Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Were we at the same protests?

The article first appeared on Istinomjer.ba on 11 February 2014. Note that information on some of the linked URLs may have been changed or updated since the original article was published.

Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Were we at the same protests?

We knew that the profession of journalism had a bad reputation in Bosnia and Herzegovina even before recent events, but in the past few days we were able to witness it first-hand it in the worst possible way.

Aside from the political parties’ cheap nationalist propaganda, which Istinomjer wrote about yesterday, the protests that started in Tuzla and spread to other towns were accompanied by unbelievable lies and misinformation, which were carried by local as well as foreign media. Istinomjer has not up to now engaged in analyzing media reporting and media responsibilities, but this time the organized dissemination of incorrect information has compelled us to address this subject, for obvious reasons. It is obvious that the behaviour of the media over the past few days is directly tied to the behaviour of political parties and government functionaries, and that the media “spinning” is being used precisely for the purpose of dodging responsibility by those same politicians and government functionaries. The goal is to paint the dissatisfied workers, the unemployed, the youth, and all the citizens who are protesting nonstop in the streets of Bosnia and Herzegovina—who are organising citizen plenums and trying to participate directly in making decisions upon which their lives depend—as “hooligans,” destructive “mobs,” ethnic and national “enemies,” agents of “centers of power,” or anything else that would prevent a conversation in the public space about the responsibility of government functionaries or an analysis of the situation that has led to widespread anger and the expression of dissatisfaction. Numerous media outlets, especially public service media, wholeheartedly signed on to this project, publishing unconfirmed, unchecked, and false news stories, contrary to all professional standards.

Therefore, let’s take a chronological look at the biggest falsehoods that we have had occasion to read, watch, and hear.

Thursday, 6 February

Looting of the “Omega” shopping center

One of the first bits of false information that appeared in public was published after the second day of workers’ protests in Tuzla, when the public was informed that demonstrators in this city were looting and destroying the Omega shopping center. The information was, according to what was written by certain media outlets, confirmed by the spokesman of the Tuzla Canton Ministry of Internal Affairs, Izudin Šarić, as well as by the FENA correspondent from this town. No one made any additional effort to explain how this information could have been confirmed by these two sources, considering that it was . . . totally incorrect. The news was very quickly denied [Note: Broken link–page taken down since publication]—by the allegedly looted Omega shopping center itself—and the same night that this information was released to the public, the Al Jazeera Balkans correspondent in Tuzla confirmed via Twitter that the Omega shopping center was not damaged at all, nor was it looted. He published on his profile page a photograph that shows that the shopping center was in perfect condition, and the same was broadcast by the local Tuzla television station Slon, whose crew photographed the undamaged shopping center. As far as is currently known, no one has apologized for circulating misinformation, which was, before it was denied, used as the “ultimate proof” that the demonstrators were looters, hooligans, criminals, and the like.

Injured policeman in critical condition

The same day, the Tuzla Canton Ministry of Internal Affairs released the information that one of the two policemen wounded in the riots  in Tuzla was in critical condition, but this information was that same day denied by the Tuzla Clinical Center, which confirmed that none of the injured were in life-threatening condition.

Friday, 7 February

The “Udar” group is preparing a national attack

After announcements appeared that protests would occur in Banja Luka and Prijedor, media outlets in Republika Srpska also set in motion the effort to discredit the protests. On Friday, the SRNA agency published an article in which Aleksandar Vranješ, professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Banja Luka, was quoted as saying that the protests were started in order to “topple the legally elected government,” and all with the goal of establishing a different constitutional system. Vranješ further “analyzed” the thesis that he himself proposed, and concluded that the protests could not “spread to Republika Srpska” because the political program was unacceptable in that part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These assertions were reported as facts and not as his personal opinions, despite the fact that neither Vranješ himself nor the agency that published them offered any kind of source or proof for the statements. No one from the group was contacted to confirm this information, which was soon shown to be totally incorrect, seeing as how the demands that were set forth by the Plenum of Citizens of the Tuzla Canton had absolutely nothing to do with the constitutional system. Still, that did not prevent Vranješ from using formulations like “They [Udar] literally think” or “They are calling on Serbs and Croats,” as if he had conducted a conversation with all the members of the group only moments before making his statements.

This inflammatory article, based on incorrect assertions and showing a clear inclination toward raising national tensions, would establish a trend in the protest-related reporting of Republika Srpska’s mainstream media. And this trend would continue in the following days.

Saturday, 8 February

The drug speed was being circulated among the demonstrators in Sarajevo

After the protests escalated, resulting in setting fire to buildings housing the cantonal governments—first in Tuzla, and then in Sarajevo, Zenica, and Mostar—information was released to the public that during the course of the protests, the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Internal Affairs confiscated 12 kilograms of amphetamines, also known as “speed.”

“I would just like to add that while the protests were taking place, police seized 12 kilograms of the drug speed, which some [people] tried to distribute,” the spokesman for the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Internal Affairs, Irfan Nefić, is quoted as telling the Anadolu Agency.
However, that same information, which was used by numerous politicians to try to discredit the demonstrators, was denied the next day by the same spokesman for the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Internal Affairs who had allegedly confirmed it the day before. The truth is that police confiscated a sizeable amount of drugs and weapons on the same day that the protests were held, but, as Nefić pointed out, that took place in a completely different part of town from the one where the protests took place, and the confiscated drugs had nothing to do with the demonstrations:

“Regarding the 12 kilograms of speed that were found, it must be noted that the members of the Narcotics Task Force, in the course of regular activities, apprehended three persons, and they were found with 12 kilograms of speed, guns, ammunition, and some other items chargeable as a criminal offence,” spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Sarajevo Canton, Irfan Nefić, told Klix.ba, and he explicitly stated that the drugs were found in the area of Novi Grad and Ilidža, and not at the protests. Who the “author” was of the first statement that was released by Anadolu was never investigated or confirmed. Again, the media outlets who released this false report did not try to find out where it came from, the person to whom it could be attributed, or how it could occur that this kind of report could be released to the public by a news agency.

Demands of the demonstrators to abolish the cantons and entities

On Saturday many Internet portals published a text with the headline “The Manifest of the ‘New Bosnia and Herzegovina’,” which was described as an announcement containing the demands of the Udar and Revolt organizations from Tuzla. Among other alleged demands of these groups which participated in the protests, could be found those that advocated the abolition of the cantons and entities, as well as the particularly interesting “demand” that clearly had to serve as proof of the political underpinnings of the protests:

“The resignation of Bakir Izetbegović and Nebojša Radmanović, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the temporary assumption of power by Željko Komšić (Mr. Komšić was educated in the study of political science at one of the top 5 world institutions, while Izetbegović has a degree in architechture and Radmanović has a degree from the philosophy faculty.)”

“The Manifest of the ‘New Bosnia and Herzegovina'” was quickly denied by the organizations cited, from whom Istinomjer received a response that not only did they not draft these demands, but also that no one contacted them to ask about the demands, nor were the demands published on their Facebook pages, as was reported by some media outlets. Articles containing this text can still be found on the Internet, and the media outlets that circulated them have not published the denials that were sent by the groups Revolt and Udar.

The same day, information was released via the SRNA agency that the Facebook page of Udar also published the proclamation of the World Bosniak Congress from 20 November 2011, in which it appealed to the “Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina” for a return to the “1992 Constitution of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” This information was also denied by Revolt and Udar, and it was confirmed that the Facebook page on which the proclamation was published had no connection to the organizers and participants of the protests and that no one contacted them in order to check the information before it was published—something that should surely be done as a fundamental professional practice before the publication of a news story. Whether this was a case of simple lack of professionalism and education on the part of the journalists who circulated completely unchecked and unconfirmed information or a case of a purposeful release of false news that would facilitate the interpretation of the protests as ethnic, and not social, rebellion—that’s probably not so hard to figure out.

A large portion of the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina were destroyed by fire

When the building of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina was set on fire, the fire first took hold in the rooms in which the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina are located, and the institution’s archivist, Andrej Rodinis, told Fena that “a collection of incalculable value was destroyed by fire.” The first report of the burned archives, published on the Klix portal, started off with the standard “hooligans” theme as well as the earlier news of the destroyed Tuzla shopping center. However, it was later established that some of the “hooligans” took matters into their own hands to put out the fire in the archives, and those who put out the fire in the building said that a majority of the collection was preserved, and that the office that was destroyed by fire was in fact the one in which a small part of the collection was located and not the repository itself in which all of the archival documents were stored. It is interesting that here, too, the media did not try to do a thorough job and check the actual extent of the damage; nor did they investigate the responsibility of the archive itself regarding the fact that a part of the collection was located in a place, it seems, that did not offer adequate protection for the valuable materials.

Monday, 10 February

“Tanks” on the border

On Monday morning, after the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, publically aired the speculation that there existed a “possibility” that the EU would send troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the emerging situation, photographs of military vehicles sitting at the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina appeared on social networks. Media outlets rushed to circulate the unverified Facebook profile statuses of people who shared these photographs, along with commentary that at issue were tanks that were entering Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason? None other than the protests occurring in this country’s towns. But this information, too, was very quickly denied by the Border Police of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“With the goal of preventing the further dissemination of misinformation regarding the photographs of military vehicles—track vehicles on transporters in the parking lot of the International Border Crossing at Gradina—we inform you that the activity in question involves the export of said military vehicles, which are track vehicles containing exclusively radar equipment that have been at that site since 5 February 2014. The Border Police of Bosnia and Herzegovina were informed, in accordance with legal procedures, about the export of this military equipment to Hungary, but on 5 February 2014, the transporters carrying the military equipment were not permitted to enter the Republic of Croatia until the exporter from Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted all the necessary documentation for the export to countries of the European Union, and that is why they remain in the parking lot of the International Border Crossing at Gradina,” the Border Police announced that same day. Again, professional media outlets would probably be interested in information that Bosnia and Herzegovina had begun to export track vehicles, and that the appropriate documentation had not been prepared to do so, in which case one could expect that they would look into following up on this news by also investigating why track vehicles are sitting at the border if the procedure for their export has not been completed. But no, after they found out that this had nothing to do with military force that was set in motion to halt the protests, the news simply disappeared from the media.

Tuesday, 11 February

An “attack” on Republika Srpska is being prepared in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

PressRS took went one step further than SRNA in using propagandistic methods for spreading the fire of international fear, publishing perhaps the most incredible falsehood, unconfirmed information or media spin—whatever this example of anti-journalism might be called—in the past few days. On Tuesday, 11 February, on the first page of this paper, there appeared an article with the headline, “Demonstrators are promised weapons for an attack on Republika Srpska!!!” and the frightening teaser, “Riots in the Federation Increasingly Smell of War.” The source for this apocalyptic “news” was given by a certain “political analyst from Tuzla,” Mehmedalija Nuhić. Accompanying the headline was a dramatic text in the style of the best of conspiracy theories, with assertions like these: “Nuhić points out that certain activists of the informal organization Udar spent time abroad, where certain intelligence agencies put arms supplies at their disposal.”

“Certain activists,” “certain agencies,” and the undefined but surely threatening “abroad” are, of course, mentioned without any kind source, proof, names or titles, and again, no one tried to contact the members of the Tuzla group themselves, much less confirm this information. PressRS, in other words, gave themselves permission to publish the news that the “outbreak of war,” so to speak, had already begun, without any sort of source except the semi-anonymous “political analyst,” who also was not called on for anything except his own unbelievable assertion about people with whom he had not had any type of contact.

Similar assertions about “buses standing by with demonstrators who set off from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina toward Republika Srpska” could be heard yesterday from Republika Srpska president, Milorad Dodik, and the Veterans Organization of Republika Srpska  [BORS] president, Pantelija Ćurguz, with the theory that the Republika Srpska prime minister Željko Cvijanović and president Dodik had already introduced back on the second day of the protests, that the riots in the Federation were to be carried over into the RS. That this was a classic example of diverting attention from the problems of citizens in the Republika Srpska to the “chaos in the Federation,” imagined buses, and armed attacks, is indicated by today’s demand by BORS for the resignation of Ranko Škrbić, ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgrade, and the president of BORS, Pantelija Ćurguz. From this call by the veterans, and also from the call of the opposition in the Republika Srpska for the scheduling of early elections, we can clearly see that the state of affairs in this entity is not great nor is it “absolutely settled,” as Željko Cvijanović described them in his first declaration about the protests. As well we can see that “the buses and weapons from the Federation” are being used as a desperate attempt to divert attention from the reasons that citizens are dissatisfied with the situation in this entity. In the days to come it will be especially interesting to see how all these media outlets will explain the disappearance of the “armed attacks,” which were, as they are today, being announced without any scruples.

The President’s Office of the University of Sarajevo forbade the meeting of the Plenum of Sarajevo Citizens

At the moment of finishing this text, one more piece of false information has been published in—as far as we know for now—two electronic media outlets, Federal Television and TV Sarajevo. The Plenum set a meeting of a group of citizens for Wednesday, 12 February, at 17:30 in a space located on the campus of the University of Sarajevo. But during today’s protest in Sarajevo, an unknown individual started to pass out flyers to the people gathered there. These flyers announced an incorrect place and time for the meeting. The Plenum of the Citizens of Sarajevo denied that this meeting was changed and confirmed that it would be held as originally announced. This, meanwhile, did not prevent these two television stations from broadcasting the news, as if were confirmed, that the Plenum was cancelled because the University of Sarajevo president forbade the use of space on campus. The news was denied at, as they say, the very same moment that it was broadcast.

What will they lie about tomorrow?

Not checking information, not contacting “the other side” that has been discredited or accused of something, publishing texts made to order from political parties or government actors, imagining sensationalist news stories, referring to nonexistent “facts,” the absence of even an attempt to prove published assertions—all these are standard “ailments” of the media scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in the simmering atmosphere of the protests completely boiled over.

Meanwhile, what is in this case particularly worrying is the fact that many of these pieces of disinformation were released by news agencies including FENA, SRNA and Anadolu. Agency news is circulated, and this in itself means that an agency’s responsibility when publishing a story must be greater, and that the agency itself has no business allowing anything like the behaviour that this article describes. But since that happened anyway, the principle of automatic circulation of agency news led to obvious media falsehoods being disseminated in the public space with lightning speed. Seeing as how the majority of the false information was very quickly denied, citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina found themselves in a situation in which it became almost impossible to recognize the truthful news stories and distinguish them from the false ones. That’s how the combined media spin, which very often accused others  of “attempts to incite chaos” (in the state, entities, or cantons), in fact acted as a primary generator of provocations to informational chaos, which was without a doubt directed to weakening the rebellion that broke out on the streets of this country’s cities.

This is, therefore, how things stand with the media’s protest-related reporting at the present time. What will the “independent and objective” Bosnia and Herzegovina media serve up next? We’ll probably find out very soon. Considering that the untruths of the past few days were published continually and were carried by almost all of the existing media in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and beyond), one needn’t doubt that this practice will continue in the future.

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