Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Balkans: Media’s reporting of Balkans war contributed to escalation of the conflict and may have incited war crimes

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net

- International Justice - ICTY

IWPR’s ICTY programme manager Merdijana Sadovic, addressing a recent conference in The Hague, spoke about the media’s role in the Balkan wars of the Nineties and how reporting contributed to the escalation of the conflict and, in some cases, may have incited war crimes.

As a journalist who was based in Sarajevo during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, Sadovic has a unique insight into the workings of the local media and its contribution to inter-ethnic fear and hatred in the early Nineties.

“There is no doubt that media was instrumental in setting the stage for monstrosities that took place in the Balkans in the Nineties,” Sadovic told the conference, From Peace to Justice: Understanding Security.

“However, no media outlets or individual journalists from the former Yugoslavia have been indicted for inciting ethnic hatred and encouraging war crimes, neither by the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), nor local courts in the region.”

She explained that the only serious attempt to put those responsible on trial was made by Serbia's Special War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, which last summer launched a preliminary inquiry into the role of journalists in inciting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The main focus of the investigation were atrocities committed in the Croatian town of Vukovar and Bosnian town of Zvornik.

The investigation grew out of testimony heard during Belgrade trials of suspects connected to the massacre of 200 Croats at 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.

Just days before Vukovar killings, Serbian media broadcast news that Croatian forces had murdered 41 Serb children, aged four to seven, in a primary school in Borovo Selo, near Vukovar.

The story was first reported by a Serbian journalist who claimed that he had seen the bodies of at least 40 small children in the school’s basement. The news rapidly spread among the Serbian media, while Serbian television aired an all-night programme on the issue, hosting witnesses claiming that they too had seen the bodies.

“Though Serbian television later admitted that the information was false and all witnesses changed their statements to say that they had only seen a dozen closed body bags - which could have contained the bodies of Croats - it was too late. The information had done its damage and was absorbed by Serbs willing to join paramilitary groups in a campaign of revenge,” Sadovic said.

She added that Serbian Prosecutor’s Office has so far found eight examples of reporting in which “lies” could be linked to strong reactions among people that led to killing someone “just because they saw on television or read in the newspaper something that had nothing to do with reality”.

Sadovic informed the participants of the Hague conference that although this investigation was launched more than a year ago and was expected to last only a few months, it still hasn’t yielded any results.

She also mentioned some examples of how western media coverage in Bosnia and Kosovo had led to positive outcomes.

“Western governments were exposed for years to reports by their own media on horrible war crimes that were taking place in Bosnia, and they finally had to act in 1995 to stop the atrocities. Also, the TV footage of thousands of Kosovars being expelled from their homes in the late Nineties triggered NATO bombing, which ended Serbian attacks on this province,” she said.

Talking about the media’s role in the period after the Balkan wars, Sadovic pointed out that local outlets continued to fuel hostilities among former enemies, thus slowing down the reconciliation process.

“Instead of helping all three ethnic groups face their recent past, the media encouraged denial, creating an atmosphere in which it is acceptable to blame ‘the others’ for everything that went bad and to deny one’s own responsibility,” she said.

Sadovic added that the local media also missed out on an opportunity to promote the reconciliation process in the Balkans through its reporting on war crimes trials at the Hague tribunal and local courts in the region.

“Had this reporting been objective and non-biased, it would have had a crucial role in helping people come to terms with their past and moving forward. However, in most cases these reports only fueled ethnic tension and increased insecurity in already fragile states,” she said.

According to Sadovic, this is one of the main reasons why IWPR has continuously covered war crimes trials since 1996 - the organisation is known in the region as one of the very few sources of reliable and objective reporting on the tribunal and local war crimes courts.

Sadovic said that when it comes to the Bosnian media, the lack of objectivity is present in reporting on other problems relevant for Bosnian society, such as the return of refugees.

Before the war, 4.4 million people lived in Bosnia. Almost half were expelled or fled their homes during the war. This was the largest displacement of people in Europe since the end of the World War Two – but a relatively small number have gone back to their homes.

“This is another area to which the local media could significantly contribute by objective and balanced reporting, but, unfortunately, that is not happening. Instead of encouraging this process and finding positive examples, they focus mainly on the negatives,” Sadovic said.

To illustrate this, she showed the audience a few video reports about population returns aired on local TV stations in Bosnia, which were all heavily biased.

Then she showed an example of IWPR’s own video reporting, which stood in sharp contrast to those she had presented earlier because of its balance.

“We at IWPR believe that balanced and objective reporting - on war crimes and other transitional justice issues - can significantly contribute to security in a post-conflict country,” Sadovic said at the end of her presentation.