Reporting Your Compatriots' Sins

New generation of Serbian journalists grapples with ethics and challenges of tackling dark side of their country’s recent history.

Reporting Your Compatriots' Sins

New generation of Serbian journalists grapples with ethics and challenges of tackling dark side of their country’s recent history.

During a visit to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, two of my colleagues from Serbia and I were offered the opportunity to become correspondents.

The idea was that we cover some trials related to war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia in the Nineties.

Would I be able to do it?

I love my country. It is perhaps economically weak and politically unstable, and its citizens can’t travel almost anywhere without a visa. Still, it is mine.

I was very young at the time of the Balkan conflicts and my memories are only blurry.

Over the years, many things have been mythologised – some people have been proclaimed heroes, and some see themselves as winners, although all sides have lost enormously, especially in human lives.

Some of my fellow Serbs have been convicted or indicted for war crimes - mass murder of civilians, rape, and ethnic cleansing.

“My people? Never! We are all so good and kind.”

With such an initial reaction, will I, as a young journalist, be able to report objectively about the crimes of my compatriots?

Can a nation, having gone through the horrors of war, allow itself to be untruthful about it? And can a journalist, even the biggest patriot, neglect the facts of these events? No, never, would be the first answer.

If we wish to overcome the past and mature as a nation, we must be true to ourselves.

This is exactly where the media can play a crucial role – they can report on testimonies, victims’ stories, shed some light on events.

However, they can also do just the opposite – inflame remains of hate, distort realities and report lies.

A journalist’s obligation in such situations is clear – to report objectively and truthfully.

But when it comes to concrete cases and real people, this is not always simple.

No matter how much they try to be unbiased, journalists, nevertheless, have backgrounds. While growing up, they have picked up the prejudices of their surroundings, and find it difficult to break away from the context in which they are living.

In addition, while a conflict is under way, there is pressure from the government, and, after the war, they face pressure from the public.

In the course of researching war crimes reporting, I have come across stories of men and women who are regarded by some as good journalists because they wrote about the crimes of their nation – yet others see them as traitors.

On the other side, we have journalists who “served the state” and some call them patriots, while others refer to them as hate mongers and instigators.

Whether in times of war or not, a journalist should always serve the public interest, the truth and universal human values.

Although views on certain issues may differ, I do not see how the rape of a woman or the murder of an infant can be viewed as anything other than a crime. The same goes for covering up atrocities or, even worse, glorifying such acts as patriotic.

Those who love their nation must face themselves and their compatriots with the truth in order to overcome it and become better and stronger.

If an American journalist can report about crimes committed in Vietnam; if a German reporter can write about the Holocaust; than why shouldn’t a Croat cover Operation Storm in 1995; or a Serb reporter write about events in the Srebrenica of the same year?

The last thing we should say as a means of justification is that such things occur in a war.

These things do not just happen – somebody is doing them, ordering them, not stopping them – and the fact that such crimes are expected, tolerated or easy to cover up in times of war certainly does not help.

The situation is similar when we talk about war crimes trials, although the discussion about the impartiality of international and local courts is something that can burden journalists.

Still, they are allowed to give their assessment on the courts’ fairness or lack thereof only through facts, regardless of their personal feelings.

This does not mean that the journalist cannot present their opinion in some other medium, or that the verdict is off-limits for debate and discussion.

As a young journalist, I no longer ask myself the question of whether I will be able to report objectively about war crimes. I am aware that I owe this to myself and to those for whom I’m reporting. I understand that this will not be at all easy.

“My people? Maybe. I’ll find out.”

Jasna Jankovic is studying journalism in Belgrade. She was among a group of Serbian students who recently visited IWPR's offices in London as part of an OSCE-organised programme.
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