COMMENT: Serbian Media Shame

The independent press should be ashamed of their recent condemnation of a leading anti-war activist.

COMMENT: Serbian Media Shame

The independent press should be ashamed of their recent condemnation of a leading anti-war activist.

Friday, 6 September, 2002

Recent diatribes published in the so-called independent Belgrade daily Vreme against Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, have forced me to speak out.

The attacks were sparked by an article in the Croatian Feral Tribune magazine by the journalist Petar Lukovic, which revived the debate in Serbia about The Hague tribunal, Milosevic's trial and war crimes in general.

He criticised Belgrade independent media B92 and Vreme for their motto that "all sides committed crimes", and quoted Sonja Biserko as saying that parts of the media - regarded as "independent" during the Milosevic era - are now offering a new version of the past.

Biserko suggested that there's a tendency amongst them to try to diminish the role of Serbia in the wars of former Yugoslavia by arguing that all the warring parties were equally to blame.

Biserko criticised the likes of B92 and Vreme for helping to create "this new truth". Her remarks provoked criticism the editor of the latter, Dragoljub Zarkovic.

The humiliation heaped upon campaigners such as Biserko is stronger today than it ever was under Milosevic. Indeed, the coverage in print and broadcast media is starting to resemble a full-scale witch-hunt.

The tone is no longer set by Serbian state television and Politika - the mouthpieces of the Milosevic regime - but by so-called "free intellects" with a deep-felt pride in their own freedom and the independence of their media.

That this abuse comes from a media supposedly free of Milosevic's influence is the hardest thing to bear. The reaction to Biserko's comments was vitriolic and it is the nature of the response, and the quarter from which it comes, that concerns me deeply.

I had hoped to witness sober-mindedness in post-Milosevic Serbia, a general consensus that the priority of government and people should be for us all to assume our share of responsibility for the past. This would lay the groundwork for a process of reconciliation.

However, the media continues to shape public opinion along the lines laid by the former Serb leader and his propagandists. The independent press is especially active in this regard and presents pro-Milosevic coverage of events in The Hague.

Women such as Biserko and myself refuse to cheer the former president in this spurious Milosevic versus Albanians courtroom contest. We insist on the restoration of human dignity to the war victims and full disclosure of the facts relating to the atrocities committed against them.

There has yet to be a genuine break with the Milosevic era. All his critics and opponents agreed that war crimes should not be mentioned during the 2000 election campaign. Ordinary folk, they argued, could not handle the truth.

That a pact exists between erstwhile Milosevic "opponents" and the ex-president is evident also from the news coverage of the testimony given at The Hague by former Serbian state security chief Rade Markovic.

Fascinated by the extent of Markovic's loyalty to Milosevic, reporters for Vreme, Radio B92 and many other media felt no need to ask about those mysterious meetings where it was decided to move the bodies of murdered Albanians to Serbia.

The names of dozens of senior police and military officers and Serbian government officials were mentioned at the trial. All are in Serbia or Montenegro and therefore accessible to journalists, yet the press made no effort to interview them and ask about their role in the Kosovo crimes.

However, some women insist on a public debate, where those who ordered and committed the atrocities can be called to account. Such efforts to set up a system of values for a democratic society in Serbia and Montenegro have earned them only anger and insults.

In my opinion, the primitive attitude toward women in general and these few in particular arises from the evil atmosphere that has come to prevail in Serbia and in which hate speech is a normal mode of communication. Moral integrity, consistency and courage are not appreciated in such an atmosphere.

I have some questions for all those who demonstrably care nothing for human dignity.

Where were you when the radicals were rampaging in Vojvodina with the blessing of the Milosevic regime, forcing local Croats to leave and moving Serb refugees from Croatia into their homes? If you were against that kind of blatant fascism, why did you not speak out against it?

Remember when Serbs from western Slavonia and Krajina arrived on the Serbian border in endless refugee columns? I saw none of you at the frontier near Sremska Mitrovica where police separated out the men and forced them to go back. So much for the slogan: "A united people on all our lands".

During the war in Bosnia, did you ever try to cross from Serbia into the Republika Srpska with a Muslim to help him reach his home in Bijeljina or Janja? I did and what hurt me the most was that there were so few in Belgrade who were able to understand why I was exposing myself to humiliation and risk because of someone whose very name indicated that he or she was not quite like us, was somehow a less worthy being.

Did any of you wonder what I was doing in Kosovo during the bombing? I wrote several reports but none of you would print them. One of your colleagues told me at the time that he cried when he read one of my articles but that he could not publish it because the censors would ban his paper.

I wish to say in closing that I am not asking you suddenly to start appreciating, respecting and applauding this handful of women, myself included. All I ask is that you stop maligning us - not only for our sakes, but yours too.

Many people - including Ivan Colovic, Filip David and myself - declined to sign a letter addressed by 27 intellectuals to the international community in protest at the NATO intervention. We thought the letter should be addressed to the one person who had provoked the bombing and had the power to stop it - Milosevic.

Several editors with B92 and Vreme signed. In this way, our independent media supported Milosevic, making a pact with the devil that continues to this day.

Natasa Kandic is a director of Humanitarian Law Centre, an NGO based in Belgrade.

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