An opinion piece on the reaction to the first night of protest in Sarajevo. Thanks to Kontrapress for sharing.
The propaganda machine in the service of the regime
Political parties and media in BH united against the demonstrators.
By Paulina Janusz
originally published at kontrapress.com, 9 February 2014
Bosnia and Herzegovina has not seen this kind of unity for a long time.
The united front of media and federal political parties created during the last events in Bosnian cities has proven to be so firm that only social networks have been able to save citizens from sinking into complete informative darkness. The goal of this (para)journalistic activity directed toward rebellious Bosnians and Herzegovinans, who have for the first time decided to express their dissatisfaction with the economic collapse of the state on the streets, is above all to calm down the situation, to turn public opinion against the demonstrators, to redirect the story toward problems easier to employ for electoral campaigning, and finally, to maintain the political status quo.
So the typical television news broadcast these days comes down to hysterical stories about “vandalism,” internet portals down to galleries of dramatic photos, and all of them together to a space for the self-promotion of “elites” who are a little bit panicked but still certain of their overwhelming power.
THE MOB UNLEASHED
The biggest media loser in these protests is certainly the portal radiosarajevo.ba. On Saturday morning there appeared on the site a text by the editor in chief Lana Ramljak, “The day when we were all defeated together,” which launched several of the leitmotifs of the media campaign directed against the protesters. The author puts forward, for example, the thesis that the only legitimate means of struggle is the ballot, while demonstrations should resemble the JMBG protests [in summer 2013, when peaceful demonstrators compelled the parliament to make possible the issuance of identity documents]. Not one word of the commentary is dedicated to the failure of this method so far, for example that that neither was the JMBG law was passed in the end, not do the electoral platforms of the parties in BH offer any hope for a better future.
The protests are not about the despair to which all of the governing groups have brought the people to the present, but rather they are a sign of an “unleashed adrenaline mob,” which “once it had shoved aside the genuine, disempowered demonstrators, decided to set fire to the little bit of history that we have managed to preserve through these stormy years. Century-old buildings swallowed by flame, helpless fire and police officers, wounded fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and neighbours, scenes of looted kiosks and demolished tram stations.” Ramljak lists several “shocking witness accounts,” again without any effort to discuss the social context and the citizens in it, and in the end concludes: “Let’s vote, not burn. Let’s get seriously involved in the processes, a ‘like’ is not enough, and act preventively and not when it is, for some people, maybe already too late.” That prevention is a privilege of orderly and healthy societies is something we would not find out from this text. Its goal is not, in any case, to explain anything to us – rather it is to persuade us that the demonstrators are bloodthirsty vandals, who attack innocent women and steal cigarettes from demolished kiosks.
THE CASE OF THE ARCHIVE
Radiosarajevo.ba quivkly went down the path indicated by their editor. A competition began between them and the portal klix.ba over whose pictures of burned buildings, scattered furniture and office equipment would be more drastic, all accompanied by dramatic commentary: “It is not easy for those young people, it is not easy for anyone in the country, not even for us. But things like this will not help anyone,” or “the damage is inestimable,” “arson we did not need,” “this is a crime” (radiosarajevo.ba), “Protests yes, but violence and destruction no!,” and “when archives burn that is a cultural shame for the whole society” (klix.ba). All those captions were after all outdone by klix.ba when at one moment for their profile page on Facebook they elected a photo of the BH presidency building taken during the war. Without commentary, of course.
The titles listed above mostly related to the BH Archive, partly located in the Presidency building which was damaged during the fire. The Archive director, Šaban Zahirović, quickly became a media star and the most sought after person in the country, because he put forward the destroyed items from the Archive to the powerholders as the best evidence that the demonstrators were in fact monsters with no respect for culture. What those same concerned politicians did for culture during their rule, perhaps best demonstrated by the locked doors of the National Museum, none of the reporters asked.
The media condemned the burning of the Archive, and only then began to bring forward facts about how much the archival material was in fact destroyed. Nobody cited the witnesses who said that the great majority (99.9%, even) of material was saved, and that information would probably never have become public were it not for social networks and the film director Jasmila Žbanić, who first began to draw attention to this manipulation. The best sign of how important this spin was to politicians may be the example of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which reproduced on its web site an article about this topic published in Oslobođenje! That was the only news item about the protests, aside from statements by SDA members, that appeared on the official site of SDA.
HEIRS TO THE CHETNIKS
Aside from Lana Ramljak’s text the greatest controversy was provoked by the second greatest loser in reporting about the protests – Al Jazeera. The best evidence of their role in protecting the people in power and inciting opinion against the demonstrators was their “fully well-intentioned” text by the Srajevo imam Muhamed Velić, “I cried in silence,” which appeared on the TV station’s web site on Thursday evening. Like Lana Ramljak, Velić speaks of vandalism, theft, and the lack of decency. But the imam brings a new element into the dicourse – war. “In May 1992 the BH Presidency was defended. Trams and tanks burned on Skenderija, but to the Presidency, as the symbol of the state, no, that is more than a symbol or a tate, that is history, the destroyers could not approach. Unfortunately, tonight the Presidency fell,” he writes in his “eyewitness account.”
Later on pictures of buildings “that not even the Chetniks succeeded in burning” would appear in nearly all media reports. A little bit short of calling people “Chetniks” was another popular construction that occupied media for a period – “hooligans who are not from Sarajevo” – and this construction made its way to BH politicians who hew close to the idea of national divisions. The words of Zlatko Lagumdžija at his press conference on Friday evening were identical to the ones used in the public statement by SDA on Saturday morning. According to these apparently competing parties, the key fact is that protests were held in areas “with a Bošnjak majority,” and not the reason they were held.
THE PANDERING PARADE
But even before the two ruling parties in the Federation made their statements, there was a shining moment for the security minister, Fahrudin Radončić. The head of the security agency arrived first thing on Friday morning to the studio of TV1, where he declared that he had been warning BH politicians (as if he were not one himself) for months about the difficult situation and that nobody should be surprised by disorders. The same evening Radončić was the guest on the broadcast of Senad Hadžifejzović, who did not even try to get concrete information from the minister but gave him the space to present himself as a critic of crooked privatisation and a defender of the downtrodden. Left out of the conversation was the topic of the “Avaz tower,” a building that is regarded in Sarajevo as exemplary of criminal privatisation.
The next day Hadžifejzović’s guest was the federal premier Nermin Nikšić, and he was also spared unpleasant questions. One gets the impression that the host even helped him out a bit, by suggesting several times that the protests could not be spontaneous. Among other things, Hadžifejzović said that “he would like to believe that these are citizens,” while saying that the slogans on their banners were “very literate” and “well designed,” he even praised their style, suggesting between the lines that workers could not be so literate. Nikšić was happy to accept the hypothesis, and added that it was “known who distributed banners in Mostar.” The deference that Hadžifejzović (and the hosts on Federal and BHTV) showed to their guests would surely never have been shown to representatives of the demonstrators. But only a few non-mainstream media thought to ask them for their opinion.
But coming back to the security minister. Radončić was probably the most successful in using the protests for his personal promotion. As he has been trying for a long time to present himself as a “new face” on the political scene he had a welcome opportunity to distance himself the federal and cantonal governments.
The leader in the promotion of the “boss” was of course the daily Dnevni Avaz, which continued to function as a party paper. They carried the security agency’s press releases, Radončić’s public appearances, the appearances of their own journalists as BBC commentators and, of course, carried forward the minister’s personal wars. Radončić characterised the rebellion as justified. However, how much he cared about the protesters could be seen in the continuation of his fight with his predecessor Sadik Ahmetović, who called on Radončić to resign on Thursday and repeated the call a day later. For this Radončić punished him by digging up an old story about alleged relations between Ahmetović and a minor, which had no connection to the ongoing events.
SDA did not lag far behind by serving as the source for stories that the security agency stood behind the protests and the vandalism. This spin represented an attempt by the party to kill two birds with one stone; by presenting the protests as political manipulation by one party, they were able at the same time to discredit the demands of the protesters, while also gaining a weapon to use against their political opponent. The theme of “who is behind the demonstrations” became the unifying motif of almost all interviews with politicians that could be seen on television. For example a full 15 minutes of the conversation between Nikšić and Hadžifejzović on the evening news were dedicated to claims that Radončić had organised the disorder.
THE LOWEST BLOW
However, the lowest blow in the media campaign against the demonstrators will be remembered as the drug story. The news that “police had during the protest confiscated 12kg of drugs” first appeared on Saturday at 1PM on klix.ba, and was taken up by all of the web portals. The information was “incidentally” included in the press release of the Sarajevo cantonal police with statistics on arrests. To be sure, it was denied by the evening, all by then the damage had already been done.
By then Mirsad Kebo, the vice-preseident of FBiH, had already told journalists: “I did not see any fighters, I did not see serious people, I did not see invalids. I saw some people on drugs,” while on the street interviews on TV1 (dedicated entirely to condemnation of vandalism) spontaneously appeared passersby who spoke of “kids on drugs.” Nermin Nikšić went so far as to say, during his appearance on Face TV, that “somebody was passing out pills to the demonstrators.”
If they were not junkies then, judging by the media reports, the demonstrators were at least thieves. On Saturday radiosarajevo.ba promoted, then repeated several times during the day, an article titled “They stole and burned, then they put it on Facebook.” The article is in fact a large claim about two photos on Facebook, of which one shows some packets of cigarettes stolen during the protest, and another shows a boy posing with some plaques that were stolen from the Canton Sarajevo building. The message was clear: hooligans are not in the minority, they are the core of the demonstration.
Probably these details might offer some kind of explanation as to why media did not even in the margins of their reports discuss the catastrophic position of workers, or the economic and social collapse of the state. Journalists know well who is in charge and whose interests they have to defend. Even at the price of their own professional integrity.