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In The Balkans, The Headlines Preceded The War

War crimes through media are hard to prove.
The phones were ringing off the hook with angry Croats accusing Sarajevo state television of being "anti-Croatian television."

It was late October 1991 and I was the station's program director. There was a war going on in Croatia and our evening news cast that day included a story about an Orthodox priest who had been beaten up by Croatian forces.

The irate Croats hadn't bothered to wait for the next story in the newscast, one about a Catholic priest who had been attacked by Serbs. That story, predictably, set the phones ringing again with Serbs calling to make similar accusations.

Both stories happened on the same day, and Sarajevo television was the only television channel that covered them both.

This incident came to mind recently when I heard that the Serbian war crimes prosecutor had launched an investigation into media responsibility for inciting war crimes during the Balkans wars.

That decision was made after defendants accused of war crimes in the Croatian city of Vukovar, where Serbian forces killed 200 Croatian civilians in 1991, and defendants accused of the killing of 25 Bosnian Muslims in Zvornik in 1992 both testified that they had been spurred on by media coverage of the conflicts. They claimed they were acting out of revenge.

Of course, crimes are crimes and media influence is no excuse for committing atrocities. Moreover, there are many examples around the world of legitimate media freedoms being curtailed under the guise of combating extremism.

But I’m hopeful about the Serbian prosecutor’s planned investigation. As a spokesman for the office told RFE/RL: “It is going to be very difficult to prove war crimes [by media outlets] because we would need to establish cause and consequence. An analysis has been prepared, and we are looking into the issue. If we find evidence of crimes, we will prosecute.”

Fanning The Flames

A lot of people who were fanning the flames of hatred back in the 1990s have since become “moderates” because the authorities they follow have become “moderate.” They continue to lie, but their lies are “light” ones.

People today aren’t going to take up arms and go on killing sprees because of what they read in the press. But many did back in 1991 and 1992.

In 1992, for instance, a Serbian television journalist falsely reported that Muslims in Sarajevo had thrown live Serbian babies to the lions at the local zoo.

A local correspondent for Reuters reported in 1991 that Serbian forces in Croatia had discovered the bodies of 20 Serbian babies in a basement. The “news” went all the way around the world before it was determined to be a false provocation. No babies were found; no crime had been committed.
They had no possible way of separating the lies from the truth even when they wanted to. They were brainwashed, even, one might say, heart-washed.

The editor of one small newspaper called “The Croatian Herald” was famous for his creed: “Political Serbs, damn you wherever you may be!”

It wouldn’t be hard to extend this list of examples virtually forever. In fact, back then such lies and rumors were broadcast from hour to hour; newspapers were full of them every single day. Most people in the former Yugoslav countries had no opportunity to get any other kind of information.

They had no possible way of separating the lies from the truth even when they wanted to. They were brainwashed, even, one might say, heart-washed. Within a startlingly short period of time, ordinary media consumers were transformed into something more resembling the worst fans at a soccer match.

And journalists themselves were pressured to practice “patriotic journalism.” This was promoted as a duty to one’s ethnic group and one’s country, but it was really just a guise for censorship and hate speech.

In June 1998, the Belgrade-based Forum for Interethnic Relations wrote: “The politics of fear and hatred toward other [non-Serbian] ethnic groups is the method by which the current regime remains in power.”

If you look back, I think, you can see that the wars in the former Yugoslavia did not begin in 1991, but rather about four years earlier, back when Slobodan Milosevic became the president of Serbia (in 1997, he became president of Yugoslavia), and it began with an ethnic conflict within the ruling Yugoslav Communist Party.

In July 1989, the Political Science Department of Zagreb University wrote that the membership of the party had become clearly divided among two political platforms, labeling the competing groups the “Serbians” and the “Slovenians.”

'Manufactured Ethnic Conflict'

In the ensuing months, these political leaders were able -- using their control of media and the information space -- to transform an ideological dispute between supporters of pure communism and backers of a parliamentary system into an essentially ethnically based conflict.

Instead of a civilized debate over two political platforms (a single-party state or a multi-party state?), an ethnic conflict emerged. The media, the church, the public had to choose between the Slovenians and the Serbians. It quickly moved from being a party struggle, to a media war, to a manufactured ethnic conflict.

And it spread. Serbs and Croats. Serbs and Muslims. Serbs and Albanians. Croats and Muslims. And within each group, of course, there are good (or, patriotic) Serbs and bad Serbs (ethnic traitors!), good and bad Croats, good and bad Muslims.

A similar process is happening today. Whenever ethnicity is the main criteria for making judgments in society, conflict and dictatorship seem inevitable. The process that begins with ethnic cleansing between groups ends up as a political cleansing within those groups.

The Serbian prosecutor's decision to investigate media reporting during the war and the possible responsibility of journalists for inciting war crimes might come to nothing.

“It is too late,” Serbian writer Filip David, who protested against media hate speech during the war, told RFE/RL. “Many of those responsible are not around anymore or are forgotten. It also too early -- because many of those who were directing media war propaganda then are still in power now.”

And it looks like David may be right. The Serbian Union of Journalists has had nothing to say on the prosecutor’s initiative, missing another excellent opportunity to promote a constructive discussion of this crucial issue.

In the meantime, those who forged the hatred that lead to war in the 1990s are aggressively defending themselves and accusing others. Serbian nationalists have declared that Radio Free Europe should be investigated as a media outlet that fomented ethnic hatred, although we began broadcasting to the region in 1994, three years after the wars in the Balkans had begun.

As for me, I lost my battle -- keeping Sarajevo state television objective and professional soon became impossible. I left my country in 1992 after the war began.

I don’t think that any of those in the media who forged the Balkans wars will ever be indicted or tried. But I know that the first shots in those conflicts were fired not by soldiers but by "journalists," following orders from leaders bent on war.

Just as the Balkans wars began in the media long before they emerged on the battlefield, so too, perhaps, they are continuing there long after the guns have been silenced.

Just as the lies they broadcast then created the conditions for the wars, perhaps their role now in hiding the truth keeps those conditions in place.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.