25 October 2001, Volume 3, Number 35
MEDIA AND WAR CRIMES: WILL THE GOEBBELS OF THE BALKANS GET OFF THE HOOK?
This is Part I of a translation of a program by RFE/RL journalists Mensur Camo, Ivana Lalic, and Nebojsa Bugarinovic that was broadcast on 19 October 2001. Part II will appear on 1 November.
Item 26 of the [Hague] indictment against Slobodan Milosevic: "Slobodan Milosevic, acting alone and in concert with other members of the joint criminal enterprise, controlled, contributed to, or otherwise utilized Serbian state-run media outlets to manipulate Serbian public opinion by spreading exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks by Croats against Serb people in order to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred among Serbs living in Serbia and Croatia. The propaganda generated by the Serbian media was an important tool in contributing to the perpetration of crimes in Croatia."
RFE/RL: Item 26 of the indictment against Slobodan Milosevic has once again raised the issue of the responsibility of some Balkan media for war crimes committed during the 1991-1995 wars by indulging in vicious war propaganda, spreading hatred and fear, and openly encouraging war crimes.
There have already been two cases in which media people were found guilty of war crimes committed while performing their professional media tasks. The first one is the death sentence handed down by the Nuremberg tribunal for Nazi publisher Julius Streicher. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity because of his fierce anti-Semitic propaganda. On 1 June 2000, the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda referred to that case when the Belgian Georges Ruggiu, editor and journalist of radio RTLM, was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.
The role of some media during the wars in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina is widely regarded as manipulative and war-mongering. In the early 1990s, Belgrade newspapers spread hatred for and fear of the independence movements in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some sources claim that some Belgrade media sent encoded messages to certain groups of the population [there] in order to warn them about upcoming attacks. Bosnian Serb media were also known for their direct involvement in war operations....
What were the messages conveyed by the journalists of Belgrade television in 1991 and 1992?
RFE/RL: A widely accepted way of reporting by state-run television in Serbia was by creating a stereotype of the entire Croatian people as genocidal, as well as by reminding Serbs of the horrible crimes committed by the Ustasha movement during World War II.
Those reports used a vocabulary chosen to provoke emotional reactions, while stressing the victorious role of Serbian arms. Members of the Yugoslav People's Army, as well as [paramilitary] volunteers, were called liberators. Croatian armed forces were always labeled Ustashas and criminals. [Presentations of] the suffering civilian population were practically always [limited to] Serbs.
Segment of a program item by Belgrade Television: "Tudjman's frantic mercenaries and criminals, who call themselves [national] guardsmen, are barricaded in the very center of Kostajnica, from whence they continue to fire indiscriminately. We have also been informed that a company of butchers of Tudjman's Black Legion left Zagreb earlier today heading for the front line in Banija. A band of mercenaries and murderers, bloodthirsty for the lives of Serbs, barricaded in Kostajnica, seems to be increasingly aware that they have been written off."
RFE/RL: Every single day, TV Belgrade's audience was exposed to an exercise in dissection.
Segment of a program item by Belgrade Television:
-- I am holding gold teeth. I was told that they were extracted with knives from people who were still alive and who were later killed.
-- Can you give us examples of those killed, slaughtered, or those who endured crimes like these?
-- I left earlier, and this is why I did not see it. But, from what I heard, there were killings.
-- What happened?
-- They cut throats and fingers, removed people's eyes and nails. We found some children in roasting pans they intended to bake.
-- Why have the Ustashas been resisting so long here in Vukovar? They must be supported by the population. What do you think?
-- You are asking me too much. I do not know.
-- Well, you are from Vukovar.
-- Well, you are right, people did support them. That is right, because we [Serbs] were forced to leave.
-- Why did people not oppose them?
-- Well, they did not want to oppose their fellow Croatians...
-- Those who are here.
-- Who are they?
-- Everybody knows.
RFE/RL: TV Belgrade's female reporters -- contrary to all professional rules -- often behaved like they were conducting an interrogation:
Segment of a program item by Belgrade Television:
-- Did you rape before butchering, and whom?
-- I raped a woman.
-- How old was she?
-- She was two years older than I.
-- Therefore, how old was she?
-- She was 25. But I did not cut her throat.
-- Who did it?
-- Zunic Ivica and Hasanovic, they cut her throat.
-- Where are they now?
-- They remained in the city.
-- How old are you?
-- And you?
-- What abut you?
-- And you?
-- Where do you come from?
-- I am from Omis near Split.
-- What is your name?
-- Miroborski Ivica.
-- We were told that you were a member of the Black Legion.
-- No, that is not the truth.
RFE/RL: Warnings about threats to the Serbian nation, as well as messages of hate coming from state-run television, mobilized thousands of volunteers in Serbia. The war propaganda was efficient:
Segment of a program by Belgrade Television:
-- This is somehow unusual: a woman on the front line. Isn't it unusual? What do you think about it?
-- I do not find it unusual. I think that we should all respond to the call [to arms]. I am a mother of two minors.
-- Where do you come from?
-- I am from Pirot.
-- How old are you?
-- What made you decide to come here, to the front?
-- Whenever I watch TV, I see what is going on, and this is why I want to help. Our Serbia is worth dying for.
RFE/RL: We are not surprised that our Belgrade correspondents were not able to persuade the former editors in chief of TV Belgrade [and the newspapers] "Politika," "Vecernje Novosti," and "Politika Ekspres" to talk to us. The only one who agreed is Ratko Dmitrovic, the former editor of the main newscast of TV Belgrade. He thinks that the only criterion for a possible criminal prosecution is:
Dmitrovic: ...whether a person was telling the truth or lies.
RFE/RL: Back in 1991, you were perceived as a person whose high-quality writing somehow provided legitimacy for those whom I have to call semi-journalists who came from Croatia and joined TV Belgrade.... Were you aware of the quality -- or the lack of quality -- of what they were doing, not only regarding professionalism but also...moral and other values?
Dmitrovic: Yes, I certainly tried to do my job in a way that 10 years later I have not had to disown one single report or commentary I made. I tried to persuade the station's management to remove those involved in the brutal promotion of one party and one family....
I repeatedly urged that a media pool be created in order to wage a media war the way Slovenes, Croats, and some centers abroad hired by Croatian, Slovenian, and later Muslim lobbies were doing. What I wanted was to present the truth in an effective, modern way, instead of the way Milosevic's regime was doing it. However, I did not succeed.
For instance, I demanded the station's management remove a few people who were irritating even the vast majority of the Serbian audience with their dubious and ham-fisted stories that lacked any evidence to support them, but I failed. This is why I left Radio-Television Serbia in late 1993, when it became obvious that it was being transformed into a typical one-party station, a station of one family....
RFE/RL: Did the reporting of, for example, Petko Koprivica, Vlado Slijepcevic, or Milijana Baletic help poison the atmosphere? Were they just telling the truth in a blunt fashion, or were they manipulating it?
Dmitrovic: Well, you know, if one was 30 to 50 meters away from the place where a mortar shell killed five people or in a village where it killed two kids, then nothing can make him report objectively. From that moment on, that person considers himself a victim. I am not talking about the colleagues you just mentioned. I am talking about those on the Croatian and Muslim side.
Now, as far as vocabulary is concerned -- which was, for instance, typical for my colleague Koprivica, for Milijana, and for some others -- when they said "Ustashas attacked," let me remind you that [Croatian forces] used to call themselves Ustashas and to name their units after famous Ustasha war criminals from World War II.
RFE/RL: Did some Serbian journalists create a false image of a Croatian threat to the Serbian population?
Dmitrovic: Regarding what they said about Croatia intending to occupy Zemun and Vojvodina, I mean, let us just compare the Croatian forces in 1991 with the [much more professional and better armed] Yugoslav People's Army. Saying that [the Croats] will attack Serbia...did have negative consequences. My opinion is that it was absolutely unnecessary [to say such things].
RFE/RL: Do you think that The Hague tribunal is justified in discussing the role of media in former Yugoslavia?
Dmitrovic: The journalists who agreed to lie -- with horrible consequences -- at the request of politicians in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo should be held responsible, either in The Hague or before national courts. They should be subject to investigations to determine how much they distorted the truth.
However, I think that some people from abroad must be investigated as well. Let me tell you something that might sound heretical: I think that Florence Hartmann, the spokeswoman of The Hague tribunal who was "Le Monde's" Belgrade correspondent, should be subject to such an investigation, too. Let us also see CNN's Christiane Amanpour's reporting from Sarajevo -- how much hate and invective there was.
Let us also see the writing of Carl Gustav Stroehm for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," or of German journalist Viktor Meier [editor's note: Stroehm reported for "Die Welt," and Meier, who is Swiss, wrote for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung"]. Let us see whether [U.S. journalist] Roy Gutman reported truthfully from Bosnia [on Serbian concentration camps in 1992] or whether he really manipulated the truth, for which he was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
If our profession needs a clean-up, we cannot hold responsible only the journalists from the region of former Yugoslavia, as if they were considered an inferior species. Bad journalistic practice in former Yugoslavia must be scrutinized, but this must include all the journalists involved.