Are prominent Bosnian politicians really creating paramilitary units?

In the past two months, the public in Bosnia has been disturbed by biased reporting on paramilitary scares. It doesn't help that few media outlets are eager to refute the allegations. 

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: Istinomjer
Are prominent Bosnian politicians really creating paramilitary units? - NewsMavens
Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

politics

In late November, “Večernje novosti”, a newspaper from Serbia, published an allegation that Bakir Izetbegović (a member of the Presidency of BiH and the leader of SDA, the most influential Bosniak party), was training his own “Bosniak paramilitary units”, with the intention to use them against Republika Srpska, one of the entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The public broadcaster of Republika Srpska, RTRS, instantly jumped to the news. They continued to peddle it even after an official refute was issued by “Crna munja” -- an airsoft rifle club reported by another RS-based television station to be one of the paramilitary units in question. 

Since airsoft is an extreme sport similar to paintball, where military-style uniforms are used in combat simulations, the photographs taken from “Crna munja” looked convincing -- at least until the news was debunked.

After that, RTRS left with a suggestion that, perhaps, the airsoft clubs are not what they seem to be and that security agencies should look into their activities, implying they are merely a front for undercover military training.

A few days ago, another story about paramilitary units appeared in Bosnian media, this time with a different focus. Bosnian portal “Žurnal” published an article claiming that Milorad Dodik (the president of Republika Srpska and the leader of SNSD, the most influential Serb party), is conspiring with special forces from Serbia and Russia to form paramilitary units, with assistance of an organization called “Srbska čast”.

While "Žurnal" didn't provide rock-solid evidence for all their claims either, they did make a much more compelling case -- so much so, that it received a mention in “The Guardian” within hours.

In the article, the members of “Srbska čast” (some with known criminal records) were shown standing with Milorad Dodik inside the RS Government building; marching in the streets of Banja Luka during the official “RS Day Parade”; sitting in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska during a meeting organized by RS war veterans’ association; receiving medals of honour from Russian military figures, posing with assault weapons and, in uniforms, with Russian war veterans.

A special emphasis was put on the group’s leader, Serbia-based Bojan Stojković, already known to the public through his extensive social media presence. His profiles on Facebook and Instagram, where he often brags about his military past, present him as a right-wing strongman and link both him and his group to “Night Wolves”, a network of bikers’ clubs which emerged from a Russian group of the same name, actively engaged in the war in Ukraine.   

 

Despite the stark difference in the level of detail and plausibility of the information published in the two stories, Radio-television of Republika Srpska, the entity’s public broadcaster, didn’t give the first one a second thought before presenting it as credible and relevant information. The second one was dismissed with the same conviction.

In the first case, the story was republished on RTRS website in exactly 17 minutes. Izetbegović’s refute was never published. The statement of the airsoft club, accused of being a front for military operations, was presented with a question mark.

As for the second case, there was no mention of “Žurnal’s” story for an entire day. The first record of the news -- that was, at that point, already storming through Bosnian and international media -- was nowhere to be seen until Milorad Dodik went public with his denial of the allegations.

Moreover, the entire story was told solely through from the perspective of the entity’s ruling party. Throughout the day, the statements of prominent SNSD members alternated on the RTRS program. Seven articles were published, each bringing new aspects of the story that were never mentioned in its initial form. The denials were given the central spot in prime time news.

A denial of one of the “Srbska čast” members was published the day after, giving the readers a heartfelt insight into his organization's "humanitarian work". No questions were asked. 

Details from the story:

  • On November 25, 2017, a Serbian newspaper “Večernje novosti” published an article claiming that Bakir Izetbegović is recruiting fighters for paramilitary units. The article was based on “anonymous sources” and no evidence was provided for the claim.
  • On the same day, “Alternative television” (ATV) from Bosnian entity Republika Srpska, added to the story, claiming to have exclusive photographs of a military training of a combat unit called “Crna munja” (“Black Lightning”) from the city of Cazin, located in the entity Federation of BiH.
  • “Crna munja”-- actually an airsoft rifle club registered in 2010 -- reacted immediately, asking for a retraction and an apology.
  • Other airsoft clubs, both from the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska, also reacted, demanding that the media leave their sport out of such stories.
  • On January 12, a Bosnian portal “Žurnal” also published an article about secret paramilitary units, this time implicating Milorad Dodik and a group called “Srbska čast” in similar activities.  
  • “Žurnal” quoted “documents from security agencies” as information source, without providing the source material. The article, however, came with photographs showing several interactions of members of “Srbska čast” with both the RS officials and Russian military figures.
  • Unlike the first story, this one was, to some extent, corroborated by the state minister of security. He claimed that the information published isn’t entirely new to him and that he intends to send “some of it” to the state prosecutor's office.
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