Bosnia’s Protests and Media Challenges

I wrote last week about the (ongoing) protests in Bosnia, and some of the coverage they’ve received since then makes the subject worth returning to. Florian Bieber has already discussed more generally the ways in which the Western press has missed some of the more important (and interesting) parts of the narrative in Bosnia and instead relied on largely irrelevant historical tropes that nevertheless may resonate more easily with the casual reader.

Alison Smale’s article in the New York Times successfully avoids resorting to unnecessary mentions of the Archduke’s assassination, but it provides a neat illustration of two other problems news coverage struggles with. The first is that of purported objectivity, which in American domestic politics most frequently manifests itself as false equivalence (something The Atlantic’s James Fallows has documented assiduously). The second is the news media’s occasional difficulty in explaining phenomena rather than simply documenting events, something Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and a host of others are attempting to remedy with their Project X.

Her second paragraph cites “diplomats and analysts” to suggest the protests are an “unintended consequence” of the 1995 Dayton Accords, and she offers a quotation from a protester to bolster the assertion:

The system established under the Dayton accords has only helped cement “corrupt, nepotistic and completely complacent elites,” said Damir Arsenijevic, 36, a psychoanalyst who has studied and lectured in Britain, participated in Occupy protests in Oakland, Calif., and is now a prime mover in nightly Tuzla discussions about the way forward.

Then a handful of lines further down she writes:

John C. Kornblum, a retired United States ambassador who drafted the Dayton accords as the diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke negotiated them, noted that the complex mechanisms they put in place were intended primarily to secure peace, but they were also supposed to be replaced in three years with a more streamlined governmental structure.

A serious attempt at change in 2005, he said, was hindered in part by nongovernmental organizations reinforcing the Bosniak leaders’ desire for a unified state, which the Serbs and Croats will not allow.

These are borderline contradictory statements, and the second one especially contains a number of implicit assumptions which may or may not be true, and at no point does she make any effort to untangle any of this. I suspect her response might be something along the lines of, “I’m just objectively reporting what other people say; it’s not my job (and in fact it would be highly unprofessional) to include a personal analysis of their comments.”

Which, in a way, is a true thing about journalism. I don’t check Reuters every day to know what their correspondents think about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program (to pick an ongoing story at random); I check to get a straightforward accounting of what happened in the latest round of talks. In situations like that it’s often a question of simply quoting various spokespeople, and so perhaps it is objective to not go beyond a he said/his counterpart said approach.

But here such an approach creates substantial distortions. First, there is the question of whether or not Dayton is to blame for the protests. As discussed before, to the extent that this is the case at all, the argument for it has to be much more complex than simply: complicated governing structures -> unaccountable politicians -> mafia state. Second, if Dayton is to blame, it behooves the person making that claim (or at least giving it substantial column space) to mention the circumstances which necessitated it in the first place, since the only way Dayton itself is actually at fault is if in negotiating the agreement Holbrooke settled for a much less coherent governing structure than he could have actually achieved. Smale leaves out any mention of that, except obliquely in what she includes of John C. Kornblum’s analysis, which notes that neither the Croatians or the Serbians have exhibited any willingness to move Bosnia’s government towards greater centralization.

If Dayton is problematically complex, occupying a strange hybrid position between full decentralization and full centralization, then there are two potential solutions. Either it can be reformed towards greater centralization at the state level, or it can be reformed towards greater autonomy at the regional level. But the time of Dayton’s negotiation, neither greater autonomy nor greater centralization was a viable outcome. Greater regional autonomy was feared by Bosniaks and the West as a prelude to the creation of a rump Bosnia centered on Sarajevo, and greater centralization was feared by Croatians and Serbians as a prelude to an exclusionary Bosniak-nation state.

Kornblum, by suggesting Bosniaks’ insistence in 2005 on greater centralization impeded reform efforts, seems to imply that greater regional autonomy would have been a desirable outcome. Which is absolutely a position you could take on the matter. But from an analytical and journalistic perspective  it’s somewhere between ineffective and incoherent to cite multiple sources blaming Dayton for the protests, follow that with the recognition that large portions of the country’s population have historically opposed the creation of a centralized state, and then fail to address the reasons even greater decentralization hasn’t to-date been a viable option.*

The result of all of this is that by purporting to maintain objectivity Smale inadvertently embeds in her article a very particular set of arguments about Bosnian political reform. They’re absolutely viable arguments, but they are also just that; arguments. And they draw on a whole lot of context and background that the article fails to provide. I don’t know how much the Project X-ers expect to focus on the Balkans (one assumes not much), but it will be interesting to see if their attempt to reimagine journalism along an explanatory model helps add clarity in similar future cases.

*I know the article is as much a human-interest piece as anything else, so perhaps I should be less exercised about its decision to avoid addressing geopolitics. But still