SARAJEVO Bosnia's national broadcaster BHRT faces closure unless ethnically divided politicians can agree on how to finance public service media, the network's general manager said on Wednesday.
Up to now BHRT has been funded with license fees added to monthly phone bills but payments have been stalled by bickering among Bosniak Muslims, Serbs and Croats in the Sarajevo parliament. An interim, six-month financing measure approved by parliament expires on June 30.
The rights watchdog Council of Europe has warned that BHRT's demise would be a further grave setback to efforts to rebuild a cohesive state after Bosnia's 1992-95 ethnic war, which left the country split into autonomous Serb and Bosniak-Croat entities with a weak tripartite presidency in Sarajevo.
"All alarm bells are ringing," BHRT General Manager Belmin Karamehmedovic, a Bosniak, said in a last-ditch appeal to the authorities to enable the broadcaster to continue operating. "At the moment, we don't have any model of financing. We need quick solutions to survive. It's literally a matter of days."
Any collapse of BHRT would also set back the Balkan country's prospects of accession to the European Union.
"The idea of a future member state of the European Union without public service media is unthinkable," said European Parliament deputy Cristian Dan Preda, referring to Bosnia's ambition to obtain EU candidate status by the end of 2017.
"This is a dramatic situation for Bosnia," Patrick Pennincks of the Council of Europe said. "It is of key and utmost importance that the solution is found."
Bosnia's public broadcasting system was created from scratch with international help after the 1990s war with the goal of combining three separate wartime ethnic broadcasters and discourage inflammatory nationalist rhetoric.
Its funding model functioned for years but the rise of cable providers and mobile telephony has decimated fee collections, burdening BHRT with 16 million euros in debt to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), contractors and employees.
Outdated media laws that regulated BHRT's operation and financing need to be reformed but Croat and Serb lawmakers in the Sarajevo parliament have blocked them.
Croat MPs make reforms conditional on the formation of a Croat television channel, while Serb deputies reject them as a threat to Serb regional autonomy.
The Serb and Croat stances are seen by analysts see as geared to reshaping broadcasting along ethnic nationalist lines.
(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)