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REGIONAL REPORT: RTS Silent Over War Crimes

Radio and Television Serbia has been reluctant to confront the crimes of the Milosevic era.
By Vera Rankovic

Serbia's state broadcaster no longer produces the hate speech it used to deliver under Slobodan Milosevic but remains reluctant to condemn the war crimes committed in his name.

Most of the Milosevic-era journalists are still in their jobs at Radio Television Serbia, RTS. Their former nationalistic tirades have been replaced by a stony scepticism towards international charges of atrocities perpetrated during the Balkan wars.

In this they probably reflect a widespread national view that The Hague war crimes tribunal is an anti-Serb instrument set up by the West.

RTS's attitude may change under its new editor-in-chief, Bojana Lekic, who is keen to provide more objective reporting of events at The Hague - although she warns that the prohibitive cost of featuring tribunal TV footage constitutes a big obstacle to achieving her goal.

The reluctance of RTS to admit Serbian guilt for wars and war crimes in the past is, many observers believe, connected to its own role in these events. During the 13 years that Milosevic ruled Yugoslavia, the state broadcaster was a pillar of his regime and a natural foe of The Hague.

When Milosevic was ousted, there was widespread expectation that the new Serbian rulers would soon institute a shake-up of RTS personnel. This did not happen. For a while the media distanced itself from the old regime but then drifted back to a disgruntled view of the outside world.

This was largely attributed to a lack of determination on the part of the new authorities to confront the sins of the past and the reluctance of politicians to relax their grip on the media.

Any changes in this culture must await the arrival of new laws to define the status of the media and its relationship with government. Legislation now under discussion envisages some sort of impartial watchdog body to monitor the media's activities.

However, groups within the ruling coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, are resisting the enactment of any new media law. "They declare they favour freedom of the media but in practice do not want to relinquish control," commented media analyst Snezana Milivojevic

DOS is divided between those who support the anti-Hague policies of Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and the more pragmatic position of prime minister Zoran Djindjic who sees the tribunal as an unpleasant but inevitable fact of life.

Djindjic recently explained that extraditing suspects to The Hague was a distasteful act but one that would be carried out to ensure that Serbian interests - namely the flow of international funds into the country - are not threatened.

These divisions within the government largely explain why, more than a year after Milosevic was overthrown, there have been no moves to oust those journalists who stoked up hatred and paved the way for the horrors of war in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

The situation inside RTS largely mirrors society in general. Most of Milosevic's close associates are still free, many of them remain in their old jobs. Others lost their jobs but continued to wield power from behind the scenes. Public opinion considers NATO to be the key culprit for all Serbia's troubles, and that "Milosevic was only defending the Serbs". A common view is that if the former Yugoslav president made a mistake it was that he "did not know how to defend them properly".

Apart from the director and the editor of prime time news, none of the journalists who so eagerly trumpeted the Milosevic message has been seriously penalised. Some were demoted and others kept off the screen - but they remain unrepentant about the past.

With help from foreign donors, RTS sent a reporter to The Hague last summer but her pieces went almost unnoticed. They were not announced in the press and TV guides, there were no follow-up analytical programmes. A live broadcast of Milosevic's second tribunal appearance was anchored by a sports journalist.

Lekic is critical of the way news about the tribunal was handled in the past and would like it displayed more prominently so that people could make more informed judgments. The problem, she says, is that RTS doesn't have the money to provide the kind of extensive coverage she would like.

She says the stations has sufficient funds to broadcast the first week of the Milosevic trial, but will have to approach donors for extended coverage.

Vera Rankovic is an RTS journalist.

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