Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Serb Media Split Over The Hague

The Serbian media are divided over government cooperation with the

By Jovan Orlovic in Belgrade (TU No. 249, January 7-12, 2002)

The media in post-Milosevic Serbia are split over whether to send indicted

war criminals off to face trial at The Hague tribunal. Each group supports

one of two main political factions within the ruling DOS coalition and

faithfully reflects its every view.

One political faction pays lip service to the tribunal but resists the

handover of suspects. The other unconditionally supports cooperation with

the international court.

In Milosevic's day, all the press had to toe the same line. Now, at least,

they have two choices. Full media independence must await projected new laws on freedom of information and progress on this front is slow.

Print media with a built-in preference for hard line nationalism quickly

swung behind the more anti-Hague faction. They included the dailies Glas

javnosti and Vecernje and, to a lesser extent, Blic and Politika.

More liberal newspapers describe cooperation with the tribunal as an

international obligation. These are mainly nominally independent titles like the daily Danas, the weekly Vreme as well as radio B92.

Proceedings of the tribunal itself do not loom large in the media discussion on war crimes. Most attention is given to the views of the political factions which seize on individual developments at The Hague to promote their own interests.

The most outstanding example of this was the discovery in Serbia of mass

graves of Kosovo Albanians. Media coverage of this reached its peak when

rival politicians were arguing bitterly over whether to send former

president Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. After Milosevic went, the

coverage retreated to inside pages.

Most people in Serbia have a sceptical view of cooperation with the

tribunal, regarding it as an enforced obligation that cannot be avoided.

The media largely reflects the public's view of the court, formed during the previous regime when all the more important media were strictly government controlled.

Although the media divide is highly noticeable, both sections agree that the tribunal is not a conduit to be used to fight for the rights of war victims. They do not report interviews with the families of those killed in outrages. The first to challenge this view was the televison channel B92 which rebroadcast the BBC documentary on the Srebrenica massacre, A Cry From the Grave.

The broadcast stirred up much heated discussion, but no support in the media for the Srebrenica victims and the suffering caused to relatives. Most

stories were confined to arguments about just how many people were killed

and questions about how many Serbs had died in the conflict. None of the

press subsequently attempted to investigate the crime. If anything the

broadcast benefited the anti-Hague factions who argued that all foreign

broadcasts were automatically anti-Serb.

Media coverage of the tribunal is mostly confined to reports issued by the

news agencies Beta and SENSE which have correspondents in The Hague. Most

newspapers and broadcasters do not send their own reporters although the

daily Pobjeda, radio B92 and as of recently, Radio Television Serbia,

occasionally dispatch representatives on brief trips.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, most of the media cannot afford to

maintain foreign correspondents. Secondly, there is a psychological urge to

maintain distance from the tribunal - media prefer relaying other people's

stories rather than digging out their own.

Tribunal proceedings are usually covered by short factual reports devoid of

analysis. The indictments against Milosevic were published verbatim without

any accompanying background or comment. Other indicted Serbian suspects

received similar treatment. However, Milosevic's first appearance in court

was accorded huge amounts of space with stories lapping up every detail,

emphasising the remark of his guard, Timothy McFadden, who called Milosevic

"a real gentleman".

The former president's subsequent appearances attracted far less attention. Surveys of public opinion showed that the final outcome of his trial is viewed as less important than current economic problems.

Media often publish articles about the two most wanted persons on the tribunal`s list, the Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Coverage ranges from fierce criticism of the two to unconditional support for their case. Stories backing the pair appear to outnumber those against them.

Another factor frequently explored in the media is the financial incentives

to cooperation with The Hague. Since the handover of Milosevic, speculation

has abounded on what happened to the money the US Congress pledged for the

arrest and transfer of Milosevic to The Hague. Glas javnosti has

suggested that members of the government have personally profited from the


Until the Serbian media start to provide more even-handed, analytical coverage of the tribunal, ordinary Serbs will continue to be deeply suspicious of the international court.

Jovan Orlovic is a media analyst in Belgrade.