14. sep 2021.

Bosnian Women Journalists and Advocates Receive Death Threats for Supporting Refugees

SARAJEVO—“Those prostitutes … should be lynched so they remember whom they’re dealing with,” read one comment on a Bosnian “anti-migrant” Facebook group post targeting Zehida Bihorac. Other comments were even more explicit, detailing graphic and sexually violent threats.

Bihorac is a teacher and human rights defender known for assisting “people on the move” (the term preferred by advocates to describe refugees and migrants) in Bosnia, where migration is a highly contested issue.

Journalists and activists like Bihorac are routinely harassed, threatened, and intimidated for their work with refugees and migrants entering the country via the Western Balkan route.

According to European Commission, close to 70,000 people have passed through the country since 2018, when the route for people escaping conflict, climate, and economic crises in their home countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa and headed for Europe shifted from Hungary and Serbia to Bosnia. Around 8,000 refugees and migrants are currently present in it.

Reports from the ground are unsettling, with journalists reporting overcrowded reception centers, refugees and migrants sleeping in defunct factories and unfinished homes, and local opposition to their presence in some parts of the country.

The most vocal “anti-migrant” opponents on social media appear to base their grievances on the idea that refugees and migrants will drain the country’s resources, or that they have hidden agendas, including turning Bosnia into a caliphate.

They’re also emboldened by media narratives, which, according to analysis by the Bosnian Media Center, has shifted from “reporting about victims to reporting on criminals,” with some mainstream media accusing them of “uncivilized behavior, drug use, traumatizing the local population, constant fights, and robbing citizens.”

“We can talk about negative reporting in two ways,” said Amer Dzihana, a professor in media law and the sociology of journalism. “The first is generalization. When media reports about crime, they usually do so by citing people by their names; in the case of crimes committed by migrants, the reporting defaults to mentioning their immigration status. So, the entire population is targeted. In addition, media sometimes runs fake stories or stories that are not entirely verified, the most famous example being ‘news’ that migrants have killed swans and ate them.”

Admittedly, in places like northwestern Bosnia, where refugees and migrants have settled into smaller communities, some security and infrastructure issues have arisen; this, Dzihana told us, “is where we see the increase in negative reporting.”

“[But] when it comes to mainstream media in the rest of Bosnia,” said Dizhana, “reporting is often mired with misconceptions, with media from the Republic of Srpska perceiving migrants as a direct threat.”

The Serb-majority Republic of Srpska, one of the two entities that comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina, is predominantly Christian Orthodox. Opponents believe that the people on the move are predominantly Muslim and therefore a direct threat to their faith. Milorad Dodik, former president of the Republic, has repeatedly dismissed the idea of helping migrants at every occasion.

“Editorial policies reflecting ethnic divisions and hate speech are ever more evident,” the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in its profile of the country’s hostile environment for press freedom. “Journalists are attacked for their ethnic origins as well as what they write, especially about migration.”

“Threats that I receive are versatile, ranging from promises of rape to warnings that I will not return home alive,” said Nidzara Ahmetasevic, a Bosnian journalist and human rights advocate, over the phone. She has covered human rights violations and the migrant crisis since 2016.

But at the beginning of this year, Ahmetasevic noticed that the number of threatening messages had risen dramatically, so she reported the matter to the local authorities and to Front Line Defenders —an organization that advocates for the protection needs of human rights defenders at risk — which issued an international alert for her case.

According to Ahmetasevic, her appeal to authorities went nowhere.

“The police officer told me to make hard copies of all the threats that I have received online,” she said. “He expected me to investigate the case and to provide him with details.”

Some of the threatening comments to Ahmetasevic and other journalists and activists first appeared in Facebook groups like “Ne Zelimo Migrante u Krajini” (“We Don’t Want Migrants in Krajina”) and “Stop Invaziji Migranata” (“Stop Invasion of the Migrants”). One such group, “Docek Migranata” (“Welcoming Migrants”) — which, according to some reports, was created in August last year and had more than 5,000 members — was notorious for sharing locations and photographs of migrants and those who assist them, with posts calling for “volunteers” to “go and get them.”

While the group now appears inactive, “there are many other similar ones that are,” Ahmetasevic said.

Ahmetasevic has also been a regular target of the Bosnian-based website Antimigrant, which has produced content with such headlines as “Pro-migrant mafia led by [Ahmetasevic] accuses Bosnian people of spreading diseases to their clients — illegal migrants,” accusing her and her colleagues of “pathologically hating their own people.” She is also described as “having greasy hair,” and her name is purposely mispronounced and converted into a label with an extremely offensive sexual connotation.

Consequently, it was dubbed by the watchdog project Reporting Diversity as the “Balkan Troll of the Month,” a title given to the platform that “spreads hate on the internet based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or other diversity categories.”

Dzihana said that women journalists may be attacked more by these sites because journalism in Bosnia is seen more and more as a female profession these days. “Generally speaking, in the ‘internet jungle,’ there is a lot of gender-based violence,” he said. While he made sure to caveat that it is not only women journalists who experience vicious attacks online, Dzihana did note that particularly virulent comments — many of which amount to security threats — are often directed toward women. “If you are a woman in Bosnia and you hold a controversial standpoint, you may be certain that you will be attacked. A woman with a controversial standpoint equals misogyny and sexist comments.”

It is not certain if any of the threats that Ahmetasevic has received are directly inspired by the writings of this website, but such platforms have undoubtedly contributed to the increasingly hostile environment for those working on the issue of migration.

“Local institutions or politicians never offered me help,” she said. In fact, Ahmetasevic was recently detained by police while on assignment in an incident that officials deemed disorderly conduct, which her lawyer disputes.

“You are putting sh** on our backs,” read one Facebook comment below a photographanother Bosnian journalist, Vanja Stokic, posted of herself and two migrants while on assignment. Other comments and messages in response to the photo included explicit death threats, with one message threatening to decapitate her and the men with whom she appeared in the photo.

Stokic said that when she tried to report the threats to the police, the policewoman on duty asked her “if she came just for that” and told her to come back later.

Stokic is editor in chief of the digital news outlet eTrafika based in Banja Luka, in the Republic of Srpska, which focuses on marginalized groups — including refugees and migrants.

In subsequent interviews, Stokic said that, while the same individual (who will not be named here) made repeated threats against her, a judge still decided that “the threats were made against an unspecified person,” a reaction that was condemned by advocacy organizations including Reporters Without Borders. The Bosnian Association of Journalists attempted to appeal the decision, but it was ultimately dismissed.

“It is very hard to understand why the prosecution concluded that the threats that Stokic received do not constitute an attack,” said Dzihana. “Unfortunately, the prosecutor’s office in Bosnia is not obliged to explain their decisions, so they never do.”

Meanwhile, the individual continues to harass Stokic and her colleagues, mostly in the comments section of their stories.

Sometimes, it is law enforcement who are doing the harassing.

According to the alert by Front Line Defenders, Bihorac has been a victim of not only smear campaigns in Facebook groups but also in real life. Facebook posts in the “Welcoming Migrants” group labeled her an “immoral woman” who is “sweating to go from man to man,” questioning “if such a person is suitable to work at school with our children and grandchildren.” Private photos of her, taken when she was not watching, were shared.

According to the same alert, Bihorac’s complaint to the police is still unanswered. Worse, she has been stopped on several occasions by police, who accused her of aiding illegal immigration and insinuated that her arrest would be imminent. In one instance, police filmed her visiting the refugee camps to distribute backpacks with food and medicine. As soon as she left, they questioned the refugees about her.

Local press reports that out of almost 30 official complaints, Bihorac has only heard back in relation to two; and, to this day, not a single Bosnian official has spoken up in her defense or in defense of other women activists who’ve been harassed or attacked.

Despite the UN’s calls to action, which urged the government to “guarantee the human rights of all individuals, without regard for their nationality or immigration status,” Bosnia has yet to respond in ways that could create lasting protections for human rights defenders and the populations they seek to protect.

In addition, there are currently no laws in Bosnia that regulate the online sphere or address attacks happening on social media, making this issue even more difficult to address.

“When it comes to freedom of expression,” explained Dzihana, “Bosnia and Herzegovina follows the European Convention on Human Rights, so protections exist and they are good. But, when it comes to threats made on the internet, this is where our criminal law is implemented. The laws themselves are good, but what becomes tricky is proving that the person was ‘objectively endangered’ — a prerequisite for legal reaction. This means that, in real life, there are very few cases of online threats that have been processed. “

Media and human rights organizations in Bosnia have put forward several promising suggestions, including amending existing laws so that attacks are sanctioned faster and making online threats a criminal offense, but they have a long way to go before they’re adopted as legislation, Dzihana said.

In the meantime, Ahmetasevic told us that she knows that police are “interested in her whereabouts” but that she isn’t dissuaded from doing her job.

“My job is to inform the public about what is happening,” she said. “I will not stop. I just wish that more people would join me.”

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