For some politicians, some media outlets, and a part of the public, the war in Ukraine is perceived as an act of aggression that should be condemned and stopped, while some call this conflict a "special military operation", in accordance with the official Russian narrative. Public space in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in the entire region, wasn’t immune to numerous misinformation and incorrect narratives.
Although at the UN session 2.3.2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina took a clear stand and condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the domestic political and media scene is still distinctly polarized in the way this conflict is perceived and interpreted. After the beginning of the Russian attack, politicians mostly expressed their views through social media, and while some officials, mostly from the Federation of BiH entity, directly condemned the aggression, in the Republika Srpska entity reactions ranged from a declaratively "neutral attitude" to open and clear support for Russia.
BiH Presidency members Zeljko Komsic and Sefik Dzaferovic were among the first officials to condemn the attack and express support for Ukraine, and BiH joined the European Union's statement on the situation in Ukraine during the UN General Assembly session. The statement was supported by BiH Ambassador to the UN Sven Alkalaj.
The third member of the Presidency of BiH, Milorad Dodik, who is often marked as a pro-Russian politician, categorized Alkalaj's move as unofficial and said that Komsic and Dzaferovic’s condemnations of the attacks were their personal views. In his opinion, BiH should remain neutral, and the day before the vote condemning the aggression at the UN, he tried to add an item on the agenda of the Presidency session regarding the position on the war in Ukraine, but his proposal was rejected by two other members of this collective body of executive power.
Even after that, Milorad Dodik continued to make public claims about the neutrality of BiH regarding the war in Ukraine, and the BiH fact-checking portal Istinomjer dealt with one such claim.
Pro-Russian narrative of B&H officials
Unlike Dodik, who, alongside frequent contacts with Russian officials, still declaratively insists on neutrality, his fellow party member and vice-president of the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska, Denis Šulić, shared on his Twitter profile several posts which coincide with the narrative of the Russian side. In one of his latest posts, out of context, Šulić used the fact that in 2014 the USA and Ukraine were against the Resolution on the fight against glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to encouraging modern forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, although the UN Assembly has addressed this matter once a year since 2005.
Among the politicians who come from RS, open support for Russia was expressed by the delegate in the House of Peoples of the PABiH, Dušanka Majkić, who sarcastically "reminded" that Moscow said last year that it would react if BiH took steps towards NATO membership, but also the head of the Club of SNSD MPs in the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska (NARS), Srdjan Mazalica.
The leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH), Dragan Covic, did not clearly condemn Russia's attack on Ukraine at first, and later had a somewhat more specific stance. However, at the session of the House of Peoples held on March 24, 2022, he voted against the proposal to supplement the agenda with the item "Adoption of the conclusions of the House of Peoples of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly, which requires the BiH Council of Ministers to fully align the policies, measures and stances with the official stands of the European Union on the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine", although in earlier media appearances he pointed out that he supports EU policy.
However, although the attitudes of politicians in BiH regarding the war in Ukraine have been clear and defined from the onset, and they mostly followed entity lines, the public has not been exposed to them nearly as much as the narratives and misinformation spread through the media, be it public or private, but also en masse through social media.
Disinformation in the media and on social media
The situation is similar in the media - while those from the FBiH mostly share information, statements, and announcements from credible media and agencies and try to report responsibly, accurately, and ethically, the media in the RS, including public media, mostly share one-sided information and articles from Russian sources, but they also create their own articles through which Russian propaganda narratives are spread, which are mainly aimed at justifying the Russian aggression.
The fact-checking platform Raskrinkavanje.ba published more than 50 analyses, in which almost 300 media articles and social media posts were evaluated. Misinformation about this war is also analyzed by the other 5 members of the SeeCheck network of fact-checking portals in Southeast Europe. The network has also launched a live blog containing a daily updated overview of misinformation, which already contains more than 150 analyses of fact-checking portals from BiH, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia assessing misinformation about the war in Ukraine.
Based on this material, it is already possible to notice certain misinformation trends as well as the most widespread misleading narratives.
In the information ecosystem in BiH, both in the media and on social media, based on the work of Raskrinkavanje, a certain number of pro-Ukrainian pieces of misinformation was noted. The most common content that belongs to pro-Ukrainian misinformation are photos and recordings of alleged successful actions of the Ukrainian army or scenes in which Ukrainian civilians allegedly oppose Russian soldiers, which later turned out to show something completely different.
Pro-Ukrainian misinformation arose ad hoc during the Russian invasion, mostly on Ukrainian social media, from where it spilled over into BiH, and is mostly aimed at raising the morale of the Ukrainian army. Such misinformation is not part of an official centralized propaganda, it is mostly not shared through official channels, but exclusively on social media, and their number, intensity and reach are not significant, nor is the damage they cause.
Although most of this misinformation is the result of social media users, some of them, after being published on social media, were shared by official Ukrainian sources such as the Twitter profile of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, from where they were shared by various sources in BiH.
On the other hand, pro-Russian misinformation are mostly part of an official Russian propaganda, they are significantly more centralized, made by-design and organized than pro-Ukrainian ones, they are created and shared through official channels, and they have far greater reach and negative consequences.
The analysis of the Raskrinkavanje.ba portal concludes that the main source of Russian misinformation and inaccurate narratives are Russian institutions, officials, and analysts, as well as media owned or controlled by the state, and are published mainly in the form of statements and official announcements.
After being published mainly by Russian news agencies, they reach the media and social media in BiH primarily through Sputnik in the Serbian language, and in fact Sputnik Serbia is the most common source of pro-Russian misinformation and manipulative narratives about the Russian invasion throughout the region, including BiH. The voice of the self-proclaimed Ukrainian republics DNR and LNR in BiH also comes mainly through official statements shared by Russian official sources by public and other pro-Russian media.
Domestic media, including public and private media, as well as anonymous portals, are also involved in spreading pro-Russian misinformation in BiH. Of particular concern is the fact that the public broadcaster of the Republika Srpska, RTRS, practically serves as a local means of spreading Russian propaganda.
When it comes to the transmission of official announcements, the fact that a significant number of media outlets share almost exclusively the Russian side is worrying. An example is the statement in which Russia accused Ukraine of shelling and destroying a border base on Russian territory, only 3 days before the beginning of the invasion. Although Ukraine denied accountability for this attack, Raskrinkavanje.ba found that a total of 30 portals completely left out Ukraine’s denial of these accusations and shared only the Russian side of the story.
The most widespread misinformative narratives
When it comes to the content of pro-Russian misinformation, most of it refers to the justification of the invasion, as well as its naming and presentation. After President Putin called the invasion a "special military operation in Donbas", many media outlets in BiH, such as RTRS, Alternative Television, Nezavisne novine, Glas Srpske and others, took over that narrative.
There are a significant number of articles in which the events in Ukraine are thus dubbed, although it is clear that this is not a "special operation" but a war and invasion, and that it is not happening only in Donbas, but throughout Ukraine. Some of these media go so far in spreading this narrative that in some of their reports they do not use the word "war" at all.
The narrative about the "denazification" of Ukraine and the Ukrainian government, which was initially presented by Vladimir Putin, has also spread significantly. Some examples of such claims include allegations that there are Nazis within Ukrainian government, that the government supports Nazism and Nazi groups, that Nazism is widespread among Ukrainians, and photoshopped photos emerged of the Ukrainian president allegedly promoting Nazi symbols.
Other significant misinformation and propaganda narratives are that Ukraine is carrying out genocide against the Russian population in the east of the country, that NATO is violating non-proliferation agreements and threatening Russia, that the West is aggressive and it incites conflict, that there are American biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine aimed to destroy the Russian people, as well as those previously known such as calling the events of 2014 a coup supported by the West, but also presenting the annexation of Crimea to Russia as a legitimate act resulting from the democratic will of the citizens of Crimea.
A new i.e., a previously undetected phenomenon is the placement of misinformation about alleged misinformation coming of Western credible sources. In this context, it was claimed that the famous photo of the wounded Ukrainian woman that was taken in the first days of the Russian invasion and that was shared around the world, was false i.e., that it was taken in 2018 and that it represents Western propaganda.
CNN has also been repeatedly unjustifiably accused of publishing fake news, and the most extreme example is certainly the "twitter trolls" from Serbia, who presented themselves on social media as Ukrainians and shared fake news.
The vulnerability and division of society in B&H
The war in Ukraine once again pointed to the vulnerability of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s society, which is evident on multiple levels. First of all, the vulnerabilities are visible in terms of political divisions regarding the attitude towards the war, while, accordingly, divisions are present on the media scene.
Furthermore, citizens themselves are subject to unselective and uncritical belief in unreliable media and political sources. Vulnerability is also noticeable in the sense of very easy penetration of Russian propaganda into the media space of BiH, and there are also domestic actors who publicly propagate the same narratives and values.
Although BiH society as a whole should take all these problems more seriously, the chances for that, given all the above, are very slim.
The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Albania (Exit), within the project "Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.
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