Natasa Tesanovic: Building a TV Business to Help Rebuild Bosnia and Herzegovina

downloadFor the last two decades Natasa Tesanovic’s TV station has challenged a nation to face its violent past and reconcile issues that would otherwise tear it apart. Her independent media outfit has succeeded in a patriarchal society, accustomed to partisan news, for two main reasons: a well-run business and courageous, professional journalists—most of whom happen to be women.

Good news stories have been thin on the ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) since peace returned to the region at the end of the devastating three-year Bosnian War in December 1995. Since then, BiH has been buffeted by ethnic tensions, endemic corruption, gangsterism and economic stagnation. Yet despite it all, the country has held together and last year held peaceful elections that were judged to be broadly free and fair by international observers. Tesanovic’s Alternativna Televizija Banja Luka (ATV) was there throughout helping the country navigate the political twists and turns flowing from its complex constitutional structure.

Tesanovic and a small multi-ethnic group of colleagues founded ATV at the dawn of the newly independent state in 1996.

“I was a journalist and editor at the national radio-TV broadcaster and I wasn’t happy with my status at that time and with the editorial policy,” said Tesanovic. “ATV was a professional challenge and an option to make a step forward in my career.”

ATV has reported unflinchingly on the deep-seated issues pulling at the fabric of the country. It has been a vocal supporter of the respect for human rights, peaceful ethnic co-existence and economic development, despite repeated financial, physical and legal intimidation.

War crimes, facing the past, corruption affairs and violation of human rights are some of the topics we have covered.Natasa Tesanovic

ATV was initially part of an international media project called Open Broadcast Network, which brought together a network of stations from across the country airing a segment of programs simultaneously. The difficulties inherent in any network TV project were compounded by the political and ethnic divisions within the country: two autonomous entities with their own governments (the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and the Bosnian Serb Republic, or Republika Srpska), operating within a single national entity with its own government, a rotating national presidency and the overarching Office of the High Representative.

“In a divided country that was just out of war, it was almost a mission impossible. The public was not ready for such a project and unfortunately, in the network itself, there were several problems.” Perceived preferential treatment for the central hub of the network in Sarajevo and a lack of transparency undermined the project and made it harder for ATV, the only member from the Republika Srpska, to gain credibility locally.

Striving for independence every day

BiH is a difficult place to practise independent reporting by any measure.“Bosnia-Herzegovina is a deeply divided and unstable country,” Tesanovic explains. “The economy is poor, unemployment high and almost every segment of society is deeply corrupted. Political parties in power control public companies, but maintain business connections with many private local companies that could not operate without those special connections. That’s why we often have financial threats, next to direct political threats, as a result of critical and independent reporting about authorities, because those companies refuse to advertise with independent media. The struggle for maintaining an independent editorial policy and to survive as a mediaoutlet is a challenge on an everyday basis.”

But Tesanovic refuses to compromise on editorial coverage. She can see the impact it has on her community and the benefits that radiate out to wider society. “War crimes, facing the past, corruption affairs and violation of human rights are some of the topics we have covered. For years now, we have been persistent in our attempts to uncover negative aspects of our society and show the perpetrators. We did contribute to a certain level of conscience change, in terms of accepting part of the responsibility for war crimes committed by representatives of the community we operate in, and strengthening civil courage and civil initiatives to pressure institutions to change inadequate legislation, investigate affairs and implement the laws.”

From donor funding to competitive business

Tesanovic raised funding for the new station from donors, mainly the Swedish development agency, Sida. ATV began broadcasting for less than two hours a day to Banja Luka, the largest city in Republika Srpska, with one transmitter. “In only a few years, we transformed into a broadcaster with regional coverage, employing over 100 people, airing 24 hours a day and producing almost 30% of programs, of which the news and current affairs program is the most watched and influential,” she said. This was despite – or perhaps because of – the hostile environment facing media that seek to provide independent news and analysis, rather than partisan coverage supporting their political patrons.

Media Development Investment Fund has worked with ATV for a little over a decade, providing multiple rounds of financing and working capital. With the investment ATV constructed its own purpose-built studios, improving the quality and quantity of its production, and purchased transmission equipment to extend its broadcasting reach.

Developing the station as a viable business has been a major part of the strategy to build ATV’s resilience to pressure. “When we first started the operation, we were supported by donors and that helped us survive in spite of the pressure. In the years that followed, we managed to build our credibility and boost the ratings. That has helped us a great deal to fight back the demands to change our program policy.”

Even without the political pressure, developing a financially sustainable business in such a tough economic environment is a daily challenge. Planning and decision-making in an audience-driven business is particularly difficult when there’s little or no market research and where the last census was 14 years ago. There’s also the issue that “not all are equal under the law.” Some companies have to pay taxes and some don’t. Some get state and municipal grants and some don’t. “We try to work carefully and sensibly and meet all our obligations because that is the ‘price of free journalism’.”

Don’t focus on gender, focus on people

Tesanovic chooses not to focus on gender as an issue that defines her work in journalism, though notes that it’s “particularly difficult for women journalists, since they are exposed sometimes to direct insults of politicians on a sexist base.” Rather she stresses the importance of “hard work, persistence, team work, careful selection of co-workers and constant and persistent work with people, because people are the most important resource.” Even so, ATV employs more women journalists than men and “they do their job with great courage and success.”

It’s particularly difficult for women journalists, since they are exposed sometimes to direct insults of politicians on a sexist base.Natasa Tesanovic

As for entrepreneurship, she says she wouldn’t put a special emphasis on the importance of gender there either. “In my work, being a woman didn’t bring obstacles. In spite of a patriarchal society we live and work in, where a woman is expected to be a wife and a mother in the first place, and being a businesswoman comes second, I managed to make a balance between my private life and my career, thanks to enormous help from my family. I think I even managed to make the fact that I’m a woman an advantage of mine. Sometimes you are not expected to have characteristics that are normally considered as a man’s, so letting your business opponents believe in that, you can gain a strategic advantage of a sort. A woman in this business should not be frustrated for being a woman, but taking it as a plus.”

To be successful in this pressure-cooker business, whether male or female, she says you need to have “courage to make those decisions that do not seem logical at first glance and don’t bring results right away, consistency, careful expenditure, entrepreneurship, investing in the young and educated.”

If she had to do it all over again, would she do anything differently? Tesanovic notes that transitioning from a project launched by a group of people with shared goals to a professional business with a clear division of duties and responsibilities was especially painful. “Looking from this perspective, I’d take a slightly different approach,” she says. “My biggest failure was my poor judgment of certain people closest to me … my advice to everyone working with and/or employing friends and family is to be cautious. Though mutual respect and teamwork, along with having around you people who are compatible with you, are necessary for business success, especially in the media business, it is important to keep relations professional and clear.”

And in the final analysis, do the stresses and dangers of directing a high-profile media company in a hostile environment outweigh the benefits of knowing that ATV is providing news that people can’t find anywhere else? “The problems seem big and almost impossible to solve sometimes,” she explains, “but I never regretted the decision.”

More From the Women Effect in Independent Media Series

The Women Effect in Independent Media Series highlights women in media building commercially viable, independent, news businesses in environments hostile to the press.

Introduction: The Women Effect in Independent Media Series

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Part I: Natasa Tesanovic’s TV business is helping rebuild Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Part II: Mabel Cáceres' digital magazine is giving Peruvians a voice

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Part III: Chia Ting Ting is strengthening independent media in Malaysia through innovations in advertising

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