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South Slavic: February 5, 2004


5 February 2004, Volume 6, Number 5

SERBIAN PUBLIC OPINION AND THE HAGUE WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL.

Part I.

A program by Srdjan Kusovac.

RFE/RL: The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia -- or the Hague tribunal -- has replaced NATO in Serbian eyes as the most hated international organization. This is all the more remarkable because NATO was, until a couple of years ago, the uncontested embodiment of evil in Serbia, according to several opinion polls.

One of the most comprehensive polls, conducted in 2002 by sociologist Vladimir Ilic, professor of the Philosophy Department in Belgrade, shows that only 17 percent of the citizens of Serbia have a positive view of the tribunal, 19 percent of them are still undecided, while 64 percent have a negative attitude: almost two-thirds!

Some of them say that the "Hague tribunal treats the Serbs worse then the others," that it "is a tribunal for the Serbs," that it "has no right to judge the [Serbs]," that it is "a political instead of legal institution," and that "an international court should try criminals from all over the world, not only those from former Yugoslavia."

Why do people in Serbia hate the Hague tribunal? Lawyer Srdja Popovic, journalist Ljiljana Smajlovic of the Belgrade weekly "NIN," and head of the Humanitarian Law Center Natasa Kandic offer their opinions.

Srdja Popovic: From the very beginning, even before 5 October [2000 and the ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic], I thought that the issue of war crimes was the key issue here. Facing up to it will enable us to make a clean break with our past....

The world identifies us with the crimes committed during the last 10 years, which for foreigners represent Yugoslavia's and Serbia's international identity....

The Hague tribunal serves to remind Serbs of this burden of their past, and this is why people in Serbia hate it. They simply wish it never existed.

Ljiljana Smajlovic: I think that there is a very important, crucial misunderstanding between the Serbs and The Hague, or between any other nation whose history, destiny, and policies will apparently be determined abroad.

The issue is how Serbs understand what happened during the last 15 years and how the West or the international community understands it. Those are two substantially opposite views.

I simply think that regardless of what the tribunal does, there is no way the two views can ever become reconciled to the satisfaction of the Serbs.

Natasa Kandic: Facts nonetheless do exist and an obvious fact is that Serbian institutions were involved in the wars and that they are responsible; in short, that the Serbian state is responsible.

Many people here have formed a defensive attitude on behalf of what was Milosevic's state and its institutions. They also claim that today's kids who have nothing to do with the past should not be forced to bear the burden for the war.

People in Serbia have two ways to watch the trials in The Hague: on Belgrade TV B92 and on the Internet. There are also reports in the media, which, of course, reflect the choice of both reporters and editors, making them subject to mistakes and bias.

RFE/RL: In 2002, [the Belgrade weekly] "Vreme" published a discussion over the course of six months as to whether the Serbian media are or are not prejudiced in favor of the Serbian defendants in The Hague. The debate did not appear to have convinced anyone to change their views. What can we say about the information that reaches the Serbian public today?

Goran Rotim, editor at the foreign affairs desk of Croatian Television; Emir Suljagic, the Hague correspondent of the Bosnian weekly "Dani"; TV B92 news-program editor Aleksandar Timofejev; journalist Nenad Stefanovic of the Belgrade weekly "Vreme"; and Sense news agency Editor in Chief Mirko Klarin, who produces weekly reports for television viewers in the former Yugoslavia

Goran Rotim: I was quite disappointed by Serbian journalists' coverage of the proceedings. It was mostly sensationalistic reporting based on quoting some particular statements or some witty exchanges between Milosevic and one of the judges but it did not get to the heart of the matter, namely the war crimes themselves.

Nenad Stefanovic: Local journalists often call me and ask how to obtain confirmation for some stories from The Hague, for which they obviously have no staff who cover the issues in a serious way....

I think that far more professional reporting is needed, as well as permanent coverage of what is going on in the Hague courtrooms.

Emir Suljagic: I am really disappointed with the way most of my Serbian colleagues report from The Hague. For the majority of them, it seems to be a defense of Serbia and its citizens in the face of accusations that are actually directed against one man.

It seems to me that Milosevic has once again successfully done what he has done throughout his career, namely to hijack the "Serbian cause" for his own purposes. His has now brought the Serbs to trial, just as he previously brought them sanctions and bombing.

Ljiljana Smajlovic: I think that "Vreme" and the Beta and FoNet news agencies have great reporting from the tribunal. [The Belgrade daily] "Danas" is very good, too. Other media report according to their own profiles, standards, or criteria.

Fortunately, the public in Serbia has more information than what, for instance, AP, Reuters, or "The New York Times" provide about the trial, otherwise it would not be enough. An event like this must be covered with a feeling for the sensibility of a local reader.

Suljagic: For example, I remember the headline of a report from one Westerner's testimony against Milosevic. "Witness confirms Milosevic's claim that people of Srebrenica were killed fighting the Army of the Republika Srpska." But there was no such sentence in the document, and it was never uttered in the courtroom or during the testimony....

Mirko Klarin: What shocked me the most during these eight or nine years of covering the Hague trials is that journalists from former Yugoslavia are mostly interested in trials of their fellow countrymen accused of war crimes.

In the past two years, however, the Milosevic trial has become the focus of everybody's attention. But to forget all the other trials would mean to forget all the other victims of the crimes that are brought to justice here.

Suljagic: The reporters from Serbia also cover other trials in the same biased fashion. At the very beginning of the trial of Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic -- officers of the Bratunac and Zvornik brigades, who are accused of crimes against humanity and genocide -- B92 said that the Army of the Republika Srpska is "believed" to have killed some 7,000 people in Srebrenica. Later they corrected it, but I did see the very first version of the story with this "believed," which suggests that the matter is less than an established fact....

Perhaps that is what the reporters think the public in Serbia can tolerate, or what they believe the public there wants to hear or read.

Aleksandar Timofejev: We decided to send our best reporters there. We trust them and have no problems whatsoever with their reporting.

Goran Rotim: It may be hard for us as individuals and citizens of a country that endured the war, but that should not influence our reporting.

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