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4 May 2021

Bosnia and Herzegovina Remains in Effect ‘a Frozen Conflict’ as Political Leaders Push Nationalistic Agendas, High Representative Tells Security Council

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a de facto frozen conflict, where political leaders pursue wartime goals, generate divisions and push nationalistic agendas, the top United Nations official overseeing implementation of the 1995 Dayton Accords told the Security Council today, warning that hate speech and genocide denial risk eclipsing hard-won democratic gains.

“The multi-ethnic and diverse society that existed prior to the conflict has all but disappeared,” said Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, during his last briefing to the Council.  The reality is made all the more poignant by the twenty-fifth anniversary of the General Framework Agreement for Peace — initialled in Dayton, Ohio, in the United States and signed on 14 December 1995 in Paris.

While a joint statement issued by the tripartite Presidency underlines the importance of strengthening trust, peace and mutual respect “among all peoples and citizens of the country”, Republika Srpska aims to roll back reforms and reclaim competencies from the State, he said.

Led by Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska authorities are challenging the fundamentals of the Framework Agreement, leaving open the option for “peaceful dissolution” of the country, he continued.  In Mr. Dodik’s 2020 Arria formula briefing, “it was clear to everyone what kind of irrational, destructive policy and mindset we are dealing with”.  His more recent disclosure to a foreign diplomat that peaceful dissolution is “the only option”, apparently without pushback, and launch by his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party of an online campaign promoting the idea are equally alarming.

“It is unthinkable in our countries, that the President wants to destroy the very country of which he is President,” he said.  Anyone else making such claims would be labelled a traitor, secessionist or seditionist — and possibly arrested.

He went on to stress that Republika Srpska leaders in April met near Banja Luka, where Mr. Dodik announced the formation of teams to negotiate with the Federation on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina — and that Republika Srpska’s national assembly would adopt a platform as the basis for discussions.  The draft platform makes it clear that, if the direction and outcome of these discussions are not to Republika Srpska’s liking, it would reserve “the right to finally decide on its future status”, he said.

As expected, these developments “stirred up” Federation-based parties, he said, particularly Bosniak parties, most of which dismissed the possibility of a peaceful dissolution.  Others predicted a war if secession attempts were made.

“I want to be clear:  Dayton does not give the right to entities to secede,” he said.  He described the political atmosphere as poisoned.  He denounced that Republika Srpska had chosen a moment when the country is in the grips of COVID-19 and when Republika Srpska itself is borrowing €300 million through a bond sale to cover its budget deficit because it would not accept the “easy money” and reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund.

During his mandate, he said he has seen a shift from rhetoric to action in challenging State competences, institutions and decisions.  At best, the goal is to roll back reform achievements of the last 25 years, including those covered by the 14 European Union priorities.  At worst, “this is a setup”, with ultimatums that Republika Srpska knows are impossible to achieve but which it would use to claim it is being “forced” to unilaterally decide on the country’s future status.

For the international community, he said the question is over how long this destructive behaviour can be tolerated — and both Mr. Dodik and Republika Srpska can be regarded as partners.  He pointed to moves in the electoral reform process — at a stalemate for years — as an opportunity to end discrimination and improve transparency.

“We must not allow this process to lead to further ethnic or territorial divisions,” he clarified, adding that the non-response from Republika Srpska on removing decorations awarded in 2016 to three war criminals — Radovan Karadžić among them — underscores the need to criminalize the glorification of war criminals and genocide denial.  On the upside, local elections in Mostar — after 12 years — and the election of Benjamina Karić as Mayor of Sarajevo have given signs of hope.

He urged the tripartite Presidency to live up to its pledge to organize a joint commemoration of the victims of the Second World War, pointing to the “Warsaw genuflection” by then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who in 1970 knelt before a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  “This is what leadership looks like,” he observed.

He also urged authorities to implement the third national action plan on resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, stressing that the many Bosnian women refugees who have risen to political prominence in other countries only drive home the point that Bosnia and Herzegovina is losing its greatest asset — human potential — due to corruption and a general lack of the rule of law.

After years of robust interventionism, Bosnia and Herzegovina should be firmly on its path to European Union accession, he said.  “Perhaps it is time to consider a different approach, somewhere in the middle” he suggested.  The international community must take a decisive stand to stop such centrifugal tendencies which carry security implications beyond the region to the rest of Europe.

Until there is a genuine, demonstrated commitment to peace, it must retain all instruments at its disposal to address potential threats, including the executive powers of the High Representative, the maintenance of international judges on the Constitutional Court, international mechanisms in Brčko District and the international military presence in the country, he said.  Both the international community and progressive actors in the country are making a fundamental mistake if they assume “things will somehow work out”, because time is working in their favour.

In the ensuing debate, several delegates described separatist political rhetoric as dangerous and expressed strong support for the Special Representative’s efforts to foster respect for the Framework Agreement.  Others described his report as unbalanced and replete with arbitrarily interpreted information.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed deep concern over the impact of COVID-19 on Bosnia and Herzegovina, urging the international community to lend support in any way possible.  It is critical that authorities set aside political differences and create a unified response.  She likewise called for combating divisive rhetoric, policies and corruption, urging authorities to strengthen the rule of law.  Recognizing the significance of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina — including in the creation of an environment conducive to the voluntary return and integration of refugees — she expressed concern over the glorification of war criminals, divisive rhetoric and targeted attacks on religious property and pressed all parties to respect their obligations under the Agreement and international law.  With that, she affirmed support for the stability, political independence and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the High Representative.

The representative of the United States said her delegation remains committed to the Dayton Peace Agreement and supports the High Representative’s efforts towards the implementation of its provisions.  Now is the time for renewed focus to, among other things, tackling corruption.  As young people are moving out of the country, the Government must address this issue by taking steps to strengthen institutions, human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Agencies must be sufficiently funded and maintain autonomy.  Politicians resorting to dangerous rhetoric represent another obstacle.  With no elections scheduled for 2021, it is time to advance electoral reform, she said, adding that everyone deserves to know that their vote counts.  Given the current situation, she anticipated the closure of the Office of the High Representative.

The representative of Tunisia, commending the successful 2020 elections especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraged Sarajevo to work on advancing electoral reforms.  Expressing deep concern about negative rhetoric that exacerbates existing divisions and other actions that can threaten reforms and the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he commended efforts of the Government to create a safe environment and to implement relevant agreements.  Encouraging all parties to fulfil their obligations, he called on them to give priority to the needs of all citizens.

The representative of Mexico said the responsibility of elected leaders to their citizens must be a priority, stressing that the formation of the Government cannot be “held hostage to political manipulation or vindictiveness”.  Two years after the last general elections, the creation of a formal Government structure can no longer be delayed.  All political factions must respect and protect the institutional architecture and he called for moving ahead with pending appointments.  While welcoming that Mostar held its first elections since 2008, he expressed regret over the lack of progress on the “5+2” agenda — a prerequisite for the closing of the High Representative’s office — and called for progress.  He underscored the importance of respecting the rule of law, stressing that the delay in appointing the four remaining judges to the Constitutional Court impinges its work.  The process must be concluded as soon as possible.  He expressed concern over attacks carried out against the Court and efforts to destabilize the Framework Agreement with calls for “peaceful dissolution”, recalling the requirement that Framework Agreement signatories abstain from any act that contravenes territorial integrity.  There is no room for the glorification of war criminals, divisive rhetoric or revisionist history, he said, calling on leaders to seek the “common and shared good”.  He also requested the High Representative to share info on the representation of women in political life, notably in elections in November 2020.

The representative of Niger said the positive results of the 2020 elections hide the current political stalemate in the country.  To achieve further progress in this regard, he urged the “5+2” agenda parties to address such urgent matters as returning internally displaced persons.  Their efforts should adopt a constructive spirit that builds on the positive momentum stemming from the elections.  He also urged the Government to take action to combat COVID-19 and protect all the country’s citizens.

The representative of Norway said Bosnia and Herzegovina has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 crisis amid such worrying trends of growing unemployment, loss of income, setbacks within the health and education sectors and an increase in domestic violence.  It is a sad reality that the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been unable to cope adequately with the crisis and mitigate the challenges now faced by its population.  Commending the 2020 local elections, she said 2021 constitutes a window of opportunity for reforms, urging political actors to use this momentum for dialogue and to make a genuine commitment to democratic principles towards a common agenda.  Priorities include appointing a new Government and continued reforms headed by strong political will and leadership.  Encouraging the Government to make further efforts to improve the rule of law, she said upholding standards of judicial impartiality and integrity, and of police independence and accountability, are essential to ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina develops as a State based on the rule of law.  Welcoming the Council of Ministers’ decision to establish the Commission on cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), she also emphasized that women are key to peace and called on all parties to ensure their full, equal and meaningful participation in all aspects of peacebuilding.

The representative of Viet Nam said that while there have been some positive developments, including the conduct of elections, he nonetheless expressed concern over the political conditions, marked by divisive rhetoric and a lack of much-needed cooperation.  There also has been a lack of progress on the “5+2” agenda and some gains have even been rolled back.  “The interests and well-being of the people must be placed at centre of all efforts,” he stressed, calling on all parties to work together to overcome their differences and engage in confidence-building measures.  National reconciliation would drive long-term stability towards a united and peaceful country.  Efforts should focus on socioeconomic development, the rule of law and public administration reforms, he said, underscoring the importance of national ownership in that regard.  International support, including from related countries, is no less important, while reconciliation efforts should focus on bringing parties together in joint endeavors, he said, expressing support for the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The representative of India urged the High Representative to continue to work with all parties to build trust, recalling that implementation of the “5+2” agenda must remain the top priority.  Issues surrounding the Office should be resolved through consensus.  Among the gains, he cited the joint statement by the tripartite Presidency marking the twenty-fifth anniversary, as well as assembly elections in Brčko District and local assemblies in cities and municipalities in both the Federation and Republic of Srpska.  “This is a welcome trend reflecting people’s faith in democracy,” he said, pointing nonetheless to the growing number of illegal migrants transiting Bosnia and Herzegovina as a matter of serious concern.  Attempts to seek justice for those massacred during or missing since the [1995 Srebrenica] genocide must continue and he welcomed the adoption of the Revised War Crimes Processing Strategy.  While progress has been slow on the “5+2” agenda, the problems facing the country are bound to be encountered on the path to nation-building, especially by people of different faiths, ethnicities and languages.

The representative of the United Kingdom said it is time for leaders to reinvigorate action to implement reforms and urged authorities to work closely with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Venice Commission.  Commending the 2020 election results and the work of the High Representative, she also raised concerns, including the current political rhetoric, which poses a serious threat to peace and stability.  The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina need their leaders to urgently combat the pandemic, strengthen the rule of law and advance efforts towards European Union membership.  The United Kingdom continues to support reconciliation efforts, she said, recalling the many victims of the Balkan’s conflicts and calling for an end to impunity for war criminals and denial of the Srebrenica genocide.  She voiced strong support for the Office of the High Representative, which continues to play a key role, including through the implementation of the “5+2” agenda criteria.

The representative of Kenya pressed authorities to advance the five objectives and two conditions required for peace and to ensure full compliance with the General Framework Agreement.  Leaders must set aside their differences and forge a unified, coordinated response to the pandemic.  He urged them to strengthen their counter-terrorism strategies, notably by preparing the legal and disengagement capabilities to handle repatriated and returning fighters who had travelled abroad to fight for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), likewise stressing that a conducive environment must be created to enable the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes of origin — including by ending the glorification of war criminals.  “Unity of purpose, especially at leadership levels, is critical in laying a firm foundation for a democratic and inclusive governance system,” he assured, cautioning against any action that divides people along ethnic or religious lines.

The representative of France called on all parties to the Dayton-Paris Agreements to fully implement all provisions.  Urging the Government to take concrete steps to combat COVID-19, she commended recent progress in other areas, including the 2020 elections.  The year is the opportunity to implement reforms and advance Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application to European Union membership, she said, adding that the full and effective participation of women is essential.  She condemned the glorification of war criminals and denials of the genocide.  Given the tense political discourse, she said the Office of the High Representative and EUFOR-ALTHEA must be maintained.  As such, she called for redoubled efforts moving forward, leading up to the closure of the Office of the High Representative.

The representative of the Russian Federation, regretting to note the format of the meeting, said in-person gatherings in the Council Chamber must return the organ to its normal working methods.  Turning to the High Representative’s latest report, she said it is not balanced, containing “cherry-picked” information interpreted arbitrarily and presented in a way whereby the fault of the current situation only lies with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, creating an illusion for the further need of his Office.  Citing several worrying features in the report, she said it cites the High Representative’s interference on the ground, which is only inflaming tensions.  Suggesting that the High Representative stop acting like a self-proclaimed governor general, she said a worthy alternative is for Security Council members to read the report drafted by Republika Srpska.  Emphasizing that there is no alternative to dialogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said external interference and sanctions are unacceptable.  The people must determine their future, not a High Representative, whose work runs counter to a rules-based democratic State and international law.  Moreover, two out of three constituent peoples are critical of the High Representative’s work, reflected in recent legislative action, she said, adding that conditions for the closure of the Office of the High Representative must reflect current realities.

The representative of Estonia said the High Representative’s report is excellent, and that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future is with Europe.  Welcoming the 2020 elections and the adoption of war crimes legislation, he called on leaders to seize the opportunity in 2021 to advance reforms.  Reiterating full support for EUFOR-ALTHEA, he said their presence is crucial given the current political landscape.  Raising concerns about glorifying war criminals and downplaying the genocide, he said such rhetoric is unacceptable.  Calling on leaders to engage in constructive dialogue, he said Republika Srpska must stop taking divisive actions.  Turning to the pandemic, he said Estonia stands with the European Union to support efforts to combat the coronavirus.  More broadly, he called on all leaders to work in solidarity and unity in tackling issues.

The representative of China, Council President for May, speaking in his national capacity, encouraged all parties to strengthen dialogue, enhance mutual trust, promote ethnic harmony, reconcile differences and promote solutions to nation-building issues.  All ethnic groups must work together to cope with COVID‑19, he added, urging the international community to scale up its support to fight the pandemic and to take a “fair and balanced” approach towards the country.  The High Representative meanwhile must maintain good relations with all Bosnian parties.  Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the situation has undergone great change.  The international community should examine ways to render support in implementing the accord, he said, underscoring China’s respect for the country’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, and support for national reconciliation.

Mr. INZKO, responding to comments by the representative of the Russian Federation, said his Office checks everything a politician has done “painstakingly”, including when someone says he supports peaceful dissolution or that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no future.  Regretfully, “we have all the originals collected in our office,” he said.  Likewise, his Office will report on decisions to endow convicted war criminals with decorations or diplomas, especially when these events are publicized on public television.  The same is true if someone negates a Constitutional Court decision outlining that State property belongs to the State.  This normal precept is not recognized by Republika Srpska, which recognizes instead that property on Republika Srpska’s territory belongs to itself.

He went on to stress that rivers, mines for coal, gold or silver — “whatever is underground” — is property of the State, as is military property.  Recalling also that the Defence Minister is a Croat and his predecessor was a Serb, he said one cannot say that the Ministry belongs to one people or another.  He pointed out that the Republika Srpska report sent to United Nations members is not an official document.  Nor was it channelled by the Permanent Mission or the Ministry.  It is full of inaccuracies, among them, the claim that the High Representative is a dictator, which is “simply wrong”.  The report is also strongly critical of European judges sitting on in the Constitutional Court.  He recalled that this provision is “a Dayton category” and outlined in the Constitution that Bosnia and Herzegovina will have three international judges on the Court.  There are currently judges from Romania, Germany and Switzerland, the latter of whom sat on the European Court for Human Rights.  “This is a luxury,” he explained.  “These three bring standards.”  However, political leaders do not like any judges.  Nor do they like the rule of law, he said, citing instances when Republika Srpska did not even respect its own court, including in a case related to military property.

Regarding a Euro-Atlantic future, he said this is a self-declared aim of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He recalled the unanimous decision taken at the 1995 Peace Implementation Council in London that the country’s future should be closely linked to Europe.  He also cited article 84 of the Defence Law, now 11 years old and signed by a Serbian leader, outlining that the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina is with NATO.  As for his Office, he said he would welcome its closure, he said, drawing a historical parallel with the withdrawal of allied forces from Austria after the Second World War.  “The best solution would be to have dialogue.”

The representative of the Russian Federation said the Euro-Atlantic prospect does not pertain to the High Representative’s mandate.  “This is yet another distortion of facts, saying there is consensus in Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding that prospect,” she stressed.  Any remarks indicating that the population supports accession to NATO are “not quite the truth”.

The representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, turning first to the pandemic, said authorities have been taking all necessary measures to secure sufficient numbers of vaccines.  However, the pace of delivery of prepaid vaccines from the World Health Organization COVAX system has been “unreasonably slow”.  Hospitals and medical institutions have done a tremendous job, providing health services to everyone, including migrants and asylum seekers, irrespective of citizenship or health insurance status.  On the economic front, gross domestic product fell by 4.6 per cent in 2020, and while financial packages were created, the country would welcome assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Meanwhile, he said security conditions are calm, a point reflected in reports of the EUFOR ALTHEA Mission, and authorities more broadly are working to implement reforms required by the European Union to obtain candidacy status in 2021.  He cited the adoption of the Rules of Procedure of the Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee as an important step towards European integration.  Bosnia and Herzegovina also continues to foster friendly cooperation among other countries in the region on issues of mutual interest, a top priority, and fulfil its international obligations in countering terrorism.

He pointed to the rule of law as among the highest priorities on the reform agenda, stressing that the law of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council must be revised.  Judicial institutions continue to process individuals fighting on behalf of terrorist organizations, as well as those who facilitate their recruitment.  As for processing war crimes in domestic courts, he said fighting impunity is vital.  The international migrant crisis meanwhile poses a substantial challenge, he said, pointing to a “significant” increase in refugees and migrants on its territory, most of whom crossed the border illegally.  Bearing in mind that Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a final destination for migrants, authorities require stronger international support.

The representative of Croatia, aligning himself with the European Union, said that as the Dayton Agreement marked its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina should finally turn the page and embrace peace-time goals and engage in reforms necessary for its Euro-Atlantic integration path with more determination.  This challenging process is crucial for the long-term stability, security, prosperity and democratic transformation of the country.  For its part, Croatia remains a staunch supporter and advocate of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he said, citing recent examples, from visits by the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs to vaccine donations.  Stability and functionality of Bosnia and Herzegovina also greatly depend on equality of all its citizens and equality of its three constituent peoples — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.  If not fully respected, it has a potential to be source of tensions, functional gridlocks and political crisis.  Indeed, 2021 is a year of vast opportunity which needs to be seized, including by establishing an inter-agency working group to tackle election law changes in order to implement Constitutional Court rulings.  Credible and impartial election administration institutions are crucial for conducting free and fair polls, in line with European standards and based on the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and relevant Venice Commission recommendations.

He said that continuous attempts to shift focus from much-needed comprehensive reforms contribute to deepening of the challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  What Bosnia and Herzegovina needs today is much more cooperation and far less division, he said, pointing to recent dangerous and unacceptable attempts to destabilize already fragile political landscape.  The responsibility for the future of the country lies primarily in the hands of its peoples, political leaders and institutions, he said, emphasizing that:  “It is time for Bosnia and Herzegovina to take ownership over crucial reforms and show it is capable of successfully tailoring its own destiny.  Backward-looking and keeping the unsatisfactory status quo is prompting thousands of young people to emigrate.  Successful finishing of electoral reforms and relaxation of political tensions can serve as a good foundation to shift country’s focus on building sound political, economic and demographic perspective.  Croatia will strongly support Bosnia and Herzegovina to fulfil 14 priorities defined by the European Commission, and therefore to achieve candidate status for European Union membership.

The representative of Serbia highlighted bilateral solidarity in combating the pandemic, pointing to his country’s donation of thousands of vaccines, securing a corridor to facilitate the flow of goods and adopting measures for free movement of citizens without the obligation of taking COVID-19 tests.  Indeed, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very important partner for Serbia, he said, pointing to recent visits, intensifying high-level dialogue, economic cooperation and joint infrastructure projects, including a highway between Belgrade and Sarajevo.  Regional cooperation is not only necessary, but also achievable only if all parties demonstrate a readiness to work together on the realization of the strategic vision for all in the spirit of good-neighbourly relations, he said, expressing support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European integration processes.

Serbia’s priority is to maintain peace and stability, he continued.  As a guarantor of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Serbia respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its three constituent peoples and two entities.  Emphasizing that the agreement was reached by compromise and a delicate but hard-won balance, he said any attempts to put one model prevalent more than 25 years ago in front of another is less than conducive to the full and lasting stabilization of the situation.  The mechanism to alter the Dayton Agreement depends on consensus among the two entities and the three constituent peoples, he said, adding that Serbia will support every arrangement reached in a legitimate way.  Calling on all political actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and representatives of the international community to demonstrate an ever-greater level of responsibility, he said dialogue within national institutions is the only way to boost confidence and achieve a compromise solution of issues relevant to the country’s future development and the entire region’s stability.

The Head of the European Union delegation, citing efforts to address the 14 key priorities identified in the Commission Opinion, drew attention to the conduct of elections in Mostar, adoption of the revised National War Crimes Strategy and the Strategic Framework on Public Administration Reform, and preparations for holding the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee.  He urged leaders to use 2021, a non-election year, to carry out reforms and thereby offer proof that they will “do what it takes” to become a European Union member.  In particular, he expressed the expectation that elections will be conducted in line with European standards according to recommendations by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and others by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.  Transparency in political party financing and the enactment of both constitutional and electoral reforms are equally important, notably in addressing the European Court of Human Rights Sejdić-Finci case law.  He expressed regret that the Constitution does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, per the ruling in that case.

Calling for inclusive electoral reforms, carried out in line with European standards, he cautioned against any legislative or political steps that would make implementation of the Sejdić-Finci and related rulings more challenging.  He expressed regret that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide and anniversary of the Dayton Peace accords was marked by persistent nationalist discord aimed at creating “a climate of division” and said that 2021 has seen revisionism — notably the minimizing or the negation of the Srebrenica genocide and glorification of war criminals, which are incompatible with the prospects for European Union integration.  Raising concerns about conditions facing internally displaced persons, migrants and refugees, he said humanitarian efforts must be pursued with a view to, among other things, bolster border management capacities.  Turning to the pandemic, he said the European Union has undertaken efforts that demonstrate its strong commitment to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Regarding the situation on the ground, the European Union reaffirms its support for EUFOR-ALTHEA.  Calling on all parties to abandon dangerous rhetoric, he said the bloc fully supports Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European Union perspective as a single, united and sovereign country.

For information media. Not an official record.