Bosnian Media Reports on Terrorism Spread Fear and Misinformation

5. December 2019.12:59
Sensationalist media reporting about terrorism and violent extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina exaggerates the phenomenon, spreading fear while distorting public understanding of a complex issue.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

When some old weapons were found in a rundown, abandoned house not far from a mosque in Matuzici in the Doboj Jug municipality in the summer of 2018, some media outlets in the country jumped to sensationalist conclusions even before the police investigation was complete.

Radio Television of Republika Srpska, RTRS, the public broadcaster in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, as well as some other outlets, speculated that this was an arms cache that could be connected to a renegade mosque, intimating that the weapons were linked to religious radicalism.

The police investigation concluded that the weapons were actually left over from the 1990s war and were not associated with terrorism or radical Islamists. However, media reports had already hyped up the incident, using quotes from people they described as security experts to suggest that an armed attack on Republika Srpska was being prepared.

One of those who gave his opinion was a pundit called Dzevad Galijasevic. Media outlets that fact-checking website Raskrinkavanje classifies as most inclined to sensationalism when reporting on terrorism often quote Galijasevic as an expert on security.

“The notion of terrorism or security experts in the way they’re being used by the media has been rendered meaningless, because there are people who are actually dealing with that, people who are professionals, and then you have people like Dzevad Galijasevic, who simply appeared and began talking about the issue,” argued Tijana Cvjeticanin of Raskrinkavanje.

Galijasevic told BIRN that he considers himself an alternative source of information about terrorism and that he has never asked media to describe him as an expert.

“They ask me about something on the fly – ask me for an analytical comment – they usually catch me in my car, in class or somewhere else, and ask me to give a statement, an opinion. I have better things to do than to check what they make out of it, whether will use it in a sensationalist manner or not,” Galijasevic said.

‘Fear sells’

Concerns have been raised that the story from Matuzici is just one in a series of examples of reports about alleged terrorism that have been exaggerated.

Sensationalist reporting about terrorism spreads fear and politicises the phenomenon of violent extremism, BIRN was told by several analysts.

The dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at Sarajevo University, Sead Turcalo, says that both journalists and their ‘expert’ interviewees bear responsibility, but the responsibility of the so-called experts is greater because they are aware that they “very often know absolutely nothing about the subject”.

Turcalo argued that journalists must also bear in mind the risk that their reports might “cause consequences for society and lead to the eventual politicisation of the entire story or, when we speak about smaller communities, a polarisation that might be negative in the short- and long-term”.

Muhamed Jusic, spokesperson for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Islamic Community, the official body representing the country’s Muslims, declared that “fear simply sells”.

“Some media outlets are simply not interested in facts, they are not interested in what we in journalism call the other side of the story. They have an agenda,” Jusic told BIRN.

“You can repeat a number of times the exact number of people who have left Bosnia and Herzegovina to participate in war [in the Middle East], the number of women and children. People who believe that thousands of people have left [Bosnia to join Islamic State] will continue to believe it,” he added.

Vlado Azinovic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, pointed out however that sensationalism is “a common characteristic of media globally”.

“Headlines of this kind, saying ‘500 Bosnian citizens held in detention in Syria’, make you click on the story link, and make you buy newspapers if the story is not published on the internet – bombastic headlines which are most often followed by completely unprofessional articles, and I am not talking about the content now, but the elementary professional rules, such as consulting at least two sources,” Azinovic said.

Attacks that have been officially classified as terrorism are rare in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the most recent were two separate incidents in 2015, when one gunman shot two army officers in Sarajevo and another killed two police officers in Zvornik. The one before that was in 2011, when a man opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo, injuring one person. There have also been several trials of people accused of plotting attacks.

Meanwhile, some 240 men and women went from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Syria to join ISIS. The Bosnian state court has so far sentenced 25 men to a total of 47 years and two months in prison for either going to fight in Syria, attempting to go there, or recruiting others to do so.

War crime misrepresented

The media outlets that published sensationalist news about the discovery of weapons in Matuzici have also published other articles that run counter to the established facts.

One of the most recent examples was a series of articles denying that the town of Tuzla was shelled in July 1995 during the war – an attack in which over 70 people were killed.

The articles suggested instead that, contrary to what the Bosnian state court has established, the blast in Tuzla was a terrorist attack, caused by a pre-planted explosive device – not by a shell fired by the Bosnian Serb Army.

Galijasevic has been one of those who suggested that the ‘Tuzla Gate’ massacre was a terrorist act rather than a war crime, and helped to promote a recent book published by the Serbian Ministry of Defence’s Media Centre that questioned the court-established facts about the atrocity.

Cvjeticanin said that some people were already predisposed to believe that it was a terrorist attack rather than a war crime because of biased media reports over the years.

“A statement saying ‘Tuzla Gate was a veiled terrorist attack’… sounds very logical because, looking at it from inside the disinformation bubble, the statement is very meaningful and logical,” she said.

RTRS did not respond to BIRN’s request for an interview, while Tatjana Paradjina, editor of Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA, said she was not aware of criticism of SRNA’s reporting on terrorism and argued that BIRN had jumped to its own conclusions.

Turcalo suggested that sensationalist reporting about terrorism does the same job as terrorism itself: frightening people.

“The media in general, not just in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also abroad, are these people’s best allies, because they themselves actually are doing what terrorism or violent extremism does – not media reports that aim to give the news, but interpreting the news and offering judgments about that news. And in that way, through that reporting, they contribute to amplifying the fear that already exists,” he said.

Jusic argued that society cannot cope with violent extremism by exaggerating or politicising the issue: “It is therefore of vital importance, when speaking about violent extremism, that we actually understand that it is a complex problem and approach it as such,” he said.

Guidelines for journalists

The OCSE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Press and Online Media Council will soon publish guidelines for journalists for reporting on terrorism.

Zlatan Music, an officer for media freedom at the OSCE mission, said that the domestic media’s approach to reporting on violent extremism and terrorism is not sufficiently balanced.

“We can actually see that a lot of focus is put on religious extremism, and much less on some other extremist groups and potentially risky activities, which are happening and posing a security risk,” Music said.

The executive director of the Press and Online Media Council, Ljiljana Zurovac, said that when there is a terrorist attack and or outbreak of violence, journalists should best protect themselves from making mistakes by sticking to official sources without interpreting or commenting on the incident.

“Unless it is framed correctly and sticks to the facts, each report we do can create additional panic, additional upset and, in a chain reaction, it can lead to new violence as a counter-reaction to what happened,” Zurovac said.

Cvjeticanin said that since the threat of terrorism was raised in media reports about the weapons find in Matuzici and the Tuzla Gate shelling, she and her colleagues at the fact-checking site Raskrinkavanje have noticed other media reports talking about terrorism when there is no evidence of it.

“A new, interesting and increasingly common trend is to declare migrants and refugees terrorists without any facts. Each time we contacted security agencies and police bodies [about such incidents], we got the same answer: ‘We do not have such findings,’” Cvjeticanin said.

She argued that some media outlets are only making such allegations “on the basis of the fact that those people have a different skin colour and are Muslims”.

“That is simply a racist and Islamophobic narrative,” she said.

Emina Dizdarević Tahmiščija

This post is also available in: Bosnian