Facing up the Truth
PEACETIME BLINDNESS FOR THE EVIL OF WAR
By Bojana Oprijan Ilic
Reports about war crime trials rarely reach the public as feeding the
facts about the developments in 1990s to the nation is not a "profitable"
business either for policymakers or the media.
Of evil grain no good seed can come, goes a saying. In the Balkans too
many fruits of evil come from evil grains. In early 1990s when these grains were sowed in
the soil fertilized with lunacy and hatred of nationalism and chauvinism, and when war
crimes "in the name of nation" were committed day in day out, everything was
reduced to a shallow belief that the end cause justifies the means.
Nowadays we no longer witness war crimes but a taciturn propaganda of
collective amnesia instead of catharsis. The media rarely broach war crimes and when they
do, they do it selectively - depending on daily politics. Actually, the media are
deliberately fed with the reports about "big caliber" war crime trials.
Systematic reporting about the trials of the accused for war crimes is non-existent in
their editorial policies. Hence, the great majority of citizens - in Serbia in particular
- are often totally in the dark when it comes to the apologies their presidents and other
heads of state are exchanging during official visits - they cannot tell why their
apologize to one another for Ovcara, Paulin Dvor, Medacki Dzep, Lovas, various
para-military troops, Berets, Scorpions, etc.
This raises a simple and logical question: Is shaping the public opinion
- especially in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina - for serious and genuine facing
the developments of 1990s wars possible and how? To what extent war crime trials and media
reports about them could contribute to this objective? In this context the campaigns and
appeals by non-governmental sector that has been warning for years that unless
responsibility is individualized we would have to wait long for the much needed catharsis,
let alone for true reconciliation, seem of no avail sometimes. And as of lately, we have
been witnessing the will for reconciliation at almost all, formal or informal, meetings of
democratically and Europe-oriented politicians.
For instance, the will and the wish of the two presidents - Ivo
Josipovic and Boris Tadic - to "open new chapters of history" in the relations
between the two countries, while promising that "no crime will remain
unpunished," are evident. And when cameras and microphones are turned off,
rapprochement remains hanging in the political air and in the media ether. At the same
time and in everyday life we are faced with the fact the great majority of citizens in
both states - and, for that matter, in the two entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina as well -
are not exactly eager to swallow their pieces of the bitter truth that some people have
committed crimes on their behalf, in the name of their nation, their religion, their
lands, their "century long homesteads"...
So it seems that the civil sector, psychologists, sociologists and
culturologists in Serbia insist in vain that war crime trials are "welcome
opportunities for throwing light" on the facts that would reveal the identities of
those who gave orders for grave crimes and those executing such crimes. Ovcara, Lovas,
Beli Manastir, Stara Gradiska, Medacki Dzep, Suva Reka, Visegrad, Tuzla, Zvornik, are only
some crime scenes with perpetrators brought before domestic or international justice, the
tribunal in The Hague. Moving accounts of the atrocities for which defendants are
indicted, directly or indirectly, have been circulating for years. At the same time, by a
random survey in the streets one would hardly find an interviewer capable of quoting at
least two trials and terrifying testimonies about war crimes he or she read about in
domestic press or learned from broadcast media.
Not long ago, at the very beginning of live broadcasts from courtrooms
in The Hague, the ratings of such programs were rather high. For some time the trials of
Slobodan Milosevic, then Vojislav Seselj or Veselin Sljivancanin have glued numbers of
viewers in Serbia to TV screens. However, as time went by people were less and less
interested in watching them, probably tired of months-long political tirades coming from
the docks and tolerated by the Trial Chamber. So it happened that testimonies of the
survived or relatives of the people killed and buried in mass graves became a side show
and/or court files only. Courtrooms were crowded, news broadcast in prime time and papers
had their front-page headlines in capital letters only when sentences were proclaimed or
some of the defendants died or killed himself in prison. Even then the background of
crimes was summarized in few sentences only.
Turning a blind eye to the truth: During the trials of the indicted of
war crimes the press center of Belgrade's Special Court (for war crimes and organized
crime) is usually empty. Only from time to time a reporter pops in to see what's
happening. And when trials for war crimes and those for organized crime are held
simultaneously the screen in the press center prioritizes local criminals, thieves and
gangsters, godfathers to godfathers' godfathers, indicted tycoons.The next day newspapers
are brimming with these stories.
True, the War Crime Prosecution Office duly informs "all means of
mass communication" about scheduled trials, stages in proceedings, defendants and
indictments against them. But domestic media either publish nothing of it or present it in
few lines only. And in the past months, perpetrators of war crimes have been named and
ghastly scenes in concentration camps and other places of slaughter in Croatia, Serbia,
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo detailed in the testimonies before the War Crime Trial
Chamber. With tears in their eyes, mothers, wives, fathers, siblings and children of
victims sit in the courtroom facing defendants behind a bulletproof partition. Reporters
present can be counted on the fingers of one hand - on monthly, rather than on daily
The fact is that journalists' assignments are decided by editors usually
having their eyes on newspaper sales or program ratings that are crucial for advertisers
on whose moneys most media houses live. Treatment of stories is dictated by their
exclusiveness and sensationalism. And yet, one cannot but wonder who has and why assessed
that the public is not interested in the trials for atrocities of war.
"Generally speaking, domestic public is not interested in facing
the past and in ongoing trials for war crimes. For, it's much easier to stick to the
stereotypes about the responsibility of the 'other party' while comfortably enjoying the
role of a victim," says journalist Tanja Tagirov, jurist with longstanding experience
in court reporting. The media follow the same track given that "war crime
headlines" hardly contribute to sales.
Tagirov also takes that not only the general public but the so-called
political elites above all are less and less interested in having the crimes of 1990s
exposed. "There is no doubt that the media are influenced by politics, the same as
everything else is in the states emerging from ex-Yugoslavia," she says.
"One can hardly expect the media to behave differently from those
'at the top.' So, they simply take few lines from new agency stories and stay convinced of
their clear conscience - no one can say they didn't publish and, yet, what they published
changed nothing. Unfortunately, courtroom editors of several Serbia dailies are mostly
indisposed to publicly explain their policies or even their own opinions about the
importance and media treatment of war crime trials," say Tagirov.
Things are quite simple - apart from several media outlets controlled by
the state and financed by it, private capital, foreign or domestic, stands behind the
great majority of the media. And capital follows strict and brutal rules all of which lead
to - profit. And now you can picture editors deciding whether to have their front-page
banners "EXCLUSIVE - Ceca Got New Implants!" or "SCANDALOUS - More Than One
Third of Ovcara Victims Butchered!" "The answer is obvious. What can be sold to
the tabloized nation that goes to be every night and gets up every morning with its eyes
glued at 'The Farm' are thousands and thousands copies of newspapers with banners about
show business scandals and hookups between criminals and politicians. What this nation
buys are speculation and allegedly exclusive news stories coined the state's various
public and secret services. In such circumstances news stories about war crime trials can
get only few lines somewhere at the bottom of a page. So written truth cannot win the
battle with piles of lies and half-truths in today's media," says an editor of a high
circulation daily insisting on anonymity.
Gordana Susa, well-known journalist and former editor of the VIN
Independent TV Production Group, says, "Every war crime trial focusing individual
responsibility is an attack at the collectivistic, 'patriotic' story about Serbs heroic
struggle in the past wars."
"How many people learned that 294 civilians, women, children and
the wounded were killed in Ovcara only when President Tadic offered his apologies? And
those who were, 12 years ago, reporting or, to put it precisely, lying about 'liberation
of Vukovar' are still hold high media and other offices. As the past was not confronted
and there was no lustration, it is only logical that such media seize every opportunity to
hush up, fabricate and relativize crimes. And they have been most successful in this
business since almost 40 percent of citizens of Serbia consider Ratko Mladic - indicted
for the crime of genocide - a hero. When such attitude is actually nourished no wonder
that the general public manifests no interest in war crime trials," says Susa.
Be it as it may, it's highly improbable that many would ever learn, let
alone endorse the truth about the war and war crimes, no matter to what nation they
belong. For, what has not been in the papers seems to have never happened.
The Hague Statistics
In ten years the ICTY Prosecution indicted 161 and then dismissed
20 indictments. In 86 cases trials of 121 indictees were finalized, acquitting 11
defendants and sentencing 61. Nineteen defendants either died or committed suicide, while
the rest were processed by domestic courts.
In November 2010 the War Crime Prosecution Office released that 51
persons had been found guilty and sentenced to total 655 years of imprisonment. Thirteen
defendants had been acquitted, 33 had been sentenced in 12 cases in which nine of them
were freed from guilt. Nine trials are in process with total 50 persons in the dock.