Revolution in Ukraine, vandalism in BH

By Dino Jahić. Published in MediaCentar-Online Magazin on 4 March 2014: http://www.media.ba/bs/magazin-etika/u-ukrajini-revolucija-u-bih-vandalizam.

The Ukrainian demonstrators are exhibiting dignity and grace as they protest corrupt government with Molotov cocktails and firearms, while in BH mobs and hooligans are burning and looting without provocation. A double standard is at play.

A few days ago, the BH media carried the words of Doris Pack, a member of the European Parliament, about how she had long expected the riots in BH and Ukraine. Although she was misquoted – her reply related only to BH, not to Ukraine as well – it is interesting to compare the recent events in the two countries.

Besides the presence of widespread corruption and how power is an end unto itself, both countries have deeply divided societies and are torn between East and West. Whereas BH’s closest neighbors often interfere in its affairs on the pretext of upholding their own interests and those of the great powers, Ukraine, owing to its strategic position, is much more important to Russia and to the European Union and the United States. Still, in both cases the calculus is clear: the more unstable a country, the easier it is to gain influence over it, to place it in one’s debt, to impoverish it, and ultimately to lead it into a state of dependent servitude. Democracy, communism, capitalism, dictatorship, corruption, reforms – these are the least significant factors in this sense. Of greater importance is where military bases are going to be built, who is going to control natural resources and how, and whose banks are going to profit more.

Following the riots in several BH cities, representatives of the international community called for cooler heads and protests conducted peacefully. Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, condemned the violence in BH, but then she postponed her visit to our country so that she could go to Ukraine, where the protests have been going on for several months, and with much greater violence. (Later, because of the increasingly strained relations between Ukraine and Russia, she didn’t make that trip either.) EU diplomats are openly supporting the demonstrators in Ukraine and meeting with opposition leaders, criticizing in particular the actions taken by the police and the now-former president-in-exile, Viktor Yanukovych.

“It is important that we offer a clear European perspective for the Ukrainian people, who have shown their commitment to European values,” said Olli Rehn, the Vice-President of the European Commission, while UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said that “the Ukrainian people have decided to take their country into the future.” There’s no question that citizens have the right to take to the streets and protest misgovernment, and even to depose those in power. But it’s highly unprincipled to call for peaceful protests in one country while backing the opposition in another one – and specifically an opposition that’s unable to control radical and armed groups in the streets even in the territory under its nominal rule and that has not differed much from its predecessors in its forcible seizure of power (giving free rein to the special police, intimidating political adversaries, hastily enacted laws, decisions on firings…).

General hysteria

The protests in BH began on 5 February and the rioting lasted three or four days, after which the gatherings of small groups of people were mostly reduced to blocking traffic. In Ukraine, the protests have been going on since late November, when President Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement with the EU and accepted financial assistance from Russia. The culmination came in mid-February, when nearly 100 people were killed in clashes between police and demonstrators. The reasons that people took to the streets in both countries are quite similar; it boils down to government repression, widespread corruption, and overall impoverishment. Still, there’s no comparison when it comes to the intensity and scope of the rioting – although if one considers the population ratio (Ukraine has around 45 million people, BH a little more than 3.5 million) and the number of demonstrators who have actively participated in the clashes (several thousand compared with several hundred), the percentages are not that different. Demonstrators in BH set around ten buildings ablaze and clashed with police in several cities. In Ukraine, that was often the net outcome for only one day, and the protestors have used not only rocks, sticks, and baseball bats, but also Molotov cocktails, pyrotechnics, and catapults – and in recent days, firearms as well.

The people targeted by the protests have used terms like “hooliganism,” “mercenaries,” and “coup” to describe the whole scene, trying to turn things to their advantage and absolve themselves of responsibility. It’s almost impossible to believe how many similarities there have been in the statements coming from officials in the two distant countries. “What is happening today is vandalism, banditry, a coup d’état,” said the now-former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, rejecting calls for his resignation. Some ten days earlier, former Sarajevo Canton Chief Executive Suad Zeljković said in his resignation speech that “it is not hungry people who are out in the streets, but rather hooligans, bandits, and criminals.”

There has been complete hysteria on social networks during the protests in BH – among both those who support the protests and those opposed to them. Very little rationale, reason, or awareness, but plenty of egotism, ideological flavor, and intolerance of different opinions, even among journalists. Bosnians and Herzegovinans usually exhibit a high degree of empathy for the world’s disenfranchised citizens, and so they have supported the Ukrainians’ struggle with posts, likes, and shares. But there is also an inexplicable phenomenon: At the same time, many of those people have condemned the disturbances taking place in the streets of Tuzla, Mostar, Zenica, and Sarajevo, as if BH’s citizens have no reason to protest…. Is it not obvious hypocrisy that someone in Ukraine who is trying to bring about a change of government by violent means, attacking the police and using an impressive arsenal of weapons, can be a “demonstrator,” whereas someone who has a similar goal but not even close to the same methods is a “hooligan, a looter, a mercenary, and a vandal”?

Demonstrators or mob?

The media reporting about the protests can also be said to suffer from a lack of principles. There is no need to mention the difficult working conditions and pressures endured by journalists in BH. Those who are trying to do a conscientious job face so many barriers that it’s often easier to give up instead of tilting at windmills. However, neither that consideration nor the accelerated dynamic of events can justify the dissimilar treatment of the protests while the biggest riots were going on. Without getting into an analysis of the media’s overall reporting or editorial policies, a few examples from online portals show that specific words can give a similar event a completely different connotation and help shape public opinion.

One of the most widely read BH portals, Klix.ba, was mostly critical of the rioting in BH on 7 and 8 February, publishing articles that spoke of a “destructive spree by hooligans intent on burning, smashing, and looting” and “a mob setting out on a destructive spree.”

In its reporting on events in Ukraine at the culmination of the clashes, Klix ran photographs showing that while the police certainly engaged in violence, so did the demonstrators. The portal reports about buildings that citizens have occupied and burned, about the use of fire bombs and pyrotechnics, but it does not label them hooligans and looters, nor does it criticize them for burning and smashing property. Klix’s accountability is important, considering that many other media outlets used its information to cover events in BH; for example, the Nezavisne Novine portal wrote that “the mob is destroying newsstands and shops, and even an automated cash machine was ripped out.”

The Radiosarajevo.ba portal’s coverage of the events of 7 February in Sarajevo included reports that “the mob (which is what we can safely call it now) is demolishing kiosks in front of the Presidency building and is continuing to fire incendiary projectiles”; in a commentary published the following day, an editor spoke of an “unbridled, adrenaline-fueled mob that, having driven away the actual disenfranchised demonstrators, decided to set fire to the small bit of history that we had managed to preserve over the turbulent years.” In its reporting on the clashes in Kyiv, that same portal does not talk about a mob, but instead notes that what was going on there was clashes between citizens/demonstrators and the police – even when it was the police that were attacked.

Apart from official representatives of the Ukrainian opposition, not much information can be found on BH portals about the key actors on the ground – for example, the armed right-wing group Pravyi Sektor (or Right Sector), which took up arms to lead the demonstrators’ attacks and over which the opposition has absolutely no control. A search of that term reveals that it is an ultra-radical group that is believed to be in control of the demonstrators, but there is not much further information. The Nezavisne Novine and Glas Srpske portals ran a rather lengthy item from the Tanjug news agency containing a more detailed description of the key roles in the Ukrainian events. The Source.ba portal has also carried more information about Pravyi Sektor, including a six-minute video depicting the brutality of both sides during the clashes in Kyiv. During the BH protests, Source was one of the few media outlets to show footage of the police violence and brutality in Sarajevo, but even they were unable to avoid the collective panic that seized the media at that time, and so their reports also spoke of looting, hooligans, and savagery.

Citizens have a right to engage in protests in BH, Ukraine, or anywhere in the world, and whether or not they will be violent depends on a multitude of factors. The question is whether events would have unfolded as they did if the chief executive of Tuzla Canton had gone in front of workers on the first day, or if Sarajevo police had not pushed people into the Miljacka River, if the Ukrainian security forces had not brutally attacked citizens on several occasions, or if Yanukovych had stepped down in time. The media have every right to devote less or more attention to a specific event in their reporting. But if a certain topic is indeed being followed, a little more level-headedness and correctness wouldn’t hurt – on the part of the media and of citizens alike.

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