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

Milosevic Trial: The Propaganda War

Former Serb president instructed the media to spread disinformation and propaganda, witness tells court.
By Emir Suljagic

A media expert who testified in Slobodan Milosevic's trial told the court this week that he had no doubt that the ex-president had controlled the media in the former Yugoslavia.


Milosevic used newspapers and broadcasters to spread fear, dehumanise Muslims and Croats, and induce Serbs to fight against their former countrymen, the witness claimed.


Professor Renaud de la Brosse, a propaganda expert from the University of Reims in France, took the stand as part of the prosecution’s effort to prove a link between what the media said and war crimes perpetrated on the battlefield.


De la Brosse said he had studied some 20,000 pages of newspaper articles, transcripts of television and radio broadcasts covering nearly a decade, to produce the 100-page report he prepared for the prosecution.


He referred widely to "The Last Days of SFRY”, a book by Borisav Jovic, Milosevic's former friend and ally in the Yugoslav presidency in the early Nineties, which reveals how the former Serb leader used the media to promote his fervent nationalism.


"For years, he paid the biggest attention to the media, especially television. He personally appointed editors-in-chief of the newspapers and news programmes - especially directors-general of radio and TV,” Jovic wrote.


De la Brosse also collected a series of video clips from state-controlled television to show the court.


One clip, which aired on Serbian television in November 1991, showed an old man holding a handful of teeth he claimed the Ustasha - Second World War Croatian fascists - had yanked from the mouths of dying Serbs.


The pensioner was seen to say that, while he had not witnessed any atrocities himself, he “knew” that the Ustasha had disemboweled Serbian children and gouged their eyes out.


De la Brosse also showed the court a Yugoslav national army, JNA, memo which ordered that all enemies be called “Ustasha”.


A newspaper article from September 9, 1991, said that "a horde of butchers from [Croatian president Franjo] Tudjman’s Black Legion who are thirsty for Serbian blood are heading towards Banija".


"This language created a historical amalgam," argued de la Brosse. “There was no longer any difference between the new Croatian state and criminal Nazi-backed regime from the Forties.”


A clip, which aired on April 5, 1992, showed footage of devastated buildings and a reporter claiming that just before "peace talks and the Muslim holiday of Bajram, 300 Serbs were killed in an attack…planned by the Ustasha and carried out by the Jihad". He goes on to say that this is "the first time Jihad is being waged on European soil”.


A clip showed footage of Mostar with a voiceover saying that “although it was relatively peaceful today, the Ustasha continued to mount occasional attacks. People are especially worried about what happened to Serbs in nearby villages where 200-300 people were brutally massacred, just like in 1944”.


To illustrate how the Serbian media helped build the impression that the rest of the world was united in a conspiracy against them, de la Brosse presented several newspaper articles and video excerpts that claimed Albanians, Croats, Muslims, the United States, the Vatican, Germany and various non-governmental organisations, NGOs, had joined together to vilify the Serbs.


In a clip aired on October 22, 1991, the then Yugoslav defence minister Veljko Kadijevic is shown saying that “Germany is attacking our country for the third time”. Another item showed a female announcer saying, “All able-bodied men must serve their nation and prevent the extermination of Serbs in Croatia."


De la Brosse presented a newspaper interview of a Montenegrin soldier who had fought in the frontlines around Dubrovnik. In the article, the soldier claimed to have “found the bodies of foreign mercenaries among the dead enemy troops”. He said he and his fellow servicemen had feared falling into the hands of “Kurds, Germans and Africans who were fighting with the Ustasha”.


Commenting on this item, de la Brosse said that as the international press had reported that the Serbs were shelling Dubrovnik at that time, "this was an example of someone being used to counter contradictory media reports - a classic procedure for spreading disinformation”.


As another example of this, de la Brosse showed a clip of the Sarajevo National Library on fire. A female announcer stated that it was not clear what had caused the blaze, saying, “We looked for shell damage but could not see any. We saw that the flames were coming from within, which points to another Muslim manipulation similar to we saw in Dubrovnik, when car tyres were set on fire to create the illusion that Serbs were shelling the city.”


One document de la Brosse included in his report was an order from the Serbian ministry of information during NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign.


The document banned the media from reporting any JNA or Yugoslav police losses, and instructed journalists to refer all police and army activity as “defensive actions”. NATO was to be referred to as “the aggressor” and the Kosovo Liberation Army was to be referred to as a “gang of terrorists and criminals”.


During his cross-examination, Milosevic echoed the claims put forth by the Serbian media and accused de la Brosse of being "in the service of the demonisation of the Serbs".


He said that the collection of newspaper articles and video clips the court had seen were not pieces of propaganda, as de la Brosse would have the court believe, but rather journalistic reports that reflected the truth.


“What if all of this is true?” Miloslevic said. “Do you not consider the KLA to be a gang of terrorists and criminals?”


When de la Brosse said that he had presented the document instructing the media to refer to the KLA as terrorists as evidence to show that Milosevic controlled the media, the former Serb president snapped back, “I think calling the so-called KLA that is generous. I would also call them drug mafia.”


The judges interrupted Milosevic several times during the cross-examination to instruct him to ask questions, not make speeches.


De la Brosse will continue his testimony on May 26.


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Stacy Sullivan is IWPR project director in The Hague.


As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.

VIEW FOCUS PAGE >