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

REGIONAL REPORT: Media Crimes

Will Balkan journalists suspected of encouraging war crimes escape prosecution?
By Amra Kebo

The Hague tribunal is being urged to start prosecuting journalists who incited ethnic hatred and genocide in the former Yugoslavia.


So far prosecutors have shown no enthusiasm for hauling journalists before the tribunal, insisting there's not enough evidence to do so.


The matter, though, is being taken seriously by sections of the general public and press associations in the Balkans, and was prominently aired at a round-table conference examining the role of media in the conflict, in Mostar, on September 6.


Organised by the Sarajevo Media Centre and The Hague Tribunal Outreach Programme, the meeting drew large numbers of journalists from Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia along with eminent local intellectuals.


Most of the participants agreed it was necessary to establish a journalistic code of ethics to prevent media incitement in the future. No decisive steps were promised but there was a general wish to see The Hague act against journalists suspected of crimes. Many considered the media just as responsible for the Balkan conflict as the politicians and their military commanders.


One of the worst cases of media incitement was a Bosnian Serb TV programme about victims of the 1994 massacre at the Sarajevo Markale market, where a120mm shell fired from hilltops surrounding the city killed 66 people and wounded 140.


The programme's late editor, Risto Djogo, first said the victims were Serbs, then claimed the bodies shown on TV at the time were actually mannequins, placed there to discredit Serbs besieging Sarajevo. He subsequently brought mannequins into the studio to demonstrate his theory.


Cases of media-inspired hatred still arise today. This month the Serbian Oslobodjenje published an article which the OSCE and the Office of the High Representative said was "filled with paranoid anti-Semitic phrases unworthy of any media in Europe". Unlike the electronic media in Bosnia, which is supervised by the Communication Regulatory Agency, there are as yet no penalties for print media misconduct.


Legal experts argue there's no legal impediment to The Hague prosecuting journalists. They point out that editors of radio stations and newspapers stood trial at the Rwanda tribunal for violations of humanitarian law. The entire media structure in that country was held responsible for incitement to massacre.


Participants at the Mostar meeting agreed the media in former Yugoslavia were also an instrument for the dissemination of ethnic hatred. Mehmed Halilovic, an ombudsman for the media in the Bosnian Federation, later told IWPR, "Without them (the journalists) the politicians could not do what they did. Journalists carried out half the task, the soldiers did the rest. They led poorly educated people to commit crimes and encouraged them to behave like criminals."


The journalist Zlatko Dizdarevic believes The Hague should prosecute those suspected of carrying out such a policy, as a means of preventing inflammatory wartime propaganda in future.


Tribunal spokeswoman Florence Hartmann said, however, that the court's official position is that "direct indictments against journalists in former Yugoslavia have not been envisaged because there is a big difference between a direct call for killing and the dissemination of hatred."


But Mirko Klarin, editor of the SENSE news agency, is optimistic that journalists guilty of crimes will ultimately be brought to justice. "The fact that they still have not been summoned to The Hague, does not mean that they have been given an amnesty," he said. "I am sure tribunal prosecutors are investigating those cases, and we have to rely on their assessment that they do not have sufficient evidence at the moment."


More doubtful observers, however, believe the tribunal already has its hands full in prosecuting men like Slobodan Milosevic and will have to relegate any consideration of pursuing journalists to the back burner.


Amra Kebo is an IWPR assistant editor in Bosnia, and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network. She is also editor with the Sarajevo daily, Oslobodjenje.