State TV used by pro-Russian leader for political aims in Republika Srpska
A state TV station in Bosnia and Herzegovina has fallen under the control of right-wing pro-Russian populists who use it to pursue their political interests.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's unusual internal structure, the result of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, has been the subject of long debate and detailed analysis. A country with three (or five) presidents, two ‘entities’ and one district has one of the most complicated and cumbersome state apparatuses in the world.
Here we focus on an aspect that is usually seen as background noise: one of the three part-public broadcasters, the Radio-Television Company of the Republika Srpska, long ago fell into the hands of the leader of Bosnia's smaller entity. Milorad Dodik (of the SNSD party) took a page out of the Russian propaganda book: RTRS is the main tool he and his party use to spread only what is of interest and use in an attempt to achieve their political goals.
Dodik sees RTRS as a government body
Dodik has steadily defended RTRS throughout his current mandate as president of the Republika Srpska (RS). During one of the prolonged periods of criticism of his government by the RS opposition in late 2017, Dodik claimed that "we still think that we're facing a general attack on all institutions of the (Republika) Srpska," citing RTRS as a government body.
This is remarkable, as RTRS is clearly defined under the entity Law on the Radio-Television of the Republika Srpska from 2006 as "independent in conducting its activities... (and is) institutionally autonomous."
However, this goes to show that Dodik himself considers RTRS to be under the same protection of his party as the rest of the government bodies they control. Dodik and the SNSD appoint a governing board, which then names the management, including the general manager, who then decides on the hiring and appointing of the editors-in-chief. This gives them a clear path of command and control over their most prized media asset.
Ignoring bad news
In practice, this has allowed those in charge of RTRS to produce news in a manner similar to state-owned media in Russia. Using obfuscation, selective and distorted information, and outright propaganda, RTRS paints a picture of the Republika Srpska as a rich, prosperous, practically independent entity - all thanks to Dodik himself - whose only misfortune is that it is forced to be a part of BiH. This is often emphasized through separate reports on the RS and the FBiH, as if they’re not entities of the same country. Poverty, unemployment and civic discontent are totally ignored, with a clear focus solely on political issues from the viewpoint of the ruling party, denouncing opponents and lauding the supposed accomplishments of the SNSD and its leadership.
For example, the RTRS main news programme did not find time to cover any of three major workers' strikes in the autumn of 2017: employees of the Zvornik General Hospital and Banja Dvorovi from Bijeljina were on general strike in October, while the management of RS Railways decided to penalize its workers who were on strike throughout September.
The editors instead decided to open their show with the conclusion of the American Institute for Stabilization and Transition on 24 October, simply stating that "Bosnia is an unsustainable country." RTRS also quotes what it claims to be the report’s conclusion: "the government of the RS has realistic reasons to go ahead with its secession from BiH." The actual report, by an anonymous contributor, which can be found on IST's website, while clearly fraught with problematic statements, also calls for further unity through internal reform of the country to simplify its cumbersome political mechanism. The suggestion that the RS should break away is nowhere to be found. The report also mentions that Russia has its own interests in breaking up Bosnia, but that didn’t make the news on RTRS – and, as we shall see later in this article, RTRS makes sure never to report negatively on Dodik’s biggest foreign ally.
Murder victim's father persecuted
An even clearer case of RTRS trying to manipulate its viewers into thinking and supporting only what Dodik and SNSD believe is true can be seen in the situation surrounding the death of David Dragičević. The 21-year-old was found dead in March after being missing for seven days, and although his death was originally declared an accident, David's father, Davor, claimed foul play. The investigation has been reopened, but due to the fact that Davor Dragičević is actively blaming his son’s death on the RS Interior Ministry and the minister, Dragan Lukač, a key ally and appointee of Milorad Dodik, RTRS first ignored the protests organized in Banja Luka by David’s friends and family, and then decided to label them "a tool of the opposition".
By mid-September, this evolved into reports claiming "the existence of groups and individuals who are attempting to take down the RS" while showing footage from the protests, clearly implying that Dragičević and the other protesters were potentially staging a coup. Less than a week later, the channel made similar claims, in which it said Dragičević was "preparing the same scenario previously seen in the region" with support from the opposition. In creating an atmosphere of fear around one man's pursuit of the truth in his son's death, while also persecuting the opposition and claiming that they're staging a putsch, RTRS has become instrumental in pointing the finger at those whom Dodik and SNSD deem problematic.
RTRS also doesn't shy away from directly or indirectly supporting politicians from other ethnonational groups that are allies of Dodik and SNSD. For instance, in March 2015, after it became clear that Dodik was in a close political alliance with Dragan Čović and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, RTRS failed to report on what turned out to be the most important political issue in the country. RTRS reported without commentary or criticism a declaration by the Croat National Council (Hrvatski narodni sabor, HNS), a Bosnian Croat body that is basically an arm of the HDZ, asking for the “constitutional recomposition of BiH”, which is fundamentally contrary to the principles of the Dayton peace accord and the current constitution. While other media from the RS and the rest of the country allowed for a more nuanced view at the time, RTRS decided to protect Dodik's allies.
Rosy view of Russia
Speaking of allies, the amount of attention RTRS gives to all things Russian exceeds any support it might show for others.
In late 2014, despite the fact that fuel prices were steadily dropping, which is good news for Bosnian citizens as incomes are generally low, RTRS decided to focus on a different angle: how the US was deliberately harming the Russian economy by intentionally lowering the price of oil. This kind of propaganda is constant; also in late 2014, the entire first half of the 30-minute main news programme was dedicated to Dodik's visit to Belgrade to for a military parade also attended by Vladimir Putin. This almost documentary segment featured a two-minute interview with Dodik, in which he boasted about receiving "a beautiful leather jacket" from a Russian biker gang, while also stating that "Putin clearly said that Dodik is the only true partner of Russia in the Republika Srpska."
In September of this year, although all other media were reporting on the assault on Vladimir Kovačević, a journalist from Banja Luka, who was attacked with batons near RTRS's building, RTRS chose to ignore it. Instead, it talked about Zakhar Prilepin, a Russian writer who was banned from entering Bosnia due to his role in the war in Ukraine, where he led a paramilitary unit. RTRS decided to present this as a political issue, even trying to paint it as a "mini-security putsch in BiH."
Sergey Lavrov's most recent visit to Banja Luka was again instrumentalized and shown both as a major sign of support of Dodik's regime right before the October elections, but also again used to criticize the protesters asking for a proper investigation into the Dragičević case. Not missing a beat, the editor of the main news made sure to take a swipe at those that the Dodik regime doesn't see as allies, claiming the visit of the US ambassador to Banja Luka a few days earlier was designed to show backing for "the protests in support of Dragičević." All of this while an unnamed male physically assaulted Dragičević in downtown Banja Luka.
In the meantime, RTRS made sure that Dodik gets the media attention he so craves by creating an ad hoc show called “The President Speaks” (“Predsjednik govori”), reminiscent of Nicolas Maduro’s personal talk show on the Venezuelan state channel. Obviously, these are both pages out of the same Russian playbook.
The scale of RTRS’s reach is difficult to estimate, but Bosnia’s infrastructure is still somewhat underdeveloped, especially in the vast rural areas, and only the public broadcasters can reach large numbers of people there, so it’s no surprise that it’s the most viewed channel in the RS according to most ratings.
RTRS’s evening main news program also tops the list of most-watched news programmes in the RS, leading us to the conclusion that it is still a very potent propaganda tool. Coupled with the news that Alternativna TV (ATV), another Banja Luka station, was recently sold to a known associate of Milorad Dodik, it is clear that there are attempts to galvanize and possibly monopolize the media in the RS before the upcoming elections, which the SNSD is projected to win. If SNSD loses the election, one should not expect things to change for the better: if Dodik’s opponents from the SDS or PDP win and manage a takeover, the only possible outcome for RTRS is more of the same: working in favour of those in power. With both the SDS and PDP vying for the position of Russian favourite in the RS, that alliance is sure to continue if they win the election.
RTRS was always supposed to be the easiest of the three public broadcasters in BiH to control. Unlike the other two public broadcasters whose legacy lies in TVSA (Televizij0061 Sarajevo, a part of the Yugoslav public radio-TV system), it grew out of the haphazardly-set up "Serb Radio-Television" ("Srpska Radio-Televizija", SRT), Bosnian Serbs’ main propaganda outlet during the '92-'95 war.
Due to its statute, where the People's Assembly of the RS as its founder has the right to appoint its governing board, it is very easy to see the potential for any ruling party with a majority in the entity parliament - which SNSD has - to appoint the appropriate people. This is in stark comparison to the national public broadcasting service, BHRT, whose board is appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH, where the three different dominant ethnonational political factions never managed to take absolute control over its managing bodies. FTV, the public service of the other entity of BiH, the Federation of BiH, was similarly to RTRS implicated in being in the hands of the ruling parties there.
Analiziraj is a media ethics and monitoring portal specializing in analysis of news programs of national TV stations, as well as debunking fake news and political spin. Data gathered in four years of monitoring the content of all three on Analiziraj shows that no other mainstream media outlet, public or otherwise, displays the same kind of consistency in spreading propaganda and disinformation as RTRS.