Watching Rights

Article excerpt

"The mass media in Serbia," according to a new report from Article 19, the London-based anticensorship organization, "were used to convince their audience that the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia were, above all, dispersed members of a Serbian |national entity.' Least of all were they Croatian or Bosnian citizens of a given national or ethnic genealogy, faith or culture. This media task was made immensely easier by the fact that Croatia's own leadership corroborated this definition of Croatian Serbs. The notion that citizenship and its rights should not be determined by national identity did exist in former Yugoslavia. The wars have almost extinguished this concept in the successor states."

Article 19's report, Forging War, written by Mark Thompson, deals with the role of the media in inciting crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia. Ordinarily the group, named for the provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees freedom of expression, devotes itself to protecting the right to publish. An example is its worldwide campaign on behalf of Salman Rushdie. Yet as this latest case illustrates, pointing out the villainy of the media may also be a useful means of promoting free expression.

Among other practices, the media in the former Yugoslavia have published bloodcurdling accounts of atrocities suffered by their ethnic kin while explaining away or covering up the abuses their own forces have inflicted on others. In the case of Serbia, whose abuses have been so widely publicized internationally that they are impossible to ignore, the official media routinely accuse the victims of perpetrating the abuses against themselves so as to elicit international sympathy. An early example was the bread-line massacre in Sarajevo on May 27, 1992.

When I first heard the claim that this crime was committed by the Bosnian military, the Serb spokesman who made the allegation on the basis of Serb press reports said the carnage was not the result of shelling but that a land mine had been detonated at the site. Although no expert on military ordnance, I was able to respond that I had visited the spot a few days earlier and had seen the flowerlike pattern on the sidewalk that one sees all over Sarajevo where mortar shells have landed; surely a land mine would leave a different impression. Over time, the Serb media had altered their story and reported that the Bosnians had shelled themselves, a claim that continues to make the rounds. Earlier this year, I heard it in Sarajevo from a newly arrived UN. official and even read it recently in Alexander Cockburn's column in the pages of this magazine. Similarly, when shells exploded in a Sarajevo cemetery in August 1992 during a funeral for two infants killed by snipers while on a bus carrying orphans out of the city, Serb television labeled this as the "tested scenario" in which Bosnian forces inflicted casualties on their own in order to blame the Serbs.

As Forging War points out, RTS (the state broadcasting system that is the main source of news in Serbia and virtually the only source outside Belgrade) "has constructed a version of reality in which Serb forces never attacked Bosnia, never slaughtered scores of thousands of its people and displaced scores of thousands more, never besieged its cities and towns, and never laid waste its villages. …