It is hardly a new fact that journalism is a profession with a really bad reputation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the first days of ongoing protests have made the reasons for that abundantly clear.
Apart from cheap nationalistic propaganda served from political parties, covered in one of Istinomjer’s previous analysis, the protests which started in Tuzla and spread throughout the country were accompanied by simply astonishing lies and misinformations in both local and the international media.
Until now, Istinomjer has never dealt with analysis of media reporting and media responsibility, but the organised spreading of misinformation about the protests emerged as a subject for analysis for obvious reasons. It has instantly become clear that media engagement in the past couple of days, stems directly from the engagement from political parties and most elected officials, who are using the media to evade their own responsibility. This cooperation between the political class and the media has been directed strongly to portray the unemployed, disempowered workers, students, and all other citizens who are protesting every day, organizing public assemblys and trying to get involved in decision making, as “hooligans”, “mobs”, ethnic and national “enemies”, infiltrated agents of alleged “centers of power”, or anything else that would help keep the governments’ responsibility for the situation that led to mass anger and social unrest, out of public scrutiny. A number of media subjects, especially state-owned media, wholeheartedly helped this project, by knowingly publishing unconfirmed and false information, contrary to all professional standards.
So, let”s see the chronology of most outrageous lies published by the media in the first days of protests in Bosna and Herzegovina.
Wednesday, February 5th
A protestor who collapsed in the streat had died
First misinformation that spread through Bosnian web was the news that a women, who collapsed during the first day of Dita, Guming and Poliham workers” protests in Tuzla, had died. This news was published on Aktuelno.ba, but soon after, the same “unofficial” information spread through other portals. The news was proven false by the University hospital in Tuzla, which stated that death of a woman in the hospital had nothing to do with the protests and that this was not the same person who collapsed in the street. That official information was transmitted by Federal News Agency, and most of the media who published the misinformation, had also published the official information. However, news portal “Aktuelno”, which started the story in the first place, did not publish the official information, but had rather just deleted the misinformation instead.
Thursday, February 6th
Looting of the “Omega” mall
On the second day of Tuzla”s protest, the public was informed that the protesters are demolishing and looting the “Omega” mall. After this was published, it was quickly confirmed by spokesperson for Ministry for internal affairs of Tuzla Canton, Izudin Šarić, and the correspondant for Federal News Agency (Fena) from Tuzla. The news has quickly been proved completely false by the mall itself. Also, on the same night when this news was published, a correspondant for Tuzla for Al-Jazeera Balkans published a post on his Twitter profile, with a photograph proving that “Omega” mall is completely intact, which was confirmed by the TV report made by local RTV Slon. As far as we know, no one apologized for publishing false information, which was, before it has been proven false, used as a “key evidence” in portraying protesters as hooligans and criminals.
Injured policeman in critical condition
On the same day, Ministry for internal affairs of Tuzla Canton stated that one of the two police officers who were injured during the demonstrations is in critical condition, but this information was proven false the same day by the University hospital of Tuzla.
Friday, Februaray 7th
“Udar” is planning a coup d’etat
After the protests in Banja Luka and Prijedor have been announced, the media in Republic of Srpska eagerly joined the slandering of protests. On Friday, News Agency of Republic of Srpska (SRNA), published an article in which they conveyed claims made by Aleksandar Vranješ, a professor at the Banja Luka Faculty of political sciences, who claimed that the protests started in order to “overthrow legally elected officials in Republic of Srpska”, in order to estabilish a different constitutional arrangement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vranješ than further analysed his own assumptions and concluded that protests will not spread to Republic of Srpska, because that kind of “different constitutional arrangement” is unnaceptable for this entity.
These claims were presented as facts, not as his personal opinion, although neither Vranješ, nor the agency who published the article, offered any kind of source or evidence to support them. Protesters were not contacted in order to give their comment in regards to these claims. These claims were nonetheless entirely false, as the demands, determined by the Assembly of Tuzla citizens, had nothing whatsoever to do with constitutional arrangement of the country. However, this didn’t stop Vranješ from using formulations such as “They (Udar) literally consider…” and “They are calling Serbs and Croats…” – as if he actually interviewed them just prior to giving his statement.
This inflammatory piece of “journalism”, based on innacurate claims and with clear tendency of raising national tensions, estabilished a trend of media reporting on protests in Republic of Srpska, which continued in the days to follow.
Saturday, February 8th
“Speed” distributed among protesters in Sarajevo
After the escalation of protests and burning of government buildings in Tuzla, Sarajevo and Zenica, an information that Ministry for internal affairs of Sarajevo Canton has seized a total of 12 kilograms of amphetamine drug, commonly known as “speed”, was released to the public.
“I just want to add that, during the protests, police has seized a total of 12 kilograms of a drug commonly known as “speed”, which some persons tried to distribute.”, spokesperson for Ministry for internal affairs of Sarajevo Canton Irfan Nefić allegedly stated to the Anadoly Agency. However, this same information, which was conveyed by numerous politicians in order to discredit the protests, was confuted by the above mentioned spokesperson the very next day. The truth was that police did seize a larger quantity of drugs and weapons on the day the protests were held, but that happened in a different part of the city and had nothing to do with the protests.
“When we speak about the 12 kilograms of “speed” that were seized, it’s important to mention they were found by members of the Division for supression of narcotics, who, during their regular activities arrested three persons, and found 12 kilograms of “speed” and weapons and ammunition, and other objects linked to some criminal acts.” This was the statement issued by the spokesperson Irfan Nefić to news portal Klix.ba, when he also stressed that drugs were not found among the protesters, but on the teritorry of Ilidža and Novi grad municipalities. The “author” of the previous false statement, broadcasted by Anadoly Agency, has never been determined. Again, the media which released the false information never even tried to either identify its source, or establish how it was possible for such news to come from a news agency without any confirmation or evidence.
Protesters want to abolish entities and cantons
On Saturday, numerous news portals published an article named “Manifesto: New Bosnia and Herzegovina”, which was described as a press release of groups UDAR and REVOLT from Tuzla, which stated their demands related to the protests. Among other alleged demands, those for abolishing the cantons and entities were listed, but there was also one particularly interesting “demand”, which was clearly written with the intention to “expose” the political background of the protests:
“Resignation of Bakir Izetbegović and Nebojša Radmanović as Presidency members, and temporary takeover of Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Željko Komšić (Mr. Komšić was educated in one of top 5. world institutions of political science, whilst Izetbegović is an architect and Radmanović has a degree from Faculty of Philosophy).”
“Manifesto: New Bosnia and Herzegovina” was soon confuted by Revolt and this organization had also confirmed to Istinomjer that not only they never made these demands or published them on their Facebook page, as was stated by some media, but that no one ever attempted to contact them regarding the made-up “Manifesto”. Articles containing this “Manifesto” can still be found on many web-portals, majority of which never bothered to publish Revolt’s dementi on the issue.
On the same day, News Agency of Republic of Srpska (SRNA), reported that Facebook page of group “Udar” had announced the Proclamation of the Bosniaks World Congress from 20th November 2011, in which “The Assembly of Bosnia is urged to return the Constitution Bosnia from 1992.”. This information was also confuted by Revolt, who confirmed that the Facebook page which published the Proclamation has nothing to do with protests’ organizers or participants, and that, once again, noone has been contacted to confirm this information prior to publishing – even though this is what professional standards would aquire. Was this just a problem of unprofessional behaviour of journalists who conveyed these false informations, or was it an intentional effort to present the protests as nationally, instead of socially, oriented – probably sn’t that difficult to conclude.
Most of the BiH Archive burned
When the building of Presidency of BiH was set on fire, the fire caught premises of BiH Archive. The archivist for this institution, Andrej Rodinis, stated for Federal News Agency that “priceless archive materials were lost”. First article about burning of the archives was published on Klix.ba, and it started of with “traditional” etiquettes for the protesters such as hooligans and criminals, same as above mentioned news about the looting in “Omega mall”. Some of the media titles on the subject went as far as saying that the Archive had “burnt down”, suggesting that the entire collection was lost in flames. However, it was later confirmed that a group of “hooligans” actually organised to help extinguish the fire in the Archive, later confirming that most of the materials were saved, and that fire actually only caught the offices, which only contained a small part of materials, but not the depot where most of the documents are kept. The media, again, didn’t bother to follow through with what their job should be, by trying to determine how large the damage was, or question the responsibility of the Archive itself for storing the valuable documents in the offices which do not provide adequate protection against fire or any other occurencies.
Monday, February 10th
Tanks on the state border
On Monday morning, after the High Representative’s statement that if “the situation escalates” the European Union might consider activating their military troups to calm the situation down, the photos of military vehicles on the borders of BiH emerged on social media. Media rushed to broadcast Facebook statuses of the people who shared the photo and speculated that these were tanks being sent into BiH because of the protests. This information was also quickly proven false by BiH Border Police:
“In order to stop futher misinformation in regards to photographs of crawler military vehicles in the parking lot of Gradina Border crossing, we would like to inform you that those are export oriented crawler military vehicles with radar-only equipement, which have been parked there since February 5th 2014. Bosnian Border police was informed about the exporting of this military equipement to Hungary in accordance to law procedures in place, but on February 5th these vehicles were not allowed to cross into Croatia until the exporter from BiH submits the necessary documentation for exporting to EU countries” , stated the Border police. Again, professional media should probably have been interested in the fact that BiH attempted to export military vehicles without completing proper documentation, so one might expect they would want to find out why these vehicles are in the parking lot of the border crossing when the procedure for their export is not finalised. However, as soon as it was proven that this is not a military force sent to stop the protests, this news simply dissapeared from the media.
Tuesday February 11th
Building on the aforementioned propagandist article by SRNA agency, the magazine PressRS took all the misinformation one step further and published the most outrageous protest-related piece of lies, propaganda, or whatever you want to call it. On Tuesday 11th February, on the frontpage of their printed edition, appeared a headline stating that “Protesters were promised weapons to launch an attack on Republic of Srpska!!!”, with a frightening caption “Unrest in Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina smells like war”. The source of these apocalyptic so-called news was an “political analyst” from Tuzla, Mehmedalija Nuhić. In addition to the alarming headlines, the text of the article was formulated in a conspiracy theory manner, with statements such as: “Nuhić stresses that certain activists of Udar movement went abroad, where certain intelligence services gave them access to warehouses full of weapons”.
“Certain activists”, “certain intelligence services” and undefined, but nevertheless threatening “abroad” were, of course, mentioned without any credible source, evidence, names, or statements from members of the mentioned movement. It goes without saying that Press RS never contacted the other side of the story or check this information in any way. They simply allowed themselves to publish the news of Bosnia being virtually on the brink of war, without any source other than a semi-anonimous “political analyst”, who himself hasn’t claimed any ground for his statements, other than his own unbelievable claims and opinions on people he never even met.
Similar claims about “buses full of people ready to go from Federation to RS and cause riots” were heard from the RS President Milorad Dodik, as well as President of Republika Srpska Combatants’ Association, Pantelija Ćurguz. These were follow-ups on theses already estabilished by RS Prime Minister Željka Cvijanović and RS President Milorad Dodik that the “plan was to spill the protests over from Federation to Republic of Srpska”. Couple of days after this joint press-conference, Veterans’ Association of RS requested the resignation of Ranko Škrbić (BiH ambassador in Belgrade) and Pantelija Ćurguz, President of Republika Srpska Combatants’ Association. These requests soon turned into veterans’ street protests against Ćurguz in Banja Luka, confirming once more that all these statements had no other goal, but to distract the dissatisfied people of Republic of Srpska from their own reasons to take to the streets. Veterans’ protests, but also the opposition parties’ pushing for early elections, made it even more obvious that the situation in Republic of Srpska is not “in perfect order” as described by RS Prime Minister Željka Cvijanović in her first statement about the protests in Federation, and that the made-up “buses and weapons” from Federation were nothing but a desperate attempt to shift the focus from terrible social and economic state of this entity. It will be really interesting to see how (and if) will the RS-based media, who forced this kind of propaganda, explain the fact that no armed attack from Federation towards RS has ever occured.
University of Sarajevo forbids the Citizens’ assembly to be held on its premises
At the time of finishing this analysis, another false information was published by (to the best of our knowledge) two TV stations: Television of Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FTV) and Canton Sarajevo Television (TVSA). A group of citizens had previously announced that Citizens’ assembly will be held on Wednesday, February 12th at 17:30 on the premises of Sarajevo University’s Campus. However, unknown persons started distributing flyers on the protest held that same day in Sarajevo, containing incorrect time and place of the assembly. Citizens’ assembly of Sarajevo immediately denied that the assembly’s time and place has been changed and confirmed that it will be held as planned. That, however, didn’t stop these two TV stations to publish that assembly was cancelled because the head of Sarajevo University banned the use of its premises for this purpose. This news was also proven false almost instantly and the assembly did take place as previously announced.
What will they lie about next?
Unconfirmed information, ignoring the other side of the story (especially if that side is being accused, slandered or discredited), publishing “news” ordered by political parties or government officials, fabricating sensationalistic news, refering to nonexistent “facts” and lack of efforts to confirm any allegations made – these are all standard problems of Bosnian media scene, which abruptly “exploded” in the heated atmosphere of the protests.
What concerns the most in this case, is the fact that many of these misinformation were released by news agencies such as FENA, SRNA or Anadoly Agency. Agency news are usually taken by all news desks without an additional fact check, with an assumption that the agencies had already done their part of that job. It is, therefore, implied that agencies carry much more responsibility for the news they produce and that they shouldn’t allow themselves to publish the kind of “news” described in this article. Since this, however, proved not to be the case, other media’s reproduction of agency news led to the situation in which false information was spread throughout media space with remarkable speed and reach. Since most of these fals news was quickly proven wrong, citizens found themselves in a situation where they couldn’t tell real news from false ones. That is how joint “media spin”, which itself often condemned the protests for “an attempt to create chaos” (on either state, entity or cantonal level), actually created information chaos themselves, with an obvious purpose to weaken the insurgency in the streets.
This was a recap of media reporting in the first and most turbulent days of the protests so far. What will “the independent and objective” media do in the days to follow, remains to be seen. Being that false information were continuously and systematically spread throughout the Bosnian (as well as regional) media so far, there is little doubt that this practice will continue in the future as well.