Introduction and context
In a recent factcheck article, our colleagues from the Media University Stuttgart checked the claim of Mr. Nikola Milina, the head of Croatian police, who said that the violent pushbacks at the Croatian-Bosnian border published in October 2021 were an “individual event” and that he didn’t want such incident to “affect the praise the police receive for their everyday sacrificial work”. As the data from NGOs and media reports showed that there has been more than one incident, the statement was rated as mostly false.
The announcement came one week after the publication of video footage which was a result of the international collaboration of journalists from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, and Croatia. It was first aired on the Croatian national commercial television RTL, as their investigative team from the TV magazine Potraga was a member of the joint international network Lighthouse which led the whole investigation.
The video showed men in police uniforms beating up groups of migrants next to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. This stirred discussions not only about the above-mentioned incident but also about non-justification or justification of strict measures in keeping the EU borders.
Croatia, an EU member since 2013, has approximately a 1000-kilometer border with the non-EU country Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the main hubs for migrants hoping to reach wealthier European countries. Nevertheless, Croatia – although an EU country – for most migrants is not the final destination. For those who are illegally crossing borders, one of the ‘promised lands’ is Germany.
Additionally, Mr. Milina’s statement came just a few weeks before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) made a ruling that Croatia is guilty of the death of a 6-year-old Afgan girl Madina who was killed by train after being pushed back to Serbia with her family in 2017. The decision of the ECHR was widely reported on both in Croatian and in international media, and loosely coincided with the extensive coverage of reactions of Croatian officials and human rights organizations after the publication of the mentioned video.
Encouraged by Nikola Milina’s statement and media reports about possible ruthless events at the border, we set out to conduct a media analysis in collaboration with colleagues from the Stuttgart Media University. We aimed to analyse how media in Croatia and Germany reported on the mentioned events, having in mind that it is Germany which is the desired destination for most of the migrants and that Croatia is a country on their way which is supposed to protect the borders of the European Union.
Croatian media: Two opposing discourses
The two main discourses we identified in the Croatian media are, first, the protection of human rights and, second, the protection of the EU borders. The first discourse is based on the thesis that the Croatian Police violates human rights in dealing with migrants, which is reflected in the reports of various human rights associations and those dealing with refugees. The second discourse is focused on the thesis that Croatia is doing its job as the ‘guardian’ of the European Union’s borders, in which it is almost impossible to protect the border and not prevent migrants from crossing it without using force.
To see the perspective and discourses represented by the Croatian media, we tried to cover the whole spectrum of Croatian online media. We focused on articles published after the controversial video of violence against migrants on the Croatian-Bosnian border appeared in the media.
On the one hand, the discourse of preserving the protection of human rights, i.e., condemning the violation of the rights of migrants, is much more prevalent in more liberal media. On the other hand, we identify a discourse in which the actions of the police are being moralized or defended by the circumstances of this specific situation. This is more likely to be found in more conservative media outlets. Still, both discourses overlap and are found in the mainstream media – from liberal to more conservative. The difference is seen in the headlines or in in the amount of space and attention given to the official statements or choice of the interviewees.
Discourse 1: Human rights protection
RTL’s Potraga which first revealed the video of police violence toward migrants on the Croatian-Bosnian border reported a story in the context of it being another proof that such police behaviour is not an isolated case, yet a frequent occurrence. The RTL.hr article states that these are not isolated cases but systemic treatment and that there are 1800 documented cases of violence against migrants at the border of the Republic of Croatia. In this way, it condemned the violence conducted by the Croatian Police.
Furthermore, one liberal news portal called Telegram.hr reports what the international media said about the incident. It includes the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture which in its report harshly criticized Croatia for “severe ill-treatment” of migrants and ‘sadism, punches and conspiracies of silence’. Similarly, the online news outlet called H-Alter stands out the most with its satirical title Croatian baton at the entrance to paradise which condemns the story of violence at the border as something inadmissible, primarily due to human rights violations. Also, the Croatian political daily newspaper Novilist.hr calls the video footage shameful and the article headline is a quote from the press release of the left movement “Možemo” saying that it is time that other people take responsibility for the protection of the borders.
Another news outlet Novosti published an article with the headline “Bat sticks from the border” almost poetically describes the video footage by saying that dark-skinned people tread across the deep water in the middle of the woods, painfully clinging to their body parts. In the back, a few men with masks and in dark blue unmarked uniforms lazily wave with police bats. Punches and eerie sounds echo and indicate that beatings are taking place nearby. It continues by giving background information about the events, interviews with journalists who participated in the investigation, statements of the Police and the officials; and at one point assesses the reactions of the Croatian government and the Police as cynical. The article cites one chief of Police who on another occasion claimed that migrants are buying cherry syrup that looks like blood, putting it on their faces and taking photos to enhance the drama of the situation.
One of the most popular online news outlets 24 sata focuses on the shocking stories of migrants and include a quote in the headline accusing the Croatian Police that they beat us with whips, we had to take off our clothes and they set it on fire. The article reports on different shocking experiences of migrants, together with disturbing photographs of their wounds. It ends with a quote from the Border Violence Monitoring association which says that this footage “systematically and far away from official border crossings banishes migrants to the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Interestingly, the court ruling made against Croatia in the case of little Madina opened up other different discussions in the Croatian media – one columnist for Jutarnji.hr asked if this ruling is finally going to wake up the Croatian judiciary from a coma, and makes clear that those who are responsible for the little girl’s death are all under the Minister of Interior Affairs. Further, Telegram.hr brings the story of a volunteer who tried to help Madina’s family to submit a request for asylum and now has to pay a fine of around 8000 euros for “helping them to illegally cross the border”. The article describes this situation as bizarre, especially considering the ECHR’s ruling that clearly showed Croatia is responsible for Madina’s death.
Therefore, this identified discourse focuses on migrants, their experiences, and the issue of human rights, related to the behaviour of the Croatian Police which many of these media openly condemn.
Discourse 2: The Croatian Police – protector of the EU border?
In the other discourse identified in our analysis, the actions of the police are being moralized or defended by the circumstances of this specific situation, while the role of Croatia as the protector of the EU borders is often evoked. This is most visible in official statements that media – predominantly conservative – choose to report on, or in the headlines they choose. In Vecernji.hr, one of the most popular Croatian news portal, the article brings an opinion of Croatian president Zoran Milanovic about the situation at Croatia-Bosnian border who considers violence to be the wrong type of action and says that the If we remove theoretically a few who did something they shouldn’t have done, do a terrible job for little money in impossible conditions.
Most of the statements made by the President of Croatia were published by almost all analysed online news outlets, but the most prominent one is the statement:Tomorrow, that is, today, we are expected to guard the border to the east, which is already Schengen tomorrow, and it should have been a long time ago. With what? Fans? It refers to the territorial position of the Republic of Croatia within the European Union and why this problem is not only Croatia’s but also the problem of the whole EU and its borders.
Moreover, the online news outlet Dnevno.hr is more likely to give space to the interviews that defend and supports the actions of the police at the Croatian-Bosnian border. For example they give space to the press release of the president of the Union of Croatian Police in which he gives support to Croatian policemen and says that any wounding of the migrants was not a deliberate action. This part of the statement was also highlighted in the article’s headline.
Another related thesis within this discourse is that Croatia cannot be the only culprit in this situation. We can see examples of this point of view in a reaction of archbishop Uzinić to the video. Although in the interview to the news channel N1 he commented that when seeing the video footage of the violence at the border, he was sad and ashamed with, he added: In the countries where those come from, where the West has encouraged violence many times because of its interests, and because of its ways of using resources, they had caused many climate changes and with that they had forced many people to become migrants. The interview by the archbishop was shared across the various media outlets. However, we identified differences in segments of the interview highlighted in the headlines. For example, Dnevno.hr refers in the headlines to the archbishop as “the most liberal Croatian bishop” who even received criticism for his stance.
Furthermore, the news portal Direktno.hr reported the stance of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Davor Bozinovic, who highlighted the difficult position that the Croatian Police is in as it has to protect the EU’s borders against a tremendous pressure of migrants. The Minister was also looking for another culprit and said that the Croatian police is not at EU’s external border because it is their own choice, but because it has been facing pressure for years and protecting the border from illegal entry into Croatian and the Union. Similarly, in another article which reports the Bozinovic’s press conference where he comments the issue at length, he says that the policemen are at the border even when it is raining, doing their work of preventing illegal entries to the EU according to law.
Interestingly, another conservative news outlet called Narod.hr condemns the authors of videoclips that are showing the violence toward migrants by saying that interestingly, the footage itself was published with the logo of the Dutch media Lighthouse Reports, which was funded by the Open Society Foundation whose head editor is a self-proclaimed philanthropist and left-wing activist and billionaire George Soros. Here we can detect a specific point of view in which the portal Narod.hr blames George Soros for activities which harm Croatia and its reputation.
The German media: Another perspective
In 2015, Germany, one of the leading members of the European Union, sent an open call to refugees, which led to a refugee crisis. Is it more important to protect the strictly guarded borders of the European Union or the human rights? We analysed articles from the German media to identify their perspectives on the overall situation related to the migrant crisis on the Croatian-Bosnian border.
From the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Deutsche Welle through BILD to Tagesschau, the media space is occupied by the refugee crisis. Almost all media include photographs and the previously mentioned video of violent behavior of the Croatian police towards migrants. Although the political context of the events comes to the fore, it is interesting that of all the analysed media, which are mostly daily newspapers and portals, one political weekly FOCUS stopped reporting on current events in 2020, which contradicts its epithet “political”.
The international German public media service Deutsche Welle and the German weekly Stern.de strongly condemn the inhumane treatment of migrants by the Croatian police. At the centre is an endless “game”, and the winner is the one who manages to cross the border. Leading German news portal Spiegel International, Die Zeit, the liberal-left German weekly newspaper, and BILD, one of Europe’s most controversial tabloid newspapers, go a step further in pitying migrants. The border worse than the sea destroys dreams, childhoods and prevents the search for a better life. Among other things, it is an area of alleged daily violence against migrants. When it comes to the case of little Madina, we did not find specific articles on the portals of daily newspapers and German media, but only on the pages of NGOs, which shows us that the media remained restrained about ECHR judgement.
Illegal border crossings
Forced returns of migrants are illegal, but what about illegal border crossings? By creating a black-and-white image, Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany, contrasts the Croatian Foreign Minister’s comment on the protection of the European Union’s external border with the EU Commissioner for Internal Affairs. They also offer their readers an answer about taking responsibility by condemning the European Commission for covering up the situation on the Bosnian-Croatian border and thus passing Croatia as its youngest member. Emphasis is then placed on emotions, which is especially evident in two articles showing a photograph taken during the night, which focuses on the tireless struggle of refugees to survive in the cold forests along the Croatian border. The article “They don’t care about human rights” tells the story of one of the migrants, who has tried to cross the border 16 times, but failed. He still wants to continue his “game” as he called it, and the article gives the impression that this “game” of illegal border crossing is encouraged.
On the other hand, Die Welt known for its conservative editorial policy, is largely devoid of touching migrant stories and biases, which is ultimately achieved by neutral photographs that are only associated with border crossings. Tagesschau information portal reaches its peak of impartiality by presenting facts, figures and real evidence. Impartiality is also visible when writing about footage from the Croatian border. Namely, they are not in a hurry with the conclusions and write that these are “masked uniformed men” and that some research only suggests that it is the Croatian police.
Therefore, while in Croatian media we identify two discourses, in German media the one about Croatia being the violator of human rights is dominant. What both the Croatian and the German media agree on is that human rights violations must be held accountable and that such things must not be tolerated, but in Croatian media often the other side is presented which in a way justifies or explains their actions. Additionally, the Croatian media at times also discuss the responsibility of other EU members and EU institutions, making an argument that Croatia is not the only culprit in this situation. In conclusion, this media analysis shows that different aspects of the issue are highlighted depending largely on the intended audience of each news outlet, but also that the discourses in Croatian media largely reflect the divisions in the society and opposing sentiments of Croatians around the issue.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Petra Mamić, Doris Mašić, Paulina Mirković & Tanja Novak, Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, in collaboration with Stuttgart Media University
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