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)
REPORTING FROM THE WRITING FIELDS, OR "HOW TO PREPARE GENOCIDE IN FIVE
Sonja Biserko, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, April 11, 1997
- To approach this topic properly we first need to remind ourselves of
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
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.
- When in late 80s and early 90s a consensus was reached in Serbia on
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.
- Thus, the Kosovo media campaign coincided with the ascent of
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.
- It is worth noting that the Serbian Academy made public its
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
- The major role in the media campaign was played by the daily
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
- Politika played a special role in the satanization of ethnic
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."
- Electronic media took an active part in the coverage of "mass
in 1988. They became a vehicle for spreading militant and nationalistic
messages: "We want arms", "We are all Serbs" and the like. Electronic
openly rooted for the Serbian Socialist Party and its leader, tolerated
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
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.
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.
- It is important to stress that the media covered the beginning of
in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the same way. Consequently, new "enemies"
were created, and "Muslim warriors" and "Islamic fundamentalists" became
the "Bosnian ustashi".
- Such media preparation and manipulation of the public opinion to a
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
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.
- Reports on war in Croatia, and notably in Bosnia, amply showed that
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.
- The recent much-heralded liberalization of the media, as well as
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.
- End-war developments in and around Srebrenica offer an example of
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
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 senses...to 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
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 beast...in 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
procreative capabilities": " I could not help but notice the multitude
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."
- We cannot but conclude that the Serbs, fixed in their conviction
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
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
- Not once Srebrenica and Zepa were treated as the top stories. At
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
notably those given in Tuzla, on atrocities committed in Srebrenica.
Only the Civic Association of Serbia and Helsinki Committee for Human
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
- We need to be aware that the Serbian nationalism has not been
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
REPORTING FROM THE KILLING FIELDS
A Conference on Genocide,
Crimes against Humanity, and War
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
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
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
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:
Human Rights Center
University of California at Berkeley
460 Stephens Hall #2340
Berkeley, CA 94720-2340
Tel. (510) 642-0965
Fax. (510) 643-5284