Brutality as a new normality

"It all started when the fake FB profile Fatima Hadzic USK called for protests. People were called to organize and return migrants, that is, to prevent their arrival in Velika Kladuša and surrounding areas."

This is how a resident of Vrnograč, a small village near the border with Croatia, begins the story of violence that has been going on for weeks in the villages around Velika Kladuša. However, in fear of the thugs who are moving around the villages armed and attacking, and which the local population mostly knows, neither he nor many other citizens of Vrnograč want to say their name publicly. Still, he is ready to testify about how violence in the villages around Velika Kladuša has become commonplace, while the perpetrators go unpunished.

Last days of camp Vučjak

For people on the move who travel along the so-called Balkan route, BiH is usually just a way station to the next EU country. However, the policy of closed borders dictated from Brussels has made BiH part of this very frequent route on which many people are stuck, sometimes for a longer period of time. Parts in the north-west of BiH, Una-Sana Canton, have the largest number of people on the move because they are close to the EU border, and have become kind of a hot-spot, like Lesvos or other islands in Greece.

“There are a few restaurants in our town. In one of them, young people gather and organize attacks. They were the first to use force when returning and stopping people," said the indignant resident of Vrnograč, adding that young men from the village have beaten up a group of young men who" did not bother anyone at all. "

“One night, a group of them were beaten so hard, and then they were left bloody, broken… That night, other locals hid them, because other people are against such behavior and want help. However, they cannot be prevented from doing what they do every single night… One morning we met two young men who told us that they could not stand it anymore, that they had been robbed, that they no longer had money or phones and that they had been beaten for days. When they got tired, or whatever, of torturing this group, they then set fire to the house where they were staying, only to announce on FB that it was done by migrants, which was also reported by the media. And that was done by them, those local young men, not migrants. Now there are no more migrants in our bazaar because they are afraid of us, say the locals, adding that the police are patrolling the village, that they have written misdemeanor charges to some people, but that this is not enough to prevent violence.

The story of violence in the villages around Velika Kladuša was recently brought up by the Banja Luka portal eTrafika. The text, accompanied by photographs of victims of violence and injuries, states that the perpetrators also used knives and that the injured could not seek medical help because of the decisions of the Una-Sana Canton Government that prevent them from moving, while local people are forbidden to transport them, even in case of need for medical assistance.

"There are no police to protect us. The camps are full, they won't accept us. That's why we sleep outside. We are hungry, we have no food. It is not good. Here, they are violent towards us, they also use electric shockers. They set fire to the house with petrol, the one we slept in ", says the young man who was found by the journalists.

The young men who were met by the journalists of this portal, despite all the troubles they have to deal with every day, say that in the village of Vrnograč, where they stayed, the locals are good, but that the real danger is a group of about ten young men.

Hate messages

Such and similar violent situations have replaced the images of solidarity that were almost common in 2018 and 2019 throughout the Una-Sana Canton, a part of BiH in the north-west that borders the EU, but also in the entire country. The population, unlike the authorities, has been doing everything in their power to help people on the move for more than two years, hoping that the state and relevant institutions, as well as international organizations, mandated to “manage migration,” will do their share. People in Krajina watched as migrants and refugees came in the absence of any accommodation, sleeping in parks and on the streets, in abandoned houses, without food and basic care. They also watched those who were returned from the EU borders beaten, without property, scared and exhausted, and then left without care.

And while the number of people who come or stay has increased, instead of help and support, they are flooded with messages of hatred coming from politicians at all levels, transmitted through the media, and which at the end - which was the goal - first aroused intolerance, and then violence. As expected, hate speech, but also violence, intensified during the election year.

The domestic public has suffered not only from a lack of support from the authorities and international organizations in charge of assisting but also from a lack of reliable and verifiable information about what is happening. At first glance, the media are full of reports regarding the situation related to the arrival of a significant number of refugees and migrants in BiH. However, the analysis of media content shows a serious lack of professional and critical reporting. Once again, the media in BiH serve as megaphones of the government rather than in the service of the public, and by their reporting and transmission of messages of intolerance, they have helped spread panic and fear, which have resulted in violence.

The constant criminalization and dehumanization of people on the move have been happening throughout Europe for years, but it is strongest in countries ruled by the far-right and which are almost completely closed to people migrating for any reason. Just as the case is with BiH, in these countries the issue of migration is treated as a question of security, while endless space to talk about what is happening is mostly given to security services and politicians. The media contribute by not questioning what information such interlocutors present to them, by taking over the language they speak and the messages they send. Thus, from people seeking protection, or just a new opportunity for life, refugees and migrants have become criminals who do not have human characteristics, and who are a global threat.

By embracing the language used by politicians and security services, the media has normalized both the dehumanization and criminalization of people on the move. There are too many examples of this in the Bosnian media. Only one shows how, by conveying the message, the media in BiH have normalized the practice of not only preventing people from entering the country under the pretext of doing so irregularly but also access to asylum. Thus, the media unquestioningly transmit information from the BiH Border Service on how many cases police officers have deterred people from entering, or returned them to neighboring countries.

“Police officers of the BiH Border Police from January 1 to May 8, 2018, took measures against 3,177 citizens of countries with high migration risk, of which 1,423 persons were detected in an attempt or immediately after illegally crossing the state border, while 1,754 were prevented from entering BiH, in such a way that they have given up trying to cross the border due to the engagement of police officers on the state border with Montenegro and Serbia,” reads the statement of the Border Police, which is issued regularly.

The media that transmitted such information, neglected to clarify that these legal actions were questionable. Such actions are actually called push-backs and they are denied the possibility of seeking asylum, i.e. basic human rights. Precisely because of this practice, which is often accompanied by violence, Croatia and Hungary have been targeted by human rights activists for years, but also by people sitting in the European Parliament and numerous media outlets around the world.

The media fail to notice this, just as they do not notice that the numbers that the local authorities point out as proof of good work are also stated by UNHCR in the monthly reports, considering them problematic.

In the same way, all empathy was erased from media reports. One example is a video in which the viewer can see tortured people crossing the Drina River, women, and children. The only interlocutor the journalist chooses says that he is from Pakistan (in line with the claim of politicians and security structures that most of them are "economic migrants from Pakistan" in BiH) and that the whole group has just entered the country illegally. What we do not learn from this poor article is how the state reacted to the entry of this group of people. That is, whether they were provided with medical assistance, whether social workers got involved, whether anyone gave them food, whether they were registered with the competent authorities… or were they returned to Serbia. In that way, institutions that have a legal obligation would come under scrutiny, and not people on the move who seek protection.

This spread of negative imagery of people who are on the move has been greatly aided by the use of terms such as "illegal migrants", a category that no law in BiH recognizes. The term was used by all three ministers who, since 2018, have headed the Ministry of Security, which is in charge of asylum and migration issues. The media echoed this term, without talking to lawyers or human rights activists who would clarify and refer to the legal framework, but also the correct terminology. Moreover, when some of the UN agencies, analysts, and analytically oriented media, pointed out this omission, most of the media turned a deaf ear and continued to use the same terms, thus entering the campaign of criminalization of people. They also replace the warnings of the Human Rights Ombudsman of BiH, which in the report from 2018 clearly indicate the use of problematic terminology.

What the domestic media did not inform the public about is that, according to the UN definition, that can be found on the website of this organization, refugees are people who have left their countries "due to a well-founded fear of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order, and who, as a result, need international protection”.

So, for example, an LGBTQ person fleeing a country where it is forbidden to be a member of that community (such as Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria…), has the right to refugee status, i.e. asylum. Equally, persons who are political activists, human rights defenders, or engage in any other activity and live in countries where their lives are endangered, have the right to protection. Just one example is Turkey where, among other things, journalists and academics are often targeted by the authorities there for their actions.

Officials persistently use the term “illegal migrants” to refer to people who “do not want to reveal their identity”, who do not have any registration or documentation and do not want to have it. All these allegations were repeated several times in public by employees of the Ministry of Security, including the Service for Foreigners, including the director of that Service. However, in one of the interviews he gave, he denies such allegations and says that every person is registered.

"Biometric data (photographs and fingerprints) are taken from them and interviews are conducted with migrants, trying to find out about the routes of movement, potential networks of smugglers, and the evidence that will be used in the readmission process. The collected data is exchanged with other security agencies in BiH and international partners for further verification in their databases and detection of potential security threats."

The whole process that the Director of the Service is talking about here is almost unknown to the public.

Shifting the blame

The presence of a large number of people on the move in BiH is often used by domestic politicians for political, inter-entity, and other types of confrontations, and shifting the blame from one institution to another, from one level of government to another, which was covered in detail by the analysts from Istinomjer. Accusations are often leveled at neighboring countries, and so Serbia, according to media reports, is deliberately transferring people to destabilize BiH.

"Guides from Belgrade and cities in the interior of Serbia move migrants by promising them to cross into BiH and bring them to the regions of Loznica, Mali Zvornik, and lately the villages of Lesnica (opposite Janje), Badovinci and Salaš Crnobarski on the right, Serbian bank of the Drina." It should be said that this border area is due to the pronounced smuggling of high-tariff goods and people, under the increased supervision of the Serbian police authorities. But when it is necessary to miss migrants, it is very obvious that the police have completely different instructions. In that case, the border with BiH is carefully monitored, and in the period when there are no members of the BiH BP on the Bosnian side, migrants are transported by boat across the river. And when they get out on the coast, they are left to GPRS and their intuition in moving towards Bijeljina, Zvornik, Janja ... and the nearest bus, train, or police station of the MUP GP BiH or the Field Office of the Service for Foreigners. "

The public is generally left without verifiable information on whether this is happening at all in the way described by the media that broadcast the statements of the leaders, but also explanations that these are people who are on the move and moving along the Balkan route trying to enter the EU.

If people enter the movement in this way, then there is a need to talk about security and defense of borders, which the director of the border police Zoran Galic repeats, followed by the police at other levels, as in the case of the police commissioner in Sarajevo.

"The migrant crisis will undoubtedly last for years, but we must do what is up to us. The MUP KS Police Directorate is making every effort, among other things, to keep the security situation under control, especially when it comes to the migrant population. The conclusion of the KS Government which restricts the movement of migrants outside the temporary reception centers is still in force, but we also have a problem here," says the commissioner.

To increase fear, officials and the media give unlimited space to allegations of crimes committed by "migrants". In a series of its analyzes, the Media project Raskrinkavanje (Disclosure), since 2018, pointed out the problematic, often completely untrue, media reporting when it comes to people on the move in BiH, and the unverified allegations of people in power. In one of the analyzes, they point to the activities of the candidate for the mayor of Bihać, Sejo Ramić. Raskrinkavanje analyzed his statement that "migrants" committed 4,000 crimes in the USC.

"For a long time, they started behaving arrogantly. So far I can't even keep count of about 4,000 crimes they committed. These are some things we are not used to," Ramic said publicly, and the media reported. The Prime Minister of the USC, Mustafa Ružnić, claims similarly, saying that "migrants" are responsible "for thousands and thousands of acts".

Raskrinkavanje is doing what all the media that reported such statements could do - look at the official statistics and conclude that the total number of crimes committed has been declining since 2020 and that 4,000 crimes have not been committed in the entire canton and those three years “migrants were actors in nearly 300 acts during 2018 and 2019.

From all the above, taking into account the officially available data, it is clear that the Prime Minister of the USC Mustafa Ružnić, as well as the City Councilor of Bihać, Sejo Ramić, made untrue allegations regarding the number of crimes committed by migrants. " 

Similarly, Tuzla is presented in the media and official statements as a place of horror due to the presence of a large number of people on the move, and the conflict between them. Thus, the text about the fight of a group of people is published with videos under the title "We warn of the horrific scenes from Tuzla: Brutal and bloody fight of migrants." What the public sees are not horrible and violent scenes, and we learn from the text that the police did not get involved and that no one was injured.

In a similar way, the media report on the arson that is taking place in the USC, but also in other parts of BiH, accusing the "migrants", and not seeking confirmation.

"Last night after 10 pm in Mehmeda Fazlića Street in the Jezero-Privilica local community, there was a fire at the family house whose owner is staying abroad. According to the citizens as well as the representatives of this local community, the fire was caused by migrants who have been a big problem for the citizens in this settlement for a long time. "

A similar text was published in almost the same period, claiming that "Bihać firefighters were on the scene all night: Migrants set fire to and destroyed a house." Again, there is no confirmation of who is to blame for the fire, nor the broader context for this claim, but it says that "in Bihac, the migrant crisis has not abated for months and many citizens are afraid of such a situation."

Dehumanization and oblivion

In addition to criminalizing people on the move, the media became involved in their complete dehumanization. This process reaches a level where it is occasionally completely forgotten that these are human beings, which is evident in the text that quotes the mayor of Doboj Istok, who says that he does not want a camp in this part of BiH: "If that was good, it would not be our problem”. When he says “that,” the chief is talking about people.

The authors of the media projects Analiziraj and also warn about the transmission of untruths and problematic language. They also write about how journalists do not sufficiently check sources, while they rarely give space to people on the move in BiH, or if they do, they limit themselves to a few questions - where they come from, how long they move, and where do they go. Their destinies and problems do not seem to exist, while violence and inhumane living conditions become so normal, that they do not deserve attention.

Hate speech is particularly intensified at a time of the Covid 19 pandemic, which occurs in an election year when checking information and access to reporting sites becomes a problem for most media outlets. The mayor of Tuzla, Jasmin Imamović, goes so far as to say at one point, that migrants are "next to the new coronavirus, the biggest problem of the people of Tuzla". At that time, not a single case of the Covid-19 virus was registered in Tuzla itself among the population of refugees and migrants.

The public is generally deprived of information on the number of patients among people on the move, but also on their health care. Negligence of this type also contributes to further dehumanization.

In that process of dehumanization, the media is supported by the attitude of international organizations that run camps, around which wires have been erected, and members of private security companies stand at the entrances, sending the message that those who need to be kept that way are not the same as most BiH citizens. The entrance to the camps, as well as the possible work of the media inside, is under the strict control of these organizations, as well as information about what is happening and how people live.

In general, the public seems to know little about the fact that in June 2018 the EU decided not to trust state institutions, and that all donations intended for “migration management” should be directed to the IOM, and their spending is monitored by the EU Special Representative in BiH. So far, the domestic media have not offered the public an answer to the questions of how and why the EU made this decision, nor have they discussed whether such a decision potentially diminishes the role of the state. The most important question that remains unanswered is who is responsible when things go wrong - the state, which has a legal obligation, or international organizations that have the money and mandate given by the EU to manage migration?

With EU funds, eight centers have been built in which migrants and refugees are accommodated, and in which the media have limited and very controlled access. All centers are managed by IOM, with or without partner organizations, international and domestic. The criteria by which they choose domestic partners (often these are organizations about which it is not possible to find any data by searching on the Internet), living conditions in the centers, but also access to the health or education system, are not something most of the public knows about. Allegations of the non-governmental sector about poor conditions and treatment, as well as violence from employees, are rarely reported by the media, and even less frequently investigated.

Also, the media does not ask why organizations that receive donations do not care about people who do not have accommodation and who live outside the centers, although sometimes their number is higher than those in the centers. They are not provided with food, care, free legal aid services, or anything else, and they are left to the care of the local population. People living outside the center are also often targeted by police actions of “cleaning” or “sheltering” as they are called by police and reported by the media, during which they detain people and take them to locations outside the canton where they were caught. The question that the media could clarify is what is the purpose of these actions and what is their price, given that they fall inside the state budget.

Political support for violence

The role of social networks in spreading anti-immigrant attitudes is another problem that is little treated in public. Most of these groups use the same language as the media, i.e. government representatives, and justify their actions by the need to defend themselves.

It is noticeable that the number of such groups, as well as calls for violence in them, increased due to the first visit of the new Minister of Security to the authorities in Bihać on 11 of August. After the meeting, local leaders went public with messages that they interpreted as encouragement for their restrictive decisions, while Minister Selmo Cikotić announced the strengthening of borders. Authorities in the USC interpreted his words as an encouragement for their actions, and took an even tougher stance when it comes to people on the move, further strengthening measures to restrict the movement and rights of migrants and refugees, Prime Minister Mustafa Ruznic said ten days after the visit. Prime Minister Ružnić clearly says that he is aware of the illegal actions of citizens, but he does not see a problem in that. What's more, he gives black prognoses, which further spreads panic, without referring to any source. The same is done by journalists who transmit his words, without questioning what he said.

"Now the citizens are aware that this will not stop tomorrow, but that this will last for several years, that the arrival of migrants is increasing every year, we had 24,000 in 2018, 49,000 in 2019, and almost 30,000 have now come to the canton. So next year it will be 70,000. That number is increasing, and nothing seems to come of a crisis-ridden institution. Citizens are aware that only more, even harder, and even worse is coming, and the destruction of the economy, tourism, the destruction of property, and everything sacred to these citizens and, above all, I say their rights. People just can't go anywhere. Even with children, anything to organize, you cannot just leave your house. Why? You always have to guard because migrants pass by, break into houses. Nothing is sacred to them and the citizens said enough is enough. We have to take care of ourselves and take care of our property because the competent institutions are not taking what is needed, "said Ružnić, adding a threatening message:" if the Krajina stubbornness goes to work, it will be too late."

Such statements by the authorities in the USK are often accompanied by decisions made at the local level, which are contrary to existing laws, sometimes the state constitution, but which are not questioned by the media. The media does not pay attention even when Amnesty International (later the EU) explicitly says in a statement that some of the decisions made in this way, at the local level, are outside the law.

“The decision to further restrict the rights and freedoms of already marginalized people on the move is not only illegal but potentially reckless… Authorities should work to find solutions to accommodate and support several thousand people outside official reception centers, instead of directing and leaving mercy and disfavor to groups of violent persons, ”AI states clearly.

The criticism directed by AI, as well as numerous other organizations, and even the EU, have not been questioned or given space in the media as much as negative reports about people on the move.

“Migrant crisis”, a term often used in the media, has been in use since 2015 in most media, not only in BiH but worldwide. By constantly repeating this term, the media have created an atmosphere in which migrants are seen as the culprits of the current crisis, and not the victims themselves. According to that, the media in BiH and the general approach to reporting look like other countries at the moment. But what is missing in our case, and what can be found in other, even neighboring countries, is the part of the media that have a critical approach and that question what is happening, and to show that this is not a crisis caused by migrants, but the general crisis of democracy and human rights.

The media, as part of civil society, is, unfortunately, part of the problem.

Part of the answers about the situation with the media when it comes to BiH can be found in the results of the research published by Mediacentar Sarajevo in September. The researchers conclude that the media in BiH are "subject to the influence of political and economic groups," i.e. that they are "connected to leading political parties and business circles through non-transparent and arbitrary funding and ownership structures, while independent media are rare and usually funded by foreign donors."

The study's authors also conclude that "professional organizations and academics rarely condemn cases of hate speech and misinformation, and what is more problematic is that political elites do not express concern about hate speech and problematic media content but instead often serve as a source of divisive messages, polarizing and problematic statements.”

Numerous evidence for these claims can be found in reports on migrants and refugees in BiH. This kind of reporting has affected citizens who, over the course of three years, have seen an increase in the number of people arriving in BiH, and went from unprecedented solidarity to hatred, followed by violence, which has rarely been seen on the so-called Balkan route. Hate speech, which is ubiquitous in the public today, is often reminiscent of that used immediately before and during the war years in BiH, only the "enemies" in this case, is someone else.

Having all this in mind, as in the 1990s, the use of this language and its transition to the public can have bloody consequences, which are only partially described by the locals of Vrnograč.

According to the law, which Nedim Ademović, a professor and lawyer from Sarajevo, talks about for the Buka portal, hate speech is “any public speech that comes down to publicly provoking or causing negative attitudes, especially hatred towards a certain group or individual because of its status. or determinations to create intolerance, discord, discrimination, and violence, or spreading pre-existing hatred ”.

"Therefore, hate speech is one that is aimed, first of all, at harming people of different communities precisely because they belong to that community. That is its main goal. "

Professor Ademović further explains that the goal of such a speech is to "homogenize or activate a certain group that represents hateful ideas about another group, and gain new members."

The BiH Constitution, as a part of the Peace Agreement, also contains international conventions that explicitly prohibit hate speech, as do existing criminal laws. "Unfortunately, the problem is the implementation in praxis. Institutions are not efficient, unlike hate speech, which is experiencing a renaissance," reminds Ademović.