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Serbia Probes Media Role in War Crimes

Opinion divided over prospects of investigation into incitement by journalists during the Balkan wars.
A plan by Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor to investigate the role of media in fomenting ethnic hatred and encouraging war crimes during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s could reach people who have since risen to positions of prominence, some observers believe.

But others see the probe as too little, too late.

The investigation announced earlier in June opens the possibility of prosecuting journalists for biased reports published at the bidding of nationalist regimes across former Yugoslavia.

The investigation grew out of testimony heard during Belgrade trials on the massacre of 200 Croats at the Ovcara farm near Vukovar in 1991 and the murder of 25 Bosniaks in Zvornik in 1992, when some of the accused said that certain reports from electronic media incited them to commit the crimes.

“In the case of Ovcara it was said ‘I saw that programme and went there and took my revenge’,” said Bruno Vekaric, spokesman for the Belgrade war crimes prosecutor. “The man who said this really had participated in killing 200 people in Ovcara.”

The prosecution will not limit itself to the Ovcara and Zvornik cases, but “a comprehensive analysis is being conducted in which journalist and media experts, domestic and foreign, are involved”, he added. The investigation will not cover only Serbian media, but those in Bosnia, Montenegro and Croatia as well.

“We want to be completely clear that we as prosecutors want to find elements of possible crime, which would be consequently taken to another level – a criminal proceeding,” Vekaric said.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, has not indicted any journalists for war crimes nor passed any such cases down to local courts. In contrast, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania has found three Rwandan journalists guilty of stoking ethnic hatred during the 1994 genocide. Two were jailed for life and a third was sentenced to 35 years.

The most notorious journalist to ever face trial was Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, founder and publisher of Der Stuermer newspaper, a central cog in the Nazi propaganda machine, who was sentenced to death at Nuremberg.

No one has yet been named in the Serbian probe, but speculation abounds that it will focus on the more blatant war-mongering by loyalists of the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. Some of these possible suspects are no longer in the news business and some have faded into obscurity in minor publications, but others continue working in senior positions.

No timescale has been given for when the investigation might lead to any indictments or trials.

“It’s late because so much time has passed, many have died or have been forgotten, and it’s early, because many of those who were then orchestrating media are still in power, in politics, and are still indirectly influencing media through the political parties they are in,” said Filip David, former editor of drama programmes at Serbian state TV.

Lazar Lalic, who produced the series Pictures and Words of Hatred, dealing with the role of state TV in the wars, said the prosecution would have little trouble finding material for its investigation.

“Documentation exists. It all comes down to instigating propaganda, which was horrible and which managed to make thousands in Serbia volunteer to fight,” said Lalic. “In general, I am a sceptic regarding those trials. It seems to me that things are going in reverse direction. Those people should have first been forbidden from working in media.”

Some of the reporting was exaggerated while some was pure fabrication that stretched the limits of credibility even for the most hardened nationalists.

Professor Gordana Vilovic, an expert on the media in Croatia, said she was surprised at the news from Belgrade but thought the probe was a “great step forward”, although it might be difficult to carry it through to the end.

“Thinking about what would happen if this investigation took place in Croatia, I concluded that Croatia is still not mature enough to face things from the past, especially from the beginning of the war when the words of hatred were best heard,” said Vilovic.

In an article in the online magazine, political commentator Tomislav Klauski cautioned that Croats might react badly to trials of journalists as “war agitators”.

“Our journalism was on its way to catharsis, to clearing things up, but the process had never been completed,” she said.

Vilovic agreed. “It seems to me there is no critical mass of journalists who would say – let’s see who of our members damage our credibility,” she said.

The same caution can be felt in Bosnia. The Serb and Muslim-Croat halves of the country still teeter in an uneasy and fragile coexistence 14 years after the end of the war, and even the smallest admission of guilt from one side or the other is a long and painful process.

“The initiative of the Serbian prosecution has come somewhat late,” said Vildana Selimbegovic, editor-in-chief at Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje. “Some of those people have already returned to TV stations and press, forgetting what they did. But it would not be good that this turns into a witch hunt or personal confrontations. I am afraid there is a possibility that this could happen.”

In Montenegro, Serbia’s smaller partner in the rump Yugoslavia, the subject of wartime bias and propaganda is practically taboo, and efforts by liberals to pass a lustration law have been hamstrung by authorities’ caution about a witch-hunt. In the meantime, large sections of the archive of television station RTV Crna Gora in Montenegro have disappeared in what many call a whitewashing of history, editing out the darker sections that could incriminate prominent politicians and former journalists.

Montenegrin filmmaker Koca Pavlovic, who made the documentary War for Peace, said he is afraid that the criminal responsibility of journalists could be very hard to establish.

“I do not know whether enough material can be found today to start a criminal procedure,” he said. “It is hard to establish a clear and direct relationship between some journalistic story or any journalistic work and a concrete crime. I think that the experience from the Hague tribunal confirms that.”

Montenegrin journalists who opposed agitation during the war were laid off from state media or were totally marginalised, some going on to found the first independent media, such as the weekly paper Monitor.

“They are not journalists, but creators of war who worked in media,” said Esad Kocan, editor-in-chief at Monitor, of reporters who instigated hatred among their compatriots. “Of course, the prosecution should investigate this, just like it would in the case of any abuse of a profession with the aim of committing a crime. The main Montenegrin creators of war have in the meantime become peacemakers. They are doing everything to… make people selectively remember what happened.”

Danilo Burzan, who was fired from the position of editor at Radio Montenegro in the 1990s, said he hopes that agitation during the war will one day be investigated.

“Everybody knows that some of them are still present in public life. It is also well known that they have not been punished at all for the evil they were spreading via TV or newspapers. I strongly believe this should be made public and evidence presented, and I do not much care about any of them suffering because of that,” he said.

Iva Martinovic in Belgrade, Goran Vezic, Dzenana Karabegovic and Biljana Jovicevic in Podgorica are IWPR contributors.

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