Remembering war crimes and media obligations

Serbian state TV has apologised for its role as a propagandist in the war 16 years ago.

Ratko Mladic taken into custody
Serbian state media only apologised for their role as propagandists in the days after the capture of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic [GALLO/GETTY]

In the TV business, we speak of booking a big name for a highly rated TV appearance as “a get”. It took years to “get” Osama bin Laden although, in his case, his views were not wanted; he made more news – and generated more popular satisfaction – as a target of a possibly illegal liquidation. 

He won’t be giving any more interviews, that’s for sure.

The world waited sixteen years for the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic to be taken into custody. 

It seems clear that the Serbian authorities knew where he was but didn’t want to upset the volatile and violent nationalists still in their midst who backed the wars he led. Indeed, some even excused the massacres he reportedly carried out against the country’s Muslims and all citizens who believed in multi-ethnic states.

Mladic will now face war crimes charges in The Hague.

In the week of his arrest, Serbian state television finally apologised for its role in inciting the barbaric war through misinformation, deception and propaganda thinly disguised as news.

AP reported:

Radio Television of Serbia, or RTS, said in a statement posted on its website yesterday that the station’s programme was “almost constantly and heavily abused” by Milosevic’s regime with the aim of discrediting his political and ethnic opponents and spreading official propaganda.

Liberal politician Marko Karadzic described the apology as a “positive step” but said the television’s managing board did not distance itself clearly enough from the past.

“RTS’s programme was an organised campaign of support to the policies of extinction and violence which we cannot view as insult or slander,” aid Karadzic.

It’s time for Croatian TV to make a similar statement: this statement clearly defines the often complicit relationship between war and media showing how TV networks promote wars in the guise of covering them.

Too many media organisations took their cues from state propagandists. 

Many TV news executives in the US later issued more tempered apologies for their one-sided coverage of the Iraq war.

As someone who spent years reporting on, and writing about, wars and the carnage in the Balkans, it is emotionally satisfying to see a military mobster of Mladic’s status finally in custody, even if his expected conviction will not bring back the tens of thousands hurt, maimed, or killed in the slaughters he allegedly directed.

I was honoured to be one of those thanked by people who spent years of their lives trying to arouse public opinion and government action.

I was mentioned in an email exchange that Bruce Rosen initiated which also praised journalists and activists who tried as hard as we could to publicise and condemn the crimes the world was witnessing while they were underway. 

I feel comfortable quoting from these letters because they show how many of us felt then – and now.

Stephen Walker wrote:

Thanks, Bruce – David, Roy, Danny, and many others helped shine the light on the horrors.”

For those of you who don’t see the FT, there is an interesting op-ed that reminds us of the complicity of Western governments and the UN during the genocide. I would have added to it the over three years of US complicity, which grassroots and congressional pressure, along with the collapse of the UN “safe areas” charade at Srebrenica, helped bring to an end.

He praised activists and journalists alike, writing:

We all owe a huge debt to courageous journalists, like David Rohde, who risked their lives to bring us the stories of the victims, their families, and the perpetrators of the genocide.  But one of the important stories, largely untold, of the Bosnia Genocide is the impact grassroots activists, like yourself and many of the other recipients of your email, had during and after the genocide.

“Average” Americans sacrificed their time, energy, and money to raise awareness, lobby their government, solicit and deliver humanitarian aid, counsel rape victims, and do many other things that helped stop the genocide, enable the healing, and hold people in power responsible for bringing justice to the victims and their families. You, Glenn, and your fellow citizen activists have never received the attention or thanks you deserve, but you should take great pride in what you did over the years that led to yesterday’s belated but welcome news.

There was this response from prize-winning journalist Roy Gutman, then with Newsday, now posted in Baghdad for McClatchey, who pursued the story with a rare tenacity:

As one of the journalists who worked on the story – David Rieff, John Burns, Ed Vulliamy, Christiane Amanpour, David Rohde, the late Kurt Schork Emma Dailey, Jeremy Bowen, Samantha Power, Roger Cohen, Stacy Sullivan being among the others – I’d like to say something to Steve, John and others who were at State and quit, or stayed and kept fighting, or set up NGO’s to bring this before the public and keep it there.

Yesterday was a great day for mankind, and it wouldn’t have happened without you. Your encouragement certainly helped keep us going in our profession, and I’m sure it helped create the impetus that eventually forced the administration to act.

I hope you’ll understand if I use the platform of this email exchange to draw your attention to a truly disturbing situation, this time in US-allied Bahrain. Here is a story we ran yesterday, the latest of about ten. There are echoes of BH, just not the death toll, and one echo is the complete lack of reaction in DC. It is an alarming situation, and it is deteriorating.

Salute to all, Roy Gutman, Baghdad Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers.

I wrote to Roy congratulating him for his role. He had cooperated with our company Globalvision on one of the many programs we did on the crisis.

He responded this way:

Danny, great to hear from you. Listen: Get thee to Bahrain. You’re needed there. We all are. It’s a disaster zone, desperately in need of real journalists. It was the first stop on my new assignment, covering the Mideast from a base in Baghdad. A very interesting time to be around these parts. As ever, Roy…

Eileen Weiss, adds:

I, too, was thrilled to hear the news of Mladic’s arrest. However, I am deeply sad – many of us have been working tirelessly on behalf of Darfur and others in Sudan. Despite all the initial press attention, the situation on the ground has grown worse and worse, with houses in Abyei currently burning due to the actions of ICC war criminal Al-Bashir. Many words, failed diplomacy and reluctance to act have shown me that our leaders have basically learned nothing from the Bosnian situation.

I hope it’s not another 15 years before justice is seen in Sudan.

And so, the fight against injustice globally, and for truth goes on. 

The former Bosnian Ambassador to the UN, Mo Sacirby, who was later victimised for his outspoken role, gets the last word here:

Thanks for making the point, especially regarding great contributions made by so many… It is amazing how much has been forgotten, or more accurately redesigned to fit the history written by those who were acquiescent or complicit.

It is a time for congratulation, but also opportunity to counter efforts that continue, like indefinite tides to erase the footprints of what actually happened.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits He is the author of When News Lies: Media Complicity and the Iraq War. Comments to

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.