Truth With Many Faces – Fake News in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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A very famous song by Jefferson Airplane which came out in 1967 opens with the words “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies…” This lyric perfectly describes life in Bosnia and Herzegovina ever since the conclusion of the bloody war fought from 1992 to 1995. Over two decades later the conflict which sparked violence all those years ago persists in different forms. Ranging from political ideologies with a nationalistic undertone, all the way to relationships with the outside world, Bosnia, and Herzegovina remains a country without a significant level of unity. The most representative factor in the lack of unity is the way mainstream media in the country deals with news and the level of importance that is given to truthful reporting of facts. Fake news is sadly not only present in the country, but so woven into the process of reporting that the people are getting used to being deceived daily.

According to research conducted in 2018 by the Open Society Institute in Sofia (Bulgaria) which deals with the level of media literacy in European countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina are third to only Albania and Macedonia when it comes to countries with the lowest level of media literacy in the Balkan peninsula. Taking into account the complex internal state organization of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and combining it with the discouraging fact of the country’s level of media literacy, one can safely assume that Bosnia and Herzegovina represents a paradise for all those who want to spread misleading information and fake news. The topics mostly represented in articles that earn the label “fake news” in Bosnia and Herzegovina are domestic and foreign politics, celebrity culture, and country-related issues such as economy and culture.

Battling fake news in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Since fake news came to prominence as a valuable topic for research in 2016 (BBC takes this as the unofficial start of significant research into the matter following the 2016 US Presidential Election) a very small amount of said research came from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It comes as no surprise that a country with such low media literacy would fail to consider the impact of fake news on its society as a whole. However, this started changing rapidly in the following years. Many websites appeared with the sole purpose of exposing fake news outlets and calling them out publicly concerning their dishonest and manipulative reporting. The most prominent of these websites is “raskrinkavanje.ba” which has gained immense popularity since it first appeared due to its track record of being accurate in recognizing what is true and what is fake news. This website came into existence as a result of the activities of an NGO known as “Zašto ne” which translates into English as “Why not”. The members of this organization used reliable fact-checking methods with particular emphasis on statistical analysis in their research of news published in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their effort resulted in the publication of a 106-page study related to the state of fake news in the country and the methodology necessary to prevent its spread titled “Disinformation in the online sphere: The case of B&H”. This was given very little attention in mainstream media despite the credible methodology used in the extensive analysis of this very important issue.

Current state of fake news in Bosnia and Herzegovina

According to the latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) published by the Reporters Without Borders, Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the 58th position when it comes to the freedom of media out of 179 ranked countries. Considering the level of development, this is an encouraging fact to be made aware of, but unfortunately, the freedom of the press is being used for the systematic spread of fake news. According to a 2018 analysis conducted by the raskrinkavanje.ba website, in one year almost 2500 articles were labeled as either fake news or contained a certain degree of them. Out of the 2500 total articles, 62% or 1468 were related to politics and were published by 477 different media outlets. The sample also showed that following the blatant fake news themselves, the most often used type of false reporting was clickbait which serves to create profit for those who publish it. The most discouraging finding of this research was that 2 sources of fake news were state-funded news outlets one of which even represents a national television channel of the Republic of Srpska entity. Furthermore, the highest-selling newspaper in the country for decades now is owned by a man who has his political party and was a former presidential candidate and a minister in the Federal Government. Needless to say, there is no analysis necessary to recognize that this newspaper is “biased” towards the goals and beliefs of its owner despite being bound to be unbiased and fair by the journalistic principles widely accepted around the world. This is the reality of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country that sits in the middle of the worldwide PFI table.

Truth With Many Faces

As it is with everything in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country with three constituent nations, the truth is often split into three different perspectives. For one side, a convicted war criminal such as general Ratko Mladić is a hero, for the other, he is a criminal and for the third, he is not exactly relevant in terms of the suffering their nation went through in the Bosnian War. Similarly, the success of a Bosnia and Herzegovina national side in any sport is viewed as a massive reason for pride in one part of the country while it is considered completely irrelevant in another simply because it was achieved under a flag which is not exactly celebrated in that geographical area. Truth is an abstract concept everywhere, but very rarely is it so obviously just a matter of perspective as it is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Truth in its essence should be unique and unchangeable, but in this small country in the Balkans truth has at least 3 faces at all times. Fake news can only be stopped when the truth is agreed upon, and as of the moment of writing, that seems like a movie plot twist that the Bosnia and Herzegovina motion picture is not yet ready to have unveiled.

References:

  1. Reporters Without Borders website, Available from https://rsf.org/en/ranking
  2. Emir Zulejhić; 2019; Istraživanje o dezinformacijama u online medijima: Ko kreira “mreže lažnih vijesti” u BiH i regionu? [online]; Zašto ne; Available from https://zastone.ba/istrazivanje-o-dezinformacijama-u-online-medijima-ko-kreira-mreze-laznih-vijesti-u-bih-i-regionu/ [Accessed 13 May 2021]
  3. Zašto Ne website https://zastone.ba/app/uploads/2019/05/Disinformation_in_the_online_sphere_The_case_of_BiH_ENG.pdf
  4. http://www.cimusee.org/mil-resources/learning-resources/balkan-countries-most-vulnerable-to-fake-news-report/
  5. BBC website https://www.bbc.com/news/av/business-38919403
  6. Raskrinkavanje website https://raskrinkavanje.ba/

Author: Emir Šogolj 

Illustration: Ezana Ćeman