response from youth throughout Bosnia across both the Federation and Republika Srpska entities, and selected 14 participants from a variety of towns and cities. All of the participants were either interested or already engaged in citizen journalism, and so the focus of the workshop was on increasing the standard and credibility of their work. The workshops increased participants’ understanding of journalism forms, standards and ethics, as well as developing their skills in basic journalistic practices, fair and balanced reporting, and the use of multimedia tools

During training, participants took part in hands-on learning with media professionals from across the region, including professional journalists, Selma Boračić and Marija Simanić-Arnautović, from Radio Free Europe and TV Liberty, and professional photographers and videographers, Midhat Poturović and Velija Hasanbegović.

These young people have since continued to work with us, publishing articles on a wide range of topics on the Balkan Diskurs site.

GD: Your pieces are in both English and Bosnian. Is Balkan Diskurs' content designed with both an international and domestic audience in mind?

VS: Absolutely – we’re aiming to make the region more understandable and more transparent for both local and international audiences. Bilingual reporting is at the heart of this idea, but it’s also reflected within the types of partnerships we’re forming with other organisations. In addition to working with grassroots organisations supporting media freedom in Bosnia and the Western Balkans as a whole, we’re also forming partnerships with international organisations interested in post-war issues, peacebuilding, freedom of expression and media freedom. Insight on Conflict, Index on Censorship and, of course, Warscapes are just a few examples of similar-minded organisations who are now publishing our work.

GD: I noticed that you are partnered with the South East European Media Observatory and Vojvodine. Do you see Balkan Diskurs as part of a regional effort toward grassroots reporting in the Balkans?

VS: For sure – the majority of countries in the Western Balkans perform poorly in terms of press freedom, and some have actually seen a deterioration in recent years. Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro are just a few examples. Press freedom is not an issue that can be dealt with in isolation and as such we have a strong network of regional partners, including the Human Rights House of Zagreb, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina and Media Centar Sarajevo. We’re always looking to build new partnerships across the region – to share experiences and improve our practices – and in time we also hope to grow a regional network of local correspondents through working with youth from Serbia, Croatia, and further abroad.

GD: Finally, what does the future hold for Balkan Diskurs?

VS: Balkan Diskurs is still in its infancy. In the short-term we want to continue working with our existing local correspondents, further developing their skillsets, whilst also recruiting new correspondents to work on specific projects or aspects of the site. We also want to expand our audience at a regional and international level through continuing to form partnerships with like-minded organizations. As for our long-term vision – it’s ambitious! Ultimately, we want Balkan Diskurs to become a model of good practice for citizen journalism initiatives in post-war environments, assisting other young peacebuilders, journalists, and activists in setting up their own platforms and establishing a network of inter-connected sites.

Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. Twitter @garethaledavies