The flawed role of the media in international justice and reconciliation in former Yugoslavia

Dejana Radisavljević is a PhD researcher on international criminal sentences, University of Sheffield School of Law; LL.M, University of Leicester School of Law; formerly Legal Assistant at The Hague and Arusha branches of the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.

 

In 1993 the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY’) was established to deal with the war crimes committed during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  In over two decades, the ICTY has convicted and sentenced 83 individuals. This is an unprecedented feat for an international court which also prides itself for having paved the way for reconciliation. Despite the positive institutional view of the tribunal’s impact in terms of promoting reconciliation, the tribunal has been beset by negative perceptions by local peoples across the States of the former Yugoslavia. Numerous factors have led to these negative perceptions, but it would be impossible to understand public perceptions of the ICTY without taking account of the role played by the media.[1]

Local people receive information about the ICTY and its work predominantly through the local media rather than from the tribunal directly – relying much more heavily on newspapers or television in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia than on the website of the ICTY for example. This means that information is received only once it has been filtered and often portrayed in a partisan light by the local media. Over the years, the local media outlets have shown inconsistent interest in the work of the ICTY, but where they do so they do it in an overwhelmingly negative light. The media across the region has accused the ICTY of any number of things, including persecuting innocent heroes, killing defenceless martyrs and being intent on humiliating the people of one or other of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. [2]

Where politicians have made such accusations the media has amplified them, ‘further cementing misperceptions of the tribunal and its work among the wider public.’[3] There is not only a tendency to focus on the health problems of those in detention in Scheveningen by their State of nationality or the severity of their sentences, but an unwillingness to report on the convictions or sentences of individuals from other ethnic groups. Thus individuals convicted by the ICTY are depicted in newspaper articles as local heroes; they are welcomed on their release; and even today they are frequently invited on television shows and introduced by their political or military rank during the war, with no mention of the nature of their convictions.

In Bosnia, in particular, the media has had a very divisive effect on the three main religious groups, where coverage on the ICTY is so different in content, emphasis and tone that it only serves to foster divisions between peoples and the work of the tribunal.[4] One example is the language used by broadcast media to report the decision at the end of the Radislav Krstic trial.[5] In Republika Srspka the news headline read ‘General Krstic received a lighter sentence today in The Hague for so-called crimes in Srebrenica,’[6] whilst in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina the radio reported the tribunal’s historic decision as evidence that  the tribunal had failed to reflect the general public demands for justice to be done. [7]

This situation is not specific to Bosnia; media coverage in Croatia and Serbia provides similarly partisan coverage of the ICTY’s work. One leading Serbian newspaper has published articles with statistics showing the total number of years that ICTY convicts have been sentenced to according to  ethnic lines, highlighting the fact that 45 Serbian convicted persons have been sentenced to 718 years in total, whilst 12 Croatian convicted persons were sentenced to a total of 167.5 years, five Muslim convicted persons received sentences amounting to 42.5 years and two Kosovo Albanian convicted persons were sentenced to a total of 19 years imprisonment.[8] What such articles fail to inform the public about is the crimes for which these individuals were convicted of or the number of victims of those crimes.[9] This kind of reporting can only serve to create further divisions and obstruct reconciliation between peoples. Other than being negative or selective in reporting on the ICTY’s work, media reports have sometimes been so sparse that even after an individual was convicted and sentenced, the local population was still unaware that the judgement had been passed. This in turn means that the population is shocked and reacts negatively to the sentence against their compatriot.[10]

In short, such reliance on the media, and the media’s failure to fulfill their responsibility to inform rather than manipulate the population, has meant that the ICTY and the sentences it pronounces cannot hope to do much towards reconciliation. Local media has tended to be consistently negative about these sentences, while local people have little time to examine the tribunal’s work themselves and rely heavily on the media for information. So instead of objective media reporting on the tribunal’s work fostering reconciliation, biased media reports have most often reinforced feelings of bias, which are a serious impediment to reconciliation efforts.

 

References

[1] Patrice McMahon and David Forsythe ‘The ICTY’s Impact on Serbia: Judicial Romanticism Meets Network Politics’ (2008) 30 HRQ 412, 423.
[2] Refik Hodzic, ‘A Long Road Yet to Reconciliation: The Impact of the ICTY on Reconciliation and Victims’ Perceptions of Criminal Justice’ in Richard Steinberg (ed), Assessing the Legacy of the ICTY (Martinus Njihoff Publishers 2011), 115.
[3] ibid.
[4] Lara J Nettlefield, Courting Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Hague Tribunal’s Impact in a Postwar State (CUP 2010), 159.
[5] ibid, 130.
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] ‘Srbima hiljadu godina za ratne zločine’ (Politika, 13 April 2008) <http://www.politika.rs/sr/clanak/39288/Srbima-hiljadu-godina-za-ratne-zlocine > accessed 25 January 2017.
[9] Klarin (n 33), 92.
[10] Frédéric Mégret, ‘The Legacy of the ICTY as Seen Through Some of its Actors and Observers’ (2011) 3 Goettingen Journal of International Law, 1011, 1038.

Featured image ©International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia