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The role of the media

The War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukčević has announced that soon will be published a report on media role in Serbia during the 90’s. The report will be based on information that were revealed to the prosecution in the preliminary proceedings. Vukčević, who was one of the participants at Tuesday’s round table “The role of the media and journalist in war conflicts in former Yugoslavia” (jointly organized by Independent Association of Journalist of Serbia (NUNS), Belgrade center for Human rights and OSCE Mission in Serbia), also said that, at this moment, there aren’t enough prerequisites for making decision whether there will be criminal proceedings against some journalists for war mongering, but the investigation will continue. As Vukčević explained, the Prosecution for War Crimes, in the second half of the last year, sent a letter to all media houses that were accused for alleged instigation of the war crimes. The letter requires access to archival material and documents, mostly articles and TV shows, related to the 90’s period and some media outlets have not yet responded to the request. Although, it is not said which media houses haven’t responded to the request, the spokesman for the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office Bruno Vekarić explained that the prosecution won’t ask the police to intervene to media who haven’t answer to the already mentioned letter.

The source: Media Center, Belgrade

The whole story about media accountability for warmongering started before less than 10 months when the spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office announced (in the beginning of June 2009) that preliminary inquiry about the role of Serbian media and journalists during the Yugoslav’s wars had been lunched. A month later, the already mentioned NUNS filed a criminal charge against unnamed journalist who worked in electronic media outlets such as RTV Belgrade (today’s RTS), RTV Novi Sad and daily newspapers Večernje novosti and Politika. The NUNS’ criminal charge was based on the Article 145 of the Criminal Code and some archive documentation was submitted too in order to support the charge. The NUNS and Prosecutor’s initiatives opened fire debate in Serbia during the last summer and divided Serbian associations of journalists. The president of the Association of Journalist of Serbia (UNS) Ljiljana Smajlović was strictly against questioning the media role during those dark years and described those initiatives as chases against people who just done their job (more about the debate and initiatives here). The whole debate was interrupted and stopped before it came to an end with the famous controversial Law on information that turned the attention of the public, journalists and journalist associations in the direction of state-media relations.

Since then, we couldn’t hear a word about the criminal charge – apparently the Prosecutor’s Office was trying to get the access to archival material and “some media outlets” haven’t been very generous to allow that. To be honest, I really don’t know why the Prosecutor won’t ask for a court order to get access to those materials. They’re asking for newspaper articles and TV materials! Regularly, every citizen has the right to ask for permission (and get it) to access to those materials and couple of years before, if I remember well, that “luxury” cost around 2000 RSD in case of Borba and Večernje novosti archive. Moreover, if the Prosecutor office asks for the archive materials, how can you not answer? And how come that Prosecutor himself says in such a calm manner that “some media” haven’t replied to his letter, like if they didn’t brush their teeth in the morning? Why didn’t he say which media have not yet replied?

Those unnamed media that are not willing to cooperate use the same manner of behavior that was used by the official state organs and institutions in the process of cooperation with the international and domestic tribunals. If you pretend that you’re deaf enough maybe someone starts to believe in that in the end! I am not defending journalists and media in this particular case; I am just trying to point to some similar patterns of behavior towards the mastering the past in Serbia. Of course, there are individuals, groups and institutions within the field of journalistic profession in Serbia that are trying to give their contribution in the process of dealing with the past. NUNS on a regular basis calls the state to discover who ordered and who committed the murders of journalists during the nineties and lately this association has focused its attention on determining the responsibility of the media and journalists during the already mentioned dark period.

Nevertheless, the Prosecutor’s investigation and NUNS’ criminal charge aren’t enough. As Nadežda Gaće, president of the NUNS, nicely said during the round table, it is necessary to achieve agreement on the persistence of these issues within the profession. In other words, journalist and media outlets and associations have to reach a consensus about necessity of “cleaning their own backyard”. At this moment, they don’t have that consensus. The above-mentioned president of the UNS, Ljiljana Smajlović, rejected to come to the conference (although she was invited) because she “doesn’t want to give the support with her presence to the disputed NUNS initiative” i.e. the criminal charge. I am wondering why the NUNS initiative is so painful for the official organs of UNS? The Court of Honor of UNS had to exclude from their association directors and editors of 8 media outlets because of their role during the war periods. That was soon after the 2000 changes. Then, after the first wave of democratic ecstasy, they decided to stop with that practice and to be quite. That might be the reason, or even the consequence, why the director of UNS for several years was Nino Brajović – a former journalist from RTB who during the 90’s reported from Vukovar and became “famous” with his reportage full of dead bodies for which Brajović claimed that are Serbs patients from hospital in Vukovar. Later, with the game of the fate, was found out that Brajović was bigger “patriot” than “journalist”.

Media professionals in Serbia have to talk about those years and their own role in it, have to restore ethical dimension of their profession and take responsibility for those nasty titles, comments, articles and hate speech. And that talk wouldn’t be only about the past, but in the same time about the present and about the future. I am not against the criminal charge, on the contrary, I think that the criminal charge is one of the necessary moves, but that isn’t enough. Look at Serbia and its society as a whole! There is international Tribunal, there’s domestic court for prosecution of war crimes perpetrators, there was totally useless, dysfunctional illusion of Kostunica’s truth commission…but can we say that that was enough for mastering the past? No! Criminal charges, trials and prosecutions of war perpetrators ARE necessary and important and we have to continue with it, but they have to be followed by the public talk/discussion. And media have very important role in the process of mastering the past on the society level. First, the media took part in the processes of (de)construction of identity during the 90’s. Second, after democratic changes the public talk about the past has to start in media! The participation in media communication, together with the educational system, represents the basis for belonging to a community. So, since media once took part in warmongering reporting and (de)construction of the identity, now they should help Serbian society to confront its past. But we can’t expect any help from them, if they aren’t willing to clean their own ranks! They are still denying their part of responsibility. In Serbia exists a group of so-called patriotic media that are strongly devoted to the “real truth about the wars” and they’re trying to spread it as much as possible. It is enough to take a look at for example dailies Kurir, Glas javnosti, Politika and particularly the web page of the academic journal Nova Spska Politička Misao (New Serbian Political Thought) and magazine Pečat to get a full impression about the conspiracies against Serbs and truth about the recent past. For example, during the public discussion about adaptation of Srebrenica Resolution, Glas javnosti published an article with the title “”Executed” in Srebrenica, vote in Europe” (“Streljani” u Srebrenici, a glasaju u Evropi). In this article the author-journalist mentions a very important and relevant book which “reveals all lies about Serbs who were continuously destroyed for 60 years and then suddenly became the aggressor and the only one to blame for all the evils that are happening in the world “. The same daily is also much known because of the special edition named “Lična karta Srebrenice” where it is possible to read “what really happened”.

The list of similar examples is long and I’ll leave it for another post. This time  I’ll finish the post with the survey results that were shortly presented by Jelena Stevančević (representative of the OSCE mission in Serbia) on the above mentioned round table. According to the survey, two-thirds of the Serbian citizens believe that public and journalistic engagement should be forbidden for the journalist who participated in the war incitement and 17% think that those journalists should be prosecuted. Survey also showed that almost two-thirds of citizens believe that journalist during the wars didn’t report objectively about the conflicts or that they reported only about the victims of Serbian nationality while 25 percent of the respondents said that they do not know how state media acted at that time.

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About Sladjana Lazic

I am a PhD student of Political Science manly focused on dealing with the past and nationalism, but with great interest in new media and changes of journalistic practices (and media) triggered with the expansion of Internet and ICTs

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