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Week of 27 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 22

Feature Article


Never stop the presses

Years of war couldn't silence one Sarajevo paper

By Florence Gallez

"I cannot promise that you will be alive when the siege is over," Editor-in-Chief Kemal Kurspahic told his staff in April 1992. "Nor can I promise you that you will get any awards or promotions. But I can promise you this: as long as Sarajevo exists, this newspaper will publish every day."

Kemal Kurspahic

Kemal Kurspahic

Kurspahic kept his promise. Bosnia-Herzegovina's leading independent daily, Oslobodjenje, not only survived, it became an international symbol for courageous and free journalism.

"In those three and a half years of siege, we never missed a day of publication," Kurspahic recently told a group of students at the College of Communication as he related his battle to keep the newspaper going throughout the Balkan War.

Even when the paper's building was set on fire by Serbian forces in the spring of 1992, the editorial staff worked relentlessly by candlelight in seven-day shifts, hidden away in a bomb shelter underneath the crumbling structure.

"The fire was stopped at six a.m.," recalled Kurspahic, "and five minutes later our press started and we hit the streets. For people to see the paper coming out of those flames, it meant that everything was possible."

Oslobodjenje's fight for survival started with the paper's first wartime editorial meeting in April 1992. As Serbian nationalists were besieging Sarajevo, Kurspahic told his staff he would continue publishing.

Kurspahic cited three reasons for what he called "an agonizing decision." First was the paper's "liberation" tradition. Oslobodjenje means liberation. It started in 1943 as an anti-Nazi force during Yugoslavia's occupation. Then, there was professionalism. "How could we flee when hundreds of foreign journalists were coming to Bosnia?" he asked.

Finally, there was the long-standing bond between the paper and its readers. Since the late 1980s, Oslobodjenje had been a forum for people of different ethnic backgrounds, critics of the government, and proponents of democratic ideas. During the war, that bond was strengthened. Deprived of television and radio for lack of electricity, Oslobodjenje was the only source of news.

"We became the last remaining touch with prewar normalcy," said Kurspahic. "When you couldn't buy bread, there was still the paper every single day." This special relationship with his readers, Kurspahic said, was what made his paper and reporters "legitimate targets" of the siege. "We represented exactly the spirit that they wanted to destroy in Bosnia, which was the spirit of a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious society."

With an editorial team from all Bosnian ethnic backgrounds, the editor hoped to advocate tolerance, in part by example. This ideal exacted a high price -- five reporters were killed while on assignment. Correspondent Ksajsif Smajlovic was killed at his typewriter as he was writing about the attack on his town on April 9, 1992. Kurspahic was injured as well when his car was attacked.

Such trials were numerous. Everything from chronic lack of newsprint to security and distribution problems -- Kurspahic once had to deliver copies in the streets -- contributed to a drop in circulation from the prewar 60,000 to 70,000 copies to 5,700 copies during the war.

In April 1994, the paper's 50th anniversary, a supplement with stories from Oslobodjenje appeared in 82 dailies around the world. It had a total circulation of more than 22 million. "Its voice, instead of being silenced, was heard at ever greater distances," Kurspahic said. And on the second anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, the first English language edition of Oslobodjenje was launched.

It is a story of growth and multiple survivals, as Roy Gutman writes in his introduction to Kurspahic's 1997 book As Long as Sarajevo Exists: "It is a miracle that the city, the state, the newspaper, and the ideals they held in common, survived."

It was in great part thanks to assistance from foreign organizations. The French group Reporters sans Frontières donated 70 tons of newsprint. And in the Boston area, the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and Friends of Oslobodjenje gave similar aid.

Kurspahic, who is now Oslobodjenje's U.S. correspondent, and his reporters received numerous awards for their fiercely independent coverage of the war. Among them are the Award for Courage in Journalism in 1992 and the 1993 International Editors of the Year award. But even before the war, Oslobodjenje had won recognition -- it was named Newspaper of the Year in 1989 in a poll of journalists from throughout Yugoslavia.

"It is remarkable that someone has had that sort of impact on journalism," says Ranald Macdonald, chairman of COM's department of journalism. "It resonates beyond Sarajevo, beyond Bosnia and the confines of his own country. It has opened students' eyes about how journalists operate in a variety of constraints and environments."

"The role of the journalist, in time of war or peace, is to be a witness of his times," concluded Kurspahic. "You just have to write about things the way you see them. If you are free to do so, then you are doing your job."