On November 20, 1991, Serbia’s newspapers and TV stations picked up a startling report: forty-one Serbian children had been massacred in a school near the Croatian town of Vukovar.
The allegation was plausible; Croats and Serbs in that ethnically mixed community had been fighting since June, when Croatia moved to secede from Yugoslavia. It was also false: subsequent reporting showed that a Serbian photographer had fabricated the claim. But as the media spread the report, Serbian militias killed some 260 mostly Croatian civilians in Vukovar.
It’s a pattern that played out all too often during the break-up of Yugoslavia, when the region’s press outlets, affiliated with warring ethnic groups, fueled the violence rather than holding its perpetrators accountable. While Serbian forces engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, war coverage from Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo regularly dehumanized non-Serbs, whitewashed atrocities committed by Serb forces, and lied about attacks on Serbs.
Now, Serbia is the first former Yugoslav republic to probe the link between war propaganda and war crimes. In June 2008, Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor launched an investigation to determine whether any journalists should be indicted for inciting war crimes. The burden of proof is high, requiring evidence that members of the press explicitly called for the lynching of specific individuals or groups, and to date no such examples have been found on Serbian territory, where little fighting took place. But the prosecutor’s office is still poring over media reports, and in July 2009 the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) submitted its own complaint to the prosecutor, accusing unnamed individuals working for state-owned media in the 1990s of instigating war crimes.
The effort is important, proponents say, not only to hold people to account for past sins. Media thuggery remains a real threat. In February 2008, the prominent human rights activist Natasa Kandic was attacked in various newspapers and threatened with lynching after she attended a celebration of Kosovo’s independence. Later that year, the newspaper Tabloid branded another activist, Sonja Biserko, a traitor and published her home address.
The propaganda persists because very few Serbian journalists who engaged in warmongering have been removed from their positions, said Jelka Jovanovc, the vice president of IJAS. “Even if no indictments are made, this investigation is an opportunity to cleanse the profession and establish minimal professional standards for journalists,” she says.
The effort to affix blame has its critics, though. Ljiljana Smajlovic, president of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (JAS), agreed that the wartime reporting was atrocious. “But it is not the government’s place to sort good journalists from bad ones,” she says. She believes journalists have been made scapegoats while politicians have been let off the hook, and the investigation—coming on the heels of new laws that make it easier for the government to shut down media outlets—is an effort to intimidate the press.
It’s not yet clear what, if anything, will come of the investigation. But when it’s complete, the prosecutor’s office will release its findings and conclusions to the public, says Jasna Sarcevic-Jankovic, a spokeswoman for the office. “If we accomplish nothing else, we will remind the public who said what, who acted in what way, and who in the media was responsible.”