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Journalists Discuss Role of the Media in Wartime


Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic now faces trial before the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. He is scheduled to appear before Scottish judge Iain Bonomy on August 29, when he will be required to enter pleas to 11 charges.

During the three-and-a-half-year war in Bosnia (1992-95) journalists in the region and in the United States played a crucial role not only in shaping public opinion about the nature of the ethnic conflict there but also in gradually changing how the U.S. government perceived the conflict.

Bosnian journalist

Throughout the war, the courage and ingenuity of the news staff of Sarajevo’s daily newspaper, Oslobodjenje [“Liberation”], symbolized the spirit of the Bosnian people. Kemal Kurspahic, the first editor-in-chief to be elected by its professional staff, served in that role from 1988 to 1994. Kurspahic has received numerous awards for his contributions to press freedom and human rights. He is the author of four books, most recently Prime Time Crime: Balkan Media in War and Peace.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Nows’ International Press Club and with VOA’s Ivica Puljic, who during the war was a popular TV anchor and editor of Radio Television Sarajevo, Kemal Kurspahic says the news staff of Oslobodjenje, who worked throughout the siege of Sarajevo, continued to produce a daily newspaper. He stresses that during the conflict, which separated people into different warring ethnicities – Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim], Bosnian Serb [Orthodox Christian], and Bosnian Croat [Roman Catholic], the journalists managed to preserve a spirit of tolerance and understanding.

On the night of June 20-21, 1992, the original 10-storey building in which the newspaper had its office was reduced to rubble. The building was just 200 meters from Serb sniper, machine gun, and artillery positions, Kurspahic says, and it was set afire and burned all night. While fighting the fire, some members of the news staff withdrew to an underground atomic bomb shelter to prepare the next day’s paper, and just five minutes after the fire was stopped, Kurspahic recounts, the “presses started to role and we had a paper on the street.” He says people felt that “everything was possible and hope was possible,” forging a bond between the citizens and their newspaper.

American journalist

Roy Gutman, an award-winning American journalist who has reported on international affairs for more than three decade, also covered the war in Bosnia for Newsday, and his book Witness to Genocide chronicles the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1992, he was the first Western reporter on the scene in Banja Luka, capital of the Serb-controlled area of Bosnia, when he obtained confirmation of deportation in boxcars of civilians, which provided tips leading to two other major stories – the mass murder of Muslim and Croat civilians in Serb-run concentration camps and systematic rape. Gutman says his news stories were based on the testimony of victims and refugees, and amazingly the “authorities,” who had been responsible, “often confirmed the stories.” But for a long time, he remembers being disappointed that there was “so little reaction” in the West. Nonetheless, VOA Croatian Service TV anchor Ivica Puljic who was then reporting from Sarajevo during the 3-1/2 year siege says Roy Gutman’s stories “provided proof” of these concentration camps not only for people trapped in Sarajevo but also throughout Bosnia.

Comparison with Conflict in Georgia

Kemal Kurspahic notes that in Georgia today – as in Bosnia 15 years ago – it is often difficult for journalists to determine just what is going on because of the “conflicting claims” of officials from both sides, which include charges of “ethnic cleansing by the other side.” It is helpful, Kurspahic suggests, that in the case of Georgia there are global TV reports “practically in real time.” Roy Gutman notes a similarity with the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990’s – that is, the Russians “certainly prepared themselves completely for this intervention,” and they gave strategic warning – as did former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic – months ago that they were planning “something that would affect Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Furthermore, Gutman notes, the Russians have had “quite a propaganda apparatus at work.” He says the job of the news media in times of conflict is to check out the claims and counter-claims and to “determine what the truth really is.” Furthermore, Gutman says, Western governments “knew what to expect” in Georgia – as in Bosnia – and he is skeptical of their official pronouncements.

Media Objectivity

Kemal Kurspahic says that in Bosnia under the conditions of the siege it was “very difficult to get all the facts” because one could not cross the front lines and go to “enemy territory” to view the story from the “other angle.” Furthermore, in Bosnia there was “unseen censorship” for those journalists who dared to criticize the authorities. They risked being “taken away.” In addition, Kemal Kurspahic says he draws a distinction between “objectivity” and “neutrality” in the face of “mass terror.” He stresses, however, that “keeping [their] professional credibility” enabled the news staff of Oslobodjenje to have real impact on their countrymen.

Regarding objectivity, Roy Gutman says the stories have to “speak for themselves,” and they have to be constructed in a way that sources are named or can be traced. In fact, he notes that quite a few of the people he wrote about during the war in Bosnia ultimately “wound up before The Hague tribunal,” and quite a few of them have been convicted. Gutman says that, after he wrote about the Omarska concentration camp where thousands were held and the “journalistic spotlight came on,” the Bosnian Serbs closed down the camp. And thereby, Kemal Kurspahic says, Gutman made a “life-saving contribution” to the Bosnian people. If a story is credible and well sourced, Kurspahic suggests, it can prompt the government and/or the non-governmental sector to protect lives.

To listen to the full program click here

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