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

Comment: Balkan Media Undermine Hague

One-sided and misleading reporting by media in former Yugoslavia is not helping the tribunal achieve its goals.
By Refik Hodzic

The Hague tribunal enjoys a remarkable degree of name recognition among all the different communities of the former Yugoslavia.


Most people - whether from a depressed town in central Serbia or a busy dock on the Adriatic coast - have heard of the war crimes court and have an opinion about its work. For the most part, they have a bad impression of it, based on misconceptions and negative propaganda.


One of the problems is its location in The Hague. This means that people can't get direct access to it and different parties are able to shape information about it to suit their own agendas.


During the first years of the tribunal's existence, the greatest influence on its image came from state-owned public broadcasters and mass-circulation newspapers.


Both were part of the state apparatus and close to nationalistic regimes, whose leaders and members were directly involved in the armed conflicts and, not infrequently, in the crimes covered by the tribunal mandate.


The tribunal was often portrayed as a political institution in a most negative sense. The language used in such reports was often hate speech, previously reserved only for enemies on the other side of the trench.


The court was by and large presented as a mechanism of the big powers to subjugate small nations.


In that period, apart for attempts made by some independent media, there was no genuine effort to provide accurate information about the tribunal and its relationship to existing state laws.


But as democratic changes got going, so there was a gradual change in the coverage. Use of hate speech significantly diminished and the standard of reporting rose. But there are still problems, notably in media's use of the war crimes court for political ends.


For instance, politicians still push the tribunal issue through the media to harm their opponents, with newspapers continuously flooded with speculation about who is on a secret indictment and who is about to be charged.


All this provides sexy material to fill empty newspaper space, but it has little or no value in terms of providing real information to readers. Additionally, and more importantly, it detracts from hard-hitting facts presented on a daily basis in the tribunal.


Examples are numerous, and include the coverage of the General Janko Bobetko affair in Croatia.


In this case, an indictment was issued charging the former chief of staff of the Croatian army in connection with alleged crimes committed during an operation in which Serb civilians were killed and their villages destroyed.


The Croatian media carpet-bombed its audiences with countless statements on how the indictment attacks Croatia's independence and its Homeland War.


The media also concentrated on the different options the Zagreb authorities have at their disposal in order to avoid the general's transfer to The Hague.


State television and daily newspapers failed to offer serious analysis or balanced coverage to counter statement after statement by Bobetko's supporters.


Instead, they created an artificial debate on whether the general should go to hospital to avoid transfer or if he should remain at home and cause embarrassment for a government unable to fulfil its international obligations.


Crimes committed against Serb civilians and Bobetko's alleged role in them received little or no coverage at all, except in a few independent magazines.


In the end the Croatian president Stipe Mesic, in an address to the nation, simply listed the facts to counter the pro-Bobetko rhetoric. He was doing what Croatia's mainstream media should have done from the beginning.


Amid such politicised coverage, the tribunal is reduced to being one of the parties in ongoing political struggles within the region. The end result is a perception of the tribunal as a political institution.


One of the major misconceptions in this regard is that events at The Hague are timed to influence political developments on the ground in the former Yugoslavia.


This assessment primarily relates to new indictments but also to the timing of witness testimonies or specific hearings.


But the fact is that Balkan governments have done little or nothing to promote the goals of the tribunal.


These goals are the punishment of perpetrators regardless of their ethnicity, justice for victims and the deterrence of future crimes. The leaders of countries in former Yugoslavia claim to support these goals, yet none has initiated a serious attempt at public debate on the need to punish war criminals from their own ethnic group.


The Hague is automatically projected in the media as putting pressure on the region's governments, when, in fact, the tribunal is only urging these authorities to do what they have publicly declared they will do.


The media should play a crucial role in initiating public debate on war crimes issues, and some independent outlets have done a great deal of work to shed light on crimes committed by members of their own community.


This can be an extremely dangerous task in societies where many suspected war criminals are regarded as national heroes. Hopefully, their efforts will inspire more media, especially public broadcasters, to support such initiatives.


It is no understatement to say that the media play a crucial role in the tribunal's completion of its goals - which are common to all of us. It would be difficult to find anybody in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb, Pristina, Skopje or anywhere else, who would oppose such a view.


In order for the tribunal to work, people of the countries of former Yugoslavia need to be properly informed about how it operates. Otherwise, The Hague's success will be severely limited and its judgements will end up being of interest to only the convicted and students of international law.


Refik Hodzic is the head of ICTY Outreach Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


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