Ed note. This item by Antonella Napolitano originally appeared in TechPresident  and is reprinted with permission. 

A census usually tells a country what it looks like and how it has changed but in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country still simmering with divisions amongst its ethnic groups, it has rekindled tensions over national identity. The 2013 census – the first after a 22-year hiatus – took place last month. While international institutions praised the overdue survey, a requirement for entry into the E.U., and have given Bosnia a satisfactory review of its census procedures, activists from Popis Monitor, a citizen-based monitoring project, claimed that the process was compromised by a failure of the government to inform citizens about the census, particularly on questions of religion and ethnicity, as well as several irregularities during the census collection.

A Disagreement with International Monitors

The International Monitoring Operation (IMO) , established by the European Commission in 2009, is comprised of representatives of Eurostat, the Council of Europe and several United Nations agencies. It monitors whether international standards are applied, overseeing the various phases of collecting data and processing in order to prevent possible abuses.

In the case of the Bosnian census, 28 international observers from all over Europe were tasked with observing the enumeration process.

On October 16th, the day after the census finished, the IMO released a statement, saying that “although some minor specific incidents have been observed, as it is the case in every census, the enumeration was overall smooth and conducted in accordance with the agreed methodology and the international recommendations and this across the whole country.”

“They congratulated the government on the results of the census, while all the major media reported on irregularities,” Darko Brkan told techPresident. “They preferred not to see that this was a flawed process.”

Brkan is the founding president of Zašto Ne (“Why Not”), a Sarajevo-based NGO that promotes civic activism, government accountability, and the use of digital media and new technologies in deepening democracy in Bosnia. I interviewed Brkan after his keynote at Community Boostr Camp, a two-day unconference that took place in Sarajevo on November 7-8 that convened 150 activists from all over the Balkans. A sturdy guy in his thirties, Brkan describes himself as an activist with an idea or two on the use of tech in civic movements. Brkan was also involved in Popis Monitor (“Census Monitor”), which conducted a large awareness raising campaign and created its own crowd-sourced census monitoring map. Based on their campaign, activists from Popis Monitor also said that census was compromised and that there may be political ramifications as a result.

A month before the census took place, 12 activists from Popis Monitor conducted extensive outreach campaigns to inform citizens about the census procedures, especially those related to ethnic and religious questions, explaining that “there are no wrong answers to questions about national identity, religious affiliation, or […] on mother language.” While census questions on religion and ethnicity were optional, many political and religious leaders encouraged citizens to identify themselves out of national and religious duty. Properly informing citizens was a task that the Bosnian government didn’t perform adequately, says Brkan.

The campaign was conducted in 32 cities all over the country, according to a report on the Zašto Ne website. Its aim was to educate citizens about the census process, offer assistance with questions and problems, and determine the credibility and quality of the data gathered. It was a highly successful campaign, with 40,000 unique visitors to the site a month prior to the census and wide media coverage from about 100 local, national and international outlets, according to Brkan. Though he does not have any official statistics, he says his team estimates that they reached around 500,000 people, about 15 percent of the country’s population.

The campaign also monitored the census process through e-mail and a Ushahidi map where people could report all kinds of irregularities in the census process, from procedural errors to receiving pressure from census enumerators. Popis Monitor received 859 reports of violations and suspicious activities, 250 of which were reported on the map and the rest through e-mail.

“People sent us information from almost half of the municipalities of the country and belonged to different economic statuses,” Brkan said.

Some of the complaints were about about the procedures enumerators used when entering data on ethnicity, religion and language. But after the census, Radio Sarajevo noticed that the international monitors did not include questions about whether these sensitive questions were conducted properly in the IMO’s post-census survey.

Others complaints revolved around the lack of privacy and security of data. For example, one of the census interviews conducted the census in a café rather than in the privacy of a home. A man wrote to Popis Monitor and also sent them a picture of questionnaires brought home by his wife who was one of the enumerators. She apparently took the papers home every day throughout the duration of the census.

The citizen-based initiative wasn’t the only one reporting irregularities. The media reported a number of incidents, including one in Skelani, a town at the border crossing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. The police had to stop an individual who was trying to leave the country with a number of census questionnaires. In the first few days of the census, online media also reported a lack of census material that led to delays in the process.

techPresident tried to reach out to Zdenko Milinovic, the head of the state statistics bureau, to ask him about these irregularities. After initially agreeing to schedule an interview, Mirsada Adembegović, Advisor for Public Relations at the Agency for Statistics declined the interview and explained in an e-mail:

The reason for this is the opinion of the Central Census Bureau that the Agency for Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in line with the Code of Practice of the statistical institutions, holds its role and mission – to conduct the Census-related work with expertise and professionalism in line with the Law on Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in BiH 2013 and the Methodology for the preparation, organization and conduct of the Census, which was adopted as a legal act and approved by the International Monitoring Operation, and not give any comments and information that go beyond the field. Therefore, the Agency did not offer any opinions and comments on the work of NGOs nor indulge in polemics before the Census and will continue with this practice after the completion of the Census.

According to a Sarajevo Times account from last month, though, Milinovic had stated that keeping the census materials at home is a standard procedure for enumerators:

It is in line with international Census practice for enumerators to take the questionnaires home until their work in the enumeration area is complete and the material is controlled by one of the 3000 controllers. Once controlled it is handed over to the Municipal Census Commission which stores it in a safe place in the municipality.”

However, the census methodology report referenced above by Adembegović, calls for “special protection” of the data:

Personal data to be collected by the Census are subject to a special protection to be ensured during all the census taking phases (collection, control, processing and Census publishing results) […] Enumerators and all other persons involved in the Census-related activities and operations shall be obliged to keep permanently as official secret all the data collected from individuals related to their personal, family and property characteristics.

Allowing enumerators to take their forms home and leave them scattered on a couch certainly doesn’t seem like “special protection.”

It will take a long time to see if the census was conducted correctly, however. While the first set of data has been published, showing a registration of 3.8 million people and a drop in the population by 13 percent, ethnic statistics will not be released until July 2014.

Political Implications of a Compromised Census

The last census conducted in Bosnia occurred in 1991, just before the country broke out in war, killing over 100,000 people between 1992 and 1995 and displaced more than 2 million. At the time, the last census in 1991 revealed that 43.5 percent of Bosnia’s then 4.4 million people declared themselves Muslim Bosniaks, 31.2 percent Orthodox Serbs and 17.4 percent Catholic Croats. Over five percent said they were “Yugoslav.”

In 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement introduced a political system in which Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats were deemed Bosnia’s “constituent peoples” and the only ones with access to the presidency and to the House of Peoples. Bosnia consists of two entities: the Republika Srpska is majority Serbs (who are Orthodox) whereas the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is mostly Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic).

Brkan and other activists fear that the compromised census might affect the next elections, set in October 2014. “The constituent peoples jointly share a set of political rights that exclude those who are not members of these groups, and they want to protect it,” Brkan declared to Reuters, just days before the census started.

The Sarajevo Times reported, “Numerous cases of irregularities continue to surface from the field, especially in the RS [Republika Srpska], where there are attempts to minimize the number of Bosniaks. It was added that this is mostly done by having enumerators refuse to add family members of Bosniak households who are not present at during census taking to the census list.”

Brkan told techPresident that ethnic affiliation is not part of his identity and many young people in the country reject the labels established along ethnic lines.

Back in February, Zašto Ne was part of a coalition that conducted a campaign called “Citizen above all – Bosnia and Herzegovina without discrimination,” that aimed to encourage citizens who don’t identify themselves as belonging to one of the constituent peoples to declare themselves outside the constituent peoples. The coalition demanded a reform of the current system of government that they deem as “discriminatory.” The European Court of Human Rights has also declared Bosnia’s constitution discriminatory. So far, though, Bosnian political leaders have failed to agree on how to amend it.

Al Jazeera America, recently suggested that because of the Dayton provisions, this year’s census may rekindle ethnic tensions:

Under the Dayton accords, about 180,000 political and civil service positions have been allocated in proportion to the size of each ethnic group, based on the pre-war 1991 census, while top jobs are reserved exclusively for Muslims, Croats and Serbs. […] Then there are the ‘others’: those outside of the three constituent groups, including Jews, Roma, and many who are in mixed marriages. They account for around 20 percent of the population, according to some surveys.

In 2009, Croatian activist (and frequent PDF speaker) Marko Rakar posted a searchable database of Croatian voters that exposed widespread fraud, two months before local elections.

“By posting the whole list online in searchable form, he invited his fellow Croatians to investigate their own neighborhoods and towns, and to report the results back to his site, Pollitika.com. The resulting uproar was front-page news in Croatia for days, and has provoked a serious debate about amending the country’s constitution to prevent the practice,“ our own Micah Sifry wrote, when he interviewed Rakar back in 2010.

During the interview, Rakar also explained, “Croatian history is full of ‘unfinished’ stories, and unless we start talking and resolving them we will be forever burdened by our past.”

In a similar vein, Bosnia’s Popis Monitor, is a significant example of a citizen-based effort on a civic issue that matters in defining the future of a troubled country. And it might even be instrumental in fostering a conversation on Bosnia’s own “unfinished stories.”

Disclaimer: TechSoup provided travel funding to the Sarajevo conference where Darko Brkan was interviewed for this feature.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident’s WeGov section.

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