The following speech was presented at the Berkeley conference last month, entitled, "Reporting from the Killing Fields." Sponsored by Human Rights Center University of California at Berkeley.

NOTE: Audio and Video tapes of this speech and other at the Berkeley Conference are available. Contact: Human Rights Center, Berkeley, 510/642-0965 Eric_Stover@LS.Berkeley.EDU (Eric Stover)


Sonja Biserko, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, April 11, 1997

  1. To approach this topic properly we first need to remind ourselves of the role of the media and journalists in the former Yugoslavia. The media were always been the propaganda vehicle. Admittedly, over the years the former Yugoslav journalism reached high professional standards, but its primary role was, notwithstanding, to protect the system. Journalistists were considered as professionals with special social and political mission or, in other words, as social and political workers. In the past decade their role and place in the Serbian society remained unchanged except for one thing, their communist hues were replaced by the nationalistic ones.

    However, it is worth mentioning that the early 80s in the ex-Yugoslavia were a period of gradual, across-the-board journalistic liberalization. But as this caused rift and tension amid the ruling elite it was decided that only developments in other republics, and not those at home turf, could be treated liberally, that is, critically.
  2. When in late 80s and early 90s a consensus was reached in Serbia on the Serbian national question, the media role in mounting the nationalistic campaign became paramount. The significance of media in the preparations for the war lies in the way they have defined the crises and identified its aspects and main protagonists. Before and during the war the media had only one task: to justify the Serbian side in the conflict and defame the other, through comments, manipulations, misinformation. All that, in the name of higher political interests. "The hate speech" which was introduced when Milosevic took power marked the beginning of the media war in the former Yugoslavia. "The hate speech" first focused on ethnic Albanians, then on Slovenians and Croats, and finally on Muslims.
  3. Thus, the Kosovo media campaign coincided with the ascent of Milosevic and became the cornerstone of the "Serbian revolution". According to Mark Thompson's book Forging of War, "the media replaced the dying socialist terminology with the language of demagogy, neck-breaking irrationality, rhetorical questions and cries, fate and god-sent messages and roles: "heavenly people" faced with its ill- fate; excessive self-pity, terrible, unfounded and unquestioned accusations; fueling of conspiracies, paranoia and unabashed calls for aggression". There had been the war speech even before anybody concieved about the war in the former Yugoslavia.
  4. It is worth noting that the Serbian Academy made public its Memorandum in 1986. It represented a strategy for rallying all national institutions, political and intellectual elite. The premise was that "in the SFRY there existed a long-standing discriminatory policy towards Serbia", which, in turn "caused unequal position of Serbs in all other areas". Such a policy wasallegedly pursued especially by Slovenia and Croatia, which again allegedly, had established "a lasting anti-Serbian coalition". The alleged difficult position of Serbs in the SFRY was characterized as a "genocidal terror", a "neo-fascist aggression on Kosovo", "discrimination, and fine-tuned and effective assimilative policy of national inequality". The main idea behind this Academy's message was that the then Yugoslavia survived thanks to the strategy a "weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia", and that the time was ripe to undo this historic injustice.

    The Serbian Academy of Sciences activities were very much in the media limelight throughout 1989, when the Academy conviction that the crisis could only be solved through radical measures was widely promoted. The Academy helped shape the public opinion by advocating the production of political crisis, the definition of the Serbian national programme and creation of an alternative to the then Yugoslav state.

    In that process the first target was Kosovo as, allegedly, " physical, political legal, and cultural genocide against the Serbs was committed there". Calls for unification were soon followed by demands that autonomies of Kosovo and Vojvodina be abolished. Hoping that Milosevic would be appeased by the acceptance of the centralization of Serbia, other republics did not react to the process. This was basically the first infringement upon the Yugoslav constitution. But they misjudged him. The Kosovo campaign was immediately followed by the Montenegrin and Slovenian ones.

  5. The major role in the media campaign was played by the daily "Politika". One of the rubrics that had a special task was the rubric "Echoes and reactions" By introducing the "Echoes and Reactions" rubric Politika, as the most influential daily in Serbia and a veritable national institutions, spearheaded the Serbian offensive not only against the political opponents, but also against other peoples living in the former Yugoslavia. The campaign started in July 1988 and ended in March 1991. This rubric served as a lunching pad for the expression of the simplified views of the most influential representatives of the Serbian elite. They have shaped a simplified platform for resolving the fates of entire nations. It was a locus for discussing global problems and proffering the solutions, embraced as such not only by their very authors but also by the Serbian people as a whole. As Latinka Perovic argues: "This rubric is a splend illustration of the spirit of the time, in which Serbia was devoted to its self-glorification, and steeped so much in self-sufficiency that it gradually began closing onto itself and isolating itself from Europe and the rest of the world. Any dissenting opinion crumbled and disappeared under the weight of the view of the multitude." This rubric was above the law. It was turned into the bastion of the new truth, justice and progress. Indeed, merely by reading Politika one can trace the development of the Serbian national-socialism. The Politika was an institution "with a special mission, a kind of a sacred text, whose every word was to be totally trusted."
  6. Politika played a special role in the satanization of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The smear campaign began after an incident in which a young mentally deranged Albanian soldier shot four and wounded five other soldiers on 3 September 1987. (Paradoxically, only one casualty was a Serb, but it did not stop the media to deftly manipulate that fact.) The follow-ups were mass Kosovo rallies and other protests, indicating the readiness of the new Serbian leadership to make Serbia, once and for all, "strong and unified". Milosevic addressed the meeting with the following words: "Six centuries after the Kosovo battler we are facing new battles. They are not armed battles, but they might turn into them." Headlines in Politika reflected such views and shaped the conscience along this tune: "For six centuries Kosovo has been waiting for its dreams to return be able to say: Kosovo is ours and always will be ours."
  7. Electronic media took an active part in the coverage of "mass protests" in 1988. They became a vehicle for spreading militant and nationalistic messages: "We want arms", "We are all Serbs" and the like. Electronic media openly rooted for the Serbian Socialist Party and its leader, tolerated the Serbian nationalism and fanned the hatred against the Croatian people, by inventing "the Croatian threat." The much-trumpeted topic of "Serbs in jeopardy", signaled the beginning of the media war. Articles on Kosovo, the so called exploitation of Serbia by other republics, genocide of Serbs by ustashi in the Second World War, the percieved "incrimination" of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, became the dominant issues in the media. The media campaign coincided with the efforts made by the Serbian leadership to ensure constitutional changes in Serbia and itsnes status in the Yugoslav federation.

    The accelerated collapse of the Federation in 1989 and 1990 gave rise to the belief that the "threat to Serbs" could be removed- by force. Demonization of other peoples, because of alleged threat to Serbs, boosted further homogenization of Serbs and made them blind to the crimes they were to commit. It was followed by the purges in the Serbian media and other institutions responsible for homogenization of the entire nation.

    After Kosovo, especially, the media attention turned to Croatia. Stories about impossibility of cohabitation, accompanied by those on the suffering of the Serbs in the Second World War suffering, abounded: it was maintained that the situation in Croatia in 1991 was identical to the one in 1941 ( during the fascist Independent State of Croatia). When Croatian Serbs were "recruited" through awakened recollections of the Serbian suffering in the World War II (the manipulation was made easier by the fact that its was practically a taboo topic in Croatia), the stage was set for the so called "logs revolution" of the Croatian Serbs.

  8. It is important to stress that the media covered the beginning of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the same way. Consequently, new "enemies" were created, and "Muslim warriors" and "Islamic fundamentalists" became the "Bosnian ustashi".
  9. Such media preparation and manipulation of the public opinion to a large extent determined responses to ensuing crimes and wanton destruction in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Crimes were relativized, for Serbs were depicted as the victims compelled to defend themselves from "the aggressors" and "secessionist". All the atrocities committed by the Serbs were justified by the induced "highest national interest" of the Serbs to live in one country.

    Such enormous social effort managed to mobilize people around the nationalistic programme and helped them reach the national consensus. In the thus created atmosphere no one questioned the objectives nor reacted to the consequences of such programme. Only a minor number of Serbs raised their voices against the nationalistic programme, and later, against the aggresive policies of Slobodan Milocevic.

    Paradoxically enough, after the signing of the Dayton Accords an already small anti-war group was further fragmented. It became evident that its activists could not accept that the three sides were not equally responsible for the war crimes.

  10. Reports on war in Croatia, and notably in Bosnia, amply showed that the policy of equal-treatment-of-warring-sides was aimed at clouding the character and goals of the Serbian aggression. This obfuscating policy was likewise characteristic of the coverage of war developments in Bosnia. During the war even the then more liberal Borba and Vreme disguised the Serbian aggression as civil war. Moreover, the independent media who had covered more or less objectively the atrocities committed in Croatia (notably in Vukovar), resorted to absolute silence or no-coverage of massive deportations, massacres, concentration camps and rapes in Bosnia. As far as the past two years are concerned, the state-run media magnified the peace-keeping role of Slobodan Milocevic and induced the state of collective amnesia. The latter was readily accepted by all and sundry. Neither have the so called independent media objectively treated the issues of war and responsibility.
  11. The recent much-heralded liberalization of the media, as well as the foreign-funded launching of new independent ones do not imply that the issue of the war will be dealt with in the right way. On the contrary, this is unlikely to happen very soon because of the absence of the properly, truthfully and objectively will and readiness in Serbia to confront this question. Such a situation is helped by the fact that Serbia suffered no military defeat and that the very Dayton Accords allow for such an interpretation.
  12. End-war developments in and around Srebrenica offer an example of the role and behaviour of the media in the war. The atrocities committed there happened before the eyes of the world. Terrible crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs in their military campaigns against UN protected zones (safe heavens) of Srebrenica and Zepa prompted the international community to finally take firm action and initiate the NATO troops deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

    The Serbian media covered all these developments by reporting regularly on the Republika Srpska army movements, as well as on the UN and NATO activities. However, the state-run media offered the following explanation, tantamount to General Mladic's statement: "Our goal was to bring the Muslim terrorists to their make them stop their terrorist acts in the territory which had been ceded to them thanks to the good-will of the Serbian people. Muslim women and children and UNPROFOR soldiers were not our targets. We had to drive away the Muslim fundamentalists from this territory". (Vecernje Novosti, 13 July 1995).

    The news of the massacre of the Moslems in the enclave received a world- wide coverage. 15-16 July issue of Borba lets on: "Chief of Staff of the Republika Srpska Army disclosed that 'several groups of Muslim extremists declined to surrender and made a suicidal assault on the Second (Tuzla) Muslim corps. Thanks to an energetic counter-offensive of the Republika Srpska Army, a large number of them was liquidated in Konjevich polje and Kasaba, and some surrendered."

    22-23 July issue of "Naca Borba" cited a UN source: "Two days after entering Srebrenica Mladic phoned the commander of the Dutch battalion informing him of 'hundreds and hundreds of corpses' in nearby villages, run-away people killed by his troops."

    The only media controversy concerned the number of casualties. Thus, a journalist Zoran Pirochanac in an interview to "Intervju" argued: " Nobody is releasing data on Muslim fatalities in the Srebrenica operation, but I can assure you that two to three thousand soldiers were killed during the entire operation and Muslim attempts to break through." The same author pledged that that operation marked the beginning of the last series of battles. On one hand, it was the "war's watershed", and symbolized the defeat of the Muslim resistance, "an important psychological accomplishment." He went on to say that: "almost a half of the Muslim army was still wandering in the mountains"..." and posed a threat to Serbs, 'as a wounded such a disoriented and frantic state'." The author claimed that "Serbs continued terrain-cleansing" and that "the job was done well, despite the fact that the Serbian soldiers were by far outnumbered by the Muslim ones." The author could not restrain himself from making allusions about "the Muslim procreative capabilities": " I could not help but notice the multitude of children in the convoy. Demographers might make use of an interesting fact that among the refugees there were about ten thousand children. Of them, about eight thousand were 'war children', of 1-3 years of age."

    20 July issue of "Vecernje Novosti" ran a story titled "Fleur-de-Lis Assault and Lose" and Radovan Karadzich's statements: "In our self-defense we shall be forced to down the choppers protecting the Muslim army. If the so-called safe heavens had indeed been demilitarized, Serbs would have never attacked them...All those who side with Muslims by offering them military aid must be aware that they will immediately be treated as the Serbian war enemy."

  13. We cannot but conclude that the Serbs, fixed in their conviction that the world had accepted their war victories, did not expect such a tardy reversal of the approach of the international community.

    I would like to remind ourselves, at this point, that Tadeusz Mazoviecki, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the former Yugoslavia, when resigning offered the following explanation: " What we are fighting for in Bosnia is the stability of international order and civilized principles." He criticized the international community for inconsistency and lack of courage in defending human rights in Bosnia. The Serbian daily press carried the story on his resignation, but selectively highlighted only some parts of the formal letter of resignation. Tanjug, Politika and Borba insisted that the resignation was expected: "From the very outset of his mandate Mazoviecki accused almost exclusively the Serbs, overlooking the atrocities committed by the Muslim and Croatian troops.

  14. Not once Srebrenica and Zepa were treated as the top stories. At that time the pro-regime press was busily dealing with the following topics: "Causes and Manner of Fall of Western Slavonia" and scandals in the Serbian assembly. Srebrenica and Zepa were definitely placed on the back burner after the Croatian army initiated its re-conquest of the territory occupied by the Krajina Serbs. The media then re-hashed the old topic of the "Serb-victimization". The ensuing developments for the first time brought to the fore the issue of the Serbian refugees, which was thereafter exploited as a justification for all the atrocities and self-serving, alleged proof of national suffering.

    All the Serbian media hushed up subsequent statements of witnesses-refugees, notably those given in Tuzla, on atrocities committed in Srebrenica. Only the Civic Association of Serbia and Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia strongly condemned the massacres in Srebrenica and Zepa. Apart, from that the action was tacitly accepted by all the relevant factors in Serbia. Developments in Srebrenica and Zepa were even compared with the Croatian Western Slavonia action, the latter, as interpreted in Serbia, being tacitly supported by international community.

  15. We need to be aware that the Serbian nationalism has not been defeated by the signing of the Dayton Accords. To the contrary it acquired a new, more sophisticated form. It has re-composed and, as such, it carries within itself a potential for new conflicts, likely to surface in future developments in Serbia. As the regime was not militarily defeated, it is perhaps objectively even not possible for the country to confront the real issues of the war, its objectives and its consequences. The attitude towards the non-Serbs remains unchanged. The national project, with its primary message that multiethnic cohabitation is impossible, has been ingrained in people's minds. Enormous efforts should be made to start the de-nazification. Public opinion polls "Views of ethnic Serbs on the national minorities in Serbia," carried out by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia in September 1996, indicated an unlessened ethnic distance between ethnic Serbs, on one hand, and ethnic Albanians and Muslims, on the other hand. Animosity toward Croats and Romany can be assessed as of medium intensity, and the one toward Hungarians, Bulgarians and Romanians, as a low-intensity one.

    This poses the question whether independent media can exist at all in a nationally homogenized environment, like the one in Serbia. Judging by the experience of Serbia, which I have witnessed, this has proved-impossible. In this regard the media have both induced and reflected the state of mind of the Serbian society, that has so far failed to condemn the war and rebel against it. At the moment, no significant changes in the public opinion as to the nationalistic and war policies can be forseen.

Presented by Sonja Biserko
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
11000 Belgrade, Zmaj Jovina 7,
tel/fax 381 11 639 481

Sonja Biserko joined many professionals from human rights and media organization for this tremendously interesting conference. Other speakers included:

A Conference on Genocide,
Crimes against Humanity, and War

Sponsored by
Human Rights Center
University of California at Berkeley

in Collaboration with:
The Graduate School of Journalism
Insitute of International Studies
Boalt School of Law

"Public Keynote Address"
Thelton E. Henderson, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court, Northern
District of
Justice Richard Goldstone, Constitutional Court of South Africa

"Exposing Crimes Against Humanity -- The Role of the Media"
Aryeh Neier, Open Society Institute
Tina Rosenberg, New York Times
Eric Stover, Director, Human Rights Center
Orville Schell, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism

"History of Reporting on Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and War"
Thomas Laqueur (Moderator) Department of History, UC/Berkeley Naomi
Roht-Arriaza, Hastings College of the Law "Legal Definitions" Ben
Kiernan, Dept. of History, Yale University Rouben Adalian, Armenian
National Institute"Armenia" Kerwin Lee Klein, Department of History
UC/Berkeley "American West" Adam Hochschild, Writer "Congo" Lawrence
Weschler, The New Yorker

"Former Yugoslavia Panel"
David Rieff, Writer
Roy Gutman, Newsday
Tom Gjelten, National Public Radio
Sonja Biserko, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
David Gelber, Newsweek

"Rwanda Panel"
Stan Sesser, Human Rights Center
Alison Des Forges,  Human Rights Watch
Lindsey Hilsum, Channel Four News, ITN
Gilles Peress,  Magnum Photos
Jean-Marie Higiro,  Miami University
Raymond Bonner, New York Times

"Closing Remarks"             
Justice Richard Goldstone, Constitutional Court of SouthAfrica
Diane Orentlicher, American University

For information on ordering audio or video recording of this or any of
the other conference sessions, please call:

Eric Stover
Human Rights Center
University of California at Berkeley
460 Stephens Hall #2340
Berkeley, CA  94720-2340
Tel.  (510) 642-0965
Fax.  (510) 643-5284