Media trapped in post-election rhetoric in Republika Srpska

Mediji zarobljeni u postizbornoj retorici u Republici Srpskoj

Media trapped in post-election rhetoric in Republika Srpska

Political conflict gains momentum through use of politically controlled media.

Photo: Đorđe Vujatović

The polling stations were closed a month and a half ago, the votes were counted several times and the Central Election Commission (CEC), after enormous administrative problems, announced the results. The political situation, as well as the aggressive activities of the political subjects aimed at the media-mediated public, from the end of the elections to the announcement of the final results, shows that post-election rhetoric has become harsher than in the pre-election period.

From the moment when the CEC officially established and announced the results of the General Elections on November 2, the situation among political subjects in the Republika Srpska (RS) has been calming down to some extent. From election night until then, a ruthless debate was waged between two clearly polarized blocs, consisting on one side of the government led by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and on the other the opposition Serb Democratic Party (SDS), Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) and List for Justice and Order Nebojša Vukanović.

This political conflict gained strength through the use of biased and politically controlled media, among which the Radio and Television of the Republika Srpska (RTRS) and Alternativna Televizija (ATV) particularly stood out, which were sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury in January of this year, in response to, as they stated, "Milorad Dodik’s corrupt activities and continued threats to the stability and territorial integrity" of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H). Dodik "exerts personal control over ATV", approves content and funnels money directly from public companies to ATV for corrupt purposes, according to a US Treasury Department press release. The SRNA news agency and Faktor magazin also had a clear role in supporting the positions of the SNSD and Dodik and discrediting his opponent Jelena Trivić and the rest of the opposition.

On the other hand, opposition parties enjoyed the greatest support from BN Television, which devoted entire shows to the election results and election irregularities.

The arguments of the inextricable relationship among politics, media and society were thus once again confirmed. As Vuk Vučetić, doctor of communication science, states in his analysis Media and Politics the Bosnian Way: A Marriage of Convenience, in B&H the relationship between the media and politics is reflected in the (almost explicit) instrumentalization of the media by various political subjects and/or governments, which was clearly seen in the post-election period in the Republika Srpska.

"The fundamental characteristic of the relationship between the media and politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina is clientelism. Political patrons fund and politically support their media ‘favorites’, while on the other hand they get media space, as well as favorable coverage. The symbiosis that exists between the media and politics is not a new thing. Historically speaking, such a relationship has practically existed since the existence of media," Vučetić tells Mediacentar Sarajevo.

He adds that most traditional mass media outlets obviously depend on the various political subjects that support or fund them. The situation is similar with (‘wild’) online portals that are expanding, especially during the election campaign.

According to him, news portals have become an ideal tool for political pre-election battles, with the two basic techniques being smearing political opponents, on one hand, and favoring political patrons, on the other.

Election results trigger further media polarization

The trigger for the post-election crisis was the announcement of election victory by two candidates for President of the Republika Srpska. The opposition declared victory a few hours after the polling stations closed and Milorad Dodik did the same.

At first, some media outlets cautiously reported on the election results, using sources from all political parties. However, already in the afternoon of 3 October, the situation began to worsen. Thus, for example, SNSD Main Board member Saša Aulić called the opposition's declaration of victory a move bordering on terrorism.

The same day, RTRS aired a poll from several cities in the Republika Srpska in its primetime news program, which they also published on their official website, titled "For Srpska citizens, behavior of PDP and their politicians is inappropriate".

It is very interesting that in the aforementioned poll, lasting 1.49 minutes, as many as five political topics that dominated the pre-election period were raised through the answers of eight polled citizens: irresponsibility of the opposition, method of election and composition of the Central Election Commission, interference by foreign factors, incitement, destabilization of the Republika Srpska, as well as explicit support for a particular political opinion.

On the other hand, BN TV started broadcasting reports on numerous situations that were occurring at the election sites. The day after the General Elections ended, its primetime news program broadcast an item in which the president of a polling site admits on camera that he entered the election results incorrectly. Previously, representatives of the opposition PDP held a press conference where they raised the issue of integrity of the election process. As they stated at the time, electoral fraud led to a better result for Milorad Dodik.

Accusations also started to come from other political subjects that were part of the two dominant blocs. Dr. Nenad Bjeković, from the List for Justice and Order, called what was happening in the elections a coup d’état.

Thus, already on the first day, a pattern was created with two dominant narratives that prevailed through the entire post-election process: one about directed incitement of chaos by the irresponsible opposition and the other about stolen elections, i.e. election irregularities.

What is also specific is that insistence on purely political topics completely changed the concept of the RTRS primetime news program, compared to a month earlier. According to an analysis of reporting carried out by Media Initiatives, in the pre-election period as many as 126 pieces of information (items, news) were aired in the Dnevnik 2 news program, with a share of 46 percent on the country’s economy and development, while in the post-election period, these topics were not focused on.

Political bias of media exposed

Journalist Vladimir Šušak believes that, when it comes to political topics, the rhetoric that was present in the pre-election period has continued.

"One of the main reasons for this is that the story of the vote count and the final election results was not wrapped up for a long time. Thus, the pre-election atmosphere and the atmosphere of the election night simply spilled over into this whole period, in which we were in a time of uncertainty and with the question of what would happen. On the other hand, the pre-election campaign here is constant. This rhetoric, viewed from that angle, is normal on the political scene", believes Šušak.

According to him, the media in B&H totally exposed their political affiliations in the latest pre-election campaign and in their reports after the end of the voting and while waiting for the election results.

On the other hand, psychologist Srđan Puhalo says that the rhetoric of politicians, as well as the media, was not the same before and after the elections, primarily due to the fact that the political parties in the pre-election period wanted to show in a positive light the candidates and the options they represent.

"Before the elections, they were supposed to show that they were the best, the most beautiful and the smartest, and now they have the role of making us forget everything they said then because of possible coalitions or creation of government. In addition, at certain levels, we see that the biggest opponents until yesterday and even enemies in some places are softening their entire rhetoric and showing that it is not possible to form government without them, that it is not even good to enter without them", explains Puhalo.

Regarding specific conflicts, he adds, the impression is that post-election rhetoric is much worse than before the elections. In this way, he explains, a climate is created in which the political subjects humiliate their opponents, the media reports all this and thus the public is used to this kind of rhetoric.

"I don't see that this whole rhetoric is adopted by the people, but what is said makes people disgusted even by what little good image the politicians and political parties have left, which is counterproductive. The next elections will come and you will have people who are disgusted by politics, which happens thanks to the media more than to politicians. The media convey the statements of politicians without any filters and we might say that they actively participate in creating such a situation", adds Puhalo.

The wait for the election results, as well as the further worsening of the political situation, brought increasingly frequent labeling and insulting of political opponents, which the media reported. This was especially pronounced when the opposition in the Republika Srpska organized protests in Banja Luka.

"I think that the wave of commercialization and tabloidization of the media led to the media (un)consciously becoming active accomplices in the creation of crises in society. In the race for profit, professional standards of reporting are often neglected and, as a result, there are bombastic headlines and articles in which priority is given to scandals and affairs, while on the other hand, some positive topics have not gotten as much space", maintains Vuk Vučetić.

According to him, there has been an increase in various commissioned articles and items targeting people who are not politically like-minded.

"What is also important to point out are the various debates and shows in which so-called independent analysts participate. By carefully choosing the interlocutors, the media have directed the public debate on certain topics, such as in this particular case the election results, opposition protests or the government counter-rally, etc. Through specific contextualization or interpretation of these events, which supposedly serve to clarify the political reality, they actually contribute to additional polarization in society and creation of crises", notes Vučetić.

After the election results, first the opposition organized two protest rallies and then the ruling parties did that (although a protest by the government is a paradox in itself), under the slogan of defending the will of the people, defending the homeland and the nation. Identical decor was used, with national flags and national songs. The only significant difference were the messages on banners and that the rallies were directly broadcast in the programs of BN television (opposition) and RTRS (ruling party).

However, even this segment did not pass without the already well-known narrative about "colored revolutions", i.e. orchestrated, colored protests that obscure the essence of the problem, coup d'état and taking power in the streets.

Unverified information generated on relatively new and anonymous news portals, but gaining space in the mainstream media, continue to be the dominant topics. Such topics are commented on by politicians as well as analysts, enabling them to reach a wider audience.

On the other hand, unverified accusations are published about theft of election material and direct involvement of the political elite in these actions.

Vladimir Šušak says that false information cannot be completely avoided, especially one that discredits political opponents, but it is the job of the media to put such information in the proper context.

"Is some information inappropriate, can it be verified, is something fake news? You can publish, but put it in context if you think it’s fake news, add a note that it’s impossible to verify it. It's not a matter of ignoring it either, there will always be media that will unquestioningly publish it, but it is the responsibility of the media to put every piece of information in a certain context," says Šušak.

Media in Republika Srpska further deepen political crisis

Psychologist Srđan Puhalo points out that the role of the media in political processes is an active one and that the media has taken the initiative and is further deepening the political situation.

"If you see, for example, what ATV is doing, it's no longer reporting, that’s classic favoritism. The situation is the same with RTRS, and on the other hand, BN is doing the same. This is done especially in the Federation. Depending on whose media outlet it is, it crucifies political opponents," says Puhalo.

He notes that watching these media outlets, he feels less and less informed and thus loses trust in certain media.

"Now we can hardly tell who is lying and who is telling the truth, especially in those initial moments. When some time passes, it will crystallize, but by then it's too late, because the topic has been chewed and discarded. Another thing that is very important here is how to restore the credibility of the media before and after elections. Meaning, on one hand, before elections, they try to convince us who we should vote for, and on the other hand, after elections, they try to convince us that they are objective and impartial. Credibility is lost in this political struggle", he says.

The opposition in the Republika Srpska was dissatisfied with the reporting on RTRS, so they dedicated their third protest in the post-election period to this media organization’s reporting.

"No public TV service in the world sows as much hatred towards the opposition and is as zealous as RTRS. Their daily demonization of opposition leaders over the years, which culminated in a fabricated document of the US government and the famous 10 million dollars, is a big threat to the Republika Srpska; it brings division and discord to the people and that is why we will be in front of RTRS more and more often, until this institution of ours is free," said Igor Crnadak, a PDP official, on 2 November.

This assessment did not pass without comment from the ruling party. The SNSD’s Srđan Mazalica said that the opposition in the Republika Srpska is in a "state of despair", which is a problem for this entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Specifically because they usurped the institutions of B&H and used them to square accounts with the Srpska authorities. Srpska was damaged by the fact that the president of the Republika Srpska was decided in a recount in Sarajevo," he said.