When Humane Concerns Outweigh Journalistic Codes PRESS ETHICS IN BOSNIA

By Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1996 | Go to article overview
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When Humane Concerns Outweigh Journalistic Codes PRESS ETHICS IN BOSNIA


Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On a cold January day, four reporters found a field with great bald patches of earth among the wild grasses and shrubbery on a hillside outside of Srebrenica in Bosnia. They hid their jeep, walked down, and immediately found the crown of a human skull. Yards away, part of a jawbone poked out of the earth.

They believed they had found one of the mass graves identified by intelligence sources. The field, near the town of Glogova, was just 100 yards from a main road filled with Bosnian Serb military and police. Up the hill, the reporters could hear people cutting wood in the forest.

Fearing they might be arrested at any moment, the four quickly scoured the area for more evidence. Then, after all agreed, one picked up the partial skull and the jawbone, put them in a burlap sack, and stashed it in the jeep. "I was concerned there had already been tampering at the site," says Jonathan Landay of The Christian Science Monitor. "But it was only on the way back, once the adrenaline had drained away, that the ethical issues began to crystallize, and I wondered, 'Did we do the right thing?' " Many reporters face similar quandaries: Does taking bones from such suspected mass-grave sites amount to tampering, or is it protecting evidence of what may be the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust? The story also illustrates the complexity of the ethical issues faced by reporters in a war zone, where traditional rules are suspended and moral imperatives are sometimes negotiated in a split second of danger. It is an environment that challenges the core of the individual, often pitting one's professional training against one's basic humanity. "I've seen some journalists who've become stellar human beings," says Tom Squitieri, who has covered Bosnia for USA Today since 1992, "and others who've become the most loathsome creatures, taking advantage of people to cut corners to get their stories." Mr. Squitieri says moral challenges of differing magnitudes crop up daily. Do you deliver messages for refugees who want to let a relative know that they're alive? Do you give in to a grandmother's pleading and smuggle out her granddaughter, knowing that if you don't, she may die? Do you intervene when a Bosnian Serb officer, standing just 10 feet away, beats a Muslim man with a beer bottle, then jabs the muzzle of his AK-47 into the man's chest and threatens to shoot? 'It was self-preservation' "All the rules that you learn in journalism school are challenged and come under a lot of stress," says The Washington Post's Peter Maass, who chose not to intervene with the Serb officer and was thankful when the Muslim man's wife appeared and threw herself between her husband and the Serb. "I can't fool myself into believing it had anything to do with the rules {of journalistic objectivity}," he adds. "It just had to do with self-preservation." Mr. Maass, who reported from Bosnia in 1992 and '93, says it was difficult for him to maintain the traditional journalistic distance and impossible to present the transgressions on each side in a manner that appeared to put them on equal footing. "Any attempt to say, 'Yes, the Serbs are committing atrocities, but so are the Bosnians,' that kind of 'objectivity,' " Maass says, "misrepresented the situation quite horribly and played right into the hands of the Serbs and governments like ours that did not want to get involved." He does not mind when his recent book, "Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War" (Alfred A. Knopf), is called "pro-Bosnian": "I assume that no journalist from the Second World War would be dishonored by being called 'pro-Jewish.' " Last January, Sheila MacVicar of ABC News investigated one of the dozens of smaller mass graves believed to be a product of the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnian Muslims that began in 1992. Twenty-three people had allegedly been gunned down in a desolate gully near the town of Ljolici when the Bosnian Serb Army overran it.

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