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

International Justice/ICTY: Jun ‘09

Discussion on press propaganda during Balkan wars prompted by IWPR report on Belgrade probe into the controversy.
By IWPR
An IWPR report on an investigation into the role of media in war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia contributed to a vigorous debate in the region.


The report Serbia Probes Media Role in War Crimes looked into the possibility of investigating these crimes in Serbia and other countries in the Balkans.


Dzenana Halimovic, a journalist from Sarajevo, welcomed the news from Serbia, saying, “Every journalist who cares about professional ethics and the truth in general should support this investigation.


“There is no doubt that the media in the former Yugoslavia had an important role in encouraging and instigating war crimes. On the one hand, information presented through the mainstream media was supposed to raise the morale of citizens and the army, but on the other hand, it often spread hatred towards the enemy.


“Respecting the rules of professional war reporting in Bosnia and Hercegovina was difficult indeed, sometimes because it was hard to maintain a necessary distance from the events that were reported on, and sometimes because of the military and political influence on the media at that time. Only a handful of journalists have managed not to cross that thin line between objective reporting and propaganda,” she concluded.


Another journalist from Sarajevo, Dragana Erjavec, said that during the wars in the former Yugoslavia the mainstream media were controlled by political and military structures and “they mostly disseminated lies and instigated hatred”.


“In my opinion, individuals who took part in war propaganda and spread hatred should be held accountable for war crimes they encouraged through their reporting. Despite the fact that they did not carry rifles and did not directly participate in the war, they fuelled it and quite possibly made it bloodier than it would have been otherwise,” said Erjavec.


She pointed out at that not a single journalist has been indicted yet for a role in instigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, but she sees the investigation on which IWPR reported as a step in the right direction.


“I think that is an excellent move which should have been made much earlier, but it’s still not too late. Those who believed that professional and objective reporting was not possible during the war should have chosen a different profession. I salute the investigation announced by Belgrade prosecutors and I hope it will result in indictments and criminal proceedings,” said Erjavec.


The president of the Serbian Association of Journalists, Ljiljana Smajlovic, believes that the media in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s was used as “the main instrument of war propaganda” and that “journalists and editors consciously accepted this abuse of their profession”.


“I don’t agree with those who claim that journalists made people go to war. I think they allowed themselves to become biased and to betray basic rules of journalism, but in most cases they were simply carrying the messages sent by political leaders in their countries,” said Smajlovic.


However, she pointed out that if prosecutors found evidence that some journalists consciously and systematically encouraged specific war crimes, “those individuals should definitely be put on trial”.


Branka Prpa, the director of Belgrade’s Historical Archives and wife of Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija, who is believed to have been murdered in 1999 for openly opposing the regime of Serbia’s late leader Slobodan Milosevic, agreed that the investigation into the role of media in the Yugoslav wars is very important.


“This investigation did not come too late because war crimes will never be outdated. I think that the allegations against journalists will not be difficult to prove if there is political will for that. Until now, there haven’t been any criminal proceedings against journalists who publicly demanded the lynching of individuals or entire nations, but maybe this will change soon,” Prpa said.


Ljubisa Rajic, a professor at Belgrade University, said the media is to blame for “spreading the hatred, lying about the causes of the war, lying about events in the war and lying about the consequences of the war”. He said an investigation into these allegations is important, but it has to be carried out in all countries of the former Yugoslavia, not just in Serbia.


Rajic also said that prosecutors who investigate the role of media in the Yugoslav wars should take into account not just the period during the conflicts, but also the period before and after them.


“Without that, we will not have a comparative analysis of the media and its role in different parts of the former Yugoslavia where wars took place,” he said.

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