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INFO   :::  Projects > Archives > The Helsinki Charter: Promoting Serbia's Europeanization > HC No. 145-146 > Text



Facing up the Truth


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 basis.

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.



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