This Bosnian fact-checking outlet launched to go after fake news

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly translated two debunks from Raskrinkavanje. This story addresses a false claim about a woman breastfeeding a 12-year-old, not giving birth to one, as previously reported. This story addresses a false claim about Muslim men receiving payments to radicalize, not Bosniak politicians, as previously reported.

Additionally, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Istinomjer fact-checks politicians in Serbia and Croatia, for which it sometimes gets attacked. In fact, it checks those from Republika Srpska, an administrative unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have updated those sentences in the body as a consequence. Apologies for the errors.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, fact-checkers are starting to see more fake news.

That’s why Raskrinkavanje launched this week. An outgrowth of Istinomjer, a website owned by nongovernmental organization Zasto Ne that’s been fact-checking politics since 2010, the new platform aims to check statements from sites ranging from mainstream to completely falsified, which have been among the biggest culprits spreading misinformation in the region.

“We encountered a lot of misinformation that has not been placed by politicians, but by the media themselves. We didn’t have a way to rate that stuff,” said Tijana Cvjetićanin, research coordinator for Istinomjer, which translates to “Truth-O-Meter.” “Partly it’s because the climate is now a bit going in that direction after the U.S. elections in particular, and fake news becoming this widely used term globally.”

The new site has checked fake stories that range from Muslim men receiving payments to radicalize to a woman breastfeeding a 12-year-old. Cvjetićanin said these articles, which amassed substantial readership, are mainly aimed at affecting political discourse.

“What we are seeing is that you have a very strong political component in this,” she said. “You see this type of content being produced — basically political smear campaigns that are being peddled through these portals. There’s a growing market of junk science and conspiracy theory.”

And Elvira Jukic, editor in chief of Mediacentar Sarajevo, a media training organization, said that trend can have damaging consequences.

“Whether some celebrity died or not can affect a reader in this or that way but it usually does not lead them to make some crucial decisions,” she told Poynter in an email. “A fake story concerning health, for example, can lead to some bad decisions and endanger lives, such as refusing to vaccinate children and risking their exposure to dangerous diseases.”

For that reason, she said the demand for fact-checking in Bosnia and Herzegovina is quite high. But while Bosnians are increasingly reading fake news, Cvjetićanin said the country still remains on the margins of the phenomenon; in her experience, misinformation is mostly being peddled out of Serbia and Croatia. Since the languages spoken are essentially the same, it’s easier to translate from one state to another (an opportunity that fact-checkers have also tapped into).

And it’s not just sketchy fake news sites that are publishing misinformation. Both Cvjetićanin and Jukic said that even more reputable news outlets will occasionally publish false or blatantly misleading information, often with the goal of serving the agendas of the political elite.

“This is not a rule, it is not the most common form of fake news that one could find in the Balkan media, but surely is one of the most alarming, since it has a lot to do with deterioration of professionalism in the media and with lack of freedom of media,” Jukic said.

With a small staff and one more person soon to be hired, Raskrinkavanje has its work cut out. The first hurdle it faces is tracing the ownership of fake news sites and pushing past the negative public opinion of media, Cvjetićanin said. While legally protected, freedom of information in practice is generally low throughout the Balkans, and purveyors of fake news are often untraceable, she said.

That problem is compounded by the fact that many people who work in Bosnian news outlets aren’t trained journalists, and money's too tight to do high-quality investigative journalism, Cvjetićanin said. Raskrinkavanje launched this week with grant support from the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which gave $29,900 and $20,000, respectively.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for fact-checking in the country is the ethnic strife that has marred the region for decades.

“In Bosnia, this is particularly complex because we don’t have one public sphere — we have at least four,” Cvjetićanin said. “It does influence your topics and your tone and your reception. We can see that by the comments that come to certain articles.”

Since Istinomjer is based in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the outlet is sometimes viewed as Bosniak in other parts of the country, she said. Because of that, when they write about politicians from Republika Srpska, an administrative unit in the country, Istinomjer will receive comments questioning their purview to do so.

And that makes fact-checking hard. Cvjetićanin said that fact-checkers have to take stock of how much they’re covering certain groups over others, and that they’ll often try to proactively balance their coverage so as to avoid perceptions of bias.

“It’s amazing that we have to consider this in our approach,” she said. “It’s based on facts, so you can try to attack us or smear us, but it is what is it is.”

Still, Raskrinkavanje’s reception has been wholly positive. Jukic said she thinks the organization has really addressed the demand for fact-checking in Bosnia and Herzegovina by publishing fact checks that people will click on, and Cvjetićanin said readers have already shown interest.

“We’re online for a week and we already have 20 or 30 questions from people,” she said. “The result is some of us have absolutely no life."

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