On 11 July 1995 as the Republika Srpska army, led by General Ratko Mladic, entered the safe zone of Srebrenica, the top story in Serbia’s media was a Time magazine interview with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. “Peace in Six Months” Milosevic announced from the cover of Time, explaining that Serbia had severed its ties with the Bosnian Serb leaders and describing himself as “just an ordinary man who, by the circumstance of his position, can help by promoting the policy of peace, one that is honest and fair to all sides.”

And really, the end of the war was in sight; peace conferences were increasingly announced and media in Serbia followed the efforts of Serbian authorities to lift the UN sanctions. Reports from the battlefield were that Mladic’s army had embarked on a campaign on Srebrenica and Zepa, that a tank had been hit in NATO bombing of Serbian positions, and that Bosnian Serbs were capturing UN peacekeepers.

“There were reports on an ‘offensive of a broader scope.’ There were mentions of the ‘liberation’ of certain towns and of ‘overpowering of Muslim forces.’ There were bits of news about the ‘exodus of civilians and armed Muslims retreating in several directions over the nearby mountains,” Dusan Radulovic, then-editor at the Belgrade bureau of Radio Free Europe, said of the media reports of the time.

Through interviews with then-editors of pro-regime and independent media, we attempted to create an overall picture of the reporting of Belgrade media of the time, two decades after the events in Srebrenica. We could not reach all the editors working for the war propaganda outlets at the time, but despite their being unreachable or having disappeared from the media scene, written evidence of their work and media reporting survives.

Rade Brajovic, who was editor in chief of the Vecernje Novosti daily, told Cenzolovka that because his newspaper had the highest circulation in the territory of the former Yugoslavia – average daily sales of around 500,000 copies – “we felt obligated to be the first to report on everything that happened and to produce exclusive information.

“Two of my authors were killed in the war zones. It wasn’t easy to obtain information,” he said. “It was clear that a mass murder was committed in Srebrenica, but we paid equal attention to the crimes committed in Bratunac and in Podrinje.”

However, by merely browsing the most influential dailies and weeklies, such as Politika, Vecernje Novosti, Politika Ekspres, Nasa Borba, NIN, Vreme, Duga, and Intervju, as well as news programs (Dnevnik) produced by TV Belgrade, it becomes clear that the majority of media in Serbia did not pose any questions or investigate the events in the war regions. For them, Srebrenica was merely another episode of the war in which victims were taken for granted and were no longer counted.

NO PICTURE AND NO SOUND

Serbian public broadcaster RTS took literally what Milosevic said about being interested only in achieving a “just peace” and having nothing to do with the Serbs across the Drina River. The most popular TV show of the most powerful media house, TV Belgrade Evening News at 7:30 (Dnevnik), did not include a single video from Srebrenica or any other war zone until 30 July.

On 11 July 11, TV Belgrade commenced its news program with a report on the visit of Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic to some harvesters. It was only on the following day that TV Belgrade viewers would learn that something was going on some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Serbian border: in the 11th minute of the news they could hear Yasushi Akashi, special UN envoy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, saying the UN was not going to intervene in Srebrenica, and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali saying UN peacekeepers were not going to retreat from Bosnia.

For days, several minute-long packages were broadcast in the middle of the news, with international officials announcing various peace solutions and a conference of the major outside powers leading the negotiations, with images of EU envoy Carl Bildt, Akashi, and another UN envoy, Thorvald Stoltenberg, sharing the settee with Milosevic. There were no sound bites from any of the players, with only statements being read to viewers.

Nor was there a single statement from or footage of a Bosnian Serb official, either soldier or civilian. The only frame showing Srebrenica that was broadcast during those 20 days was a video playing in the background of a TV comment by Tatjana Lenard on 23 July that featured the landscape of the town and UN vehicles, which could have been filmed at any time.

But there were cameras in the battlefield after all. The Bosnian Serbs’ army in its offensive in Srebrenica was followed by hand-picked reporters: crews from Serbian Radio-Television from Pale, Belgrade journalist Zoran Petrovic Pirocanac, and cameramen of the Republika Srpska Army Information Service. For TV Belgrade, such footage was irrelevant, refugees were nonexistent, and the war “in which Serbia has never taken part” was to be ended through negotiations in which the key “peace factor” was Milosevic.

‘TO BRING THE MUSLIM TERRORISTS TO REASON’

The press reported from the battlefields and relayed statements by Bosnian Serb civilian and military leaders, but without much in-depth analysis of reasons and consequences of the military operations in the UN safe areas. 

Mladic’s statement that his forces aimed “to bring the Muslim terrorists to reason so that they cease their terrorist activities in the area that was relinquished to them by the good will of the Serbian people” was generally accepted as a legitimate explanation.

Most of the media in Serbia used the services of the independent Beta News Agency in addition to that of the government-owned Tanjug agency. “We didn’t have anybody out there in the field, and we reported on the events there indirectly, by relying on other sources,” Dragan Janjic, who followed the news from Bosnian battlefields as one of the Beta editors, told Cenzolovka.

“We cited international new agencies, such as the Associated Press, AFP, and Reuters, and had an exchange with the Sarajevo-based Onasa news agency, which had to go through Ljubljana, and that was why sometimes we were late to report on these events. We had our correspondents in Pale and in Banja Luka. Despite that, we lacked unbiased information on the full scope of the events there from the very beginning. International news agencies didn’t have their correspondents in the Srebrenica region either, and their information about it was circumstantial as well,” Janjic told us.

In those days. nobody could see the full scope of the crimes. “Just like the mass graves were secretly dug out and moved to other places, the potential sources of information were buried under war propaganda and misinformation of different forms,” said Dusan Velickovic, who was editor in chief of the NIN weekly.

‘A HUGE SLAUGHTERHOUSE’

Readers of the Nasa Borba daily learned as early as 12 July, from a statement by Doctors Without Borders representative Stefan Obere to Beta, that 20,000 to 30,000 people had fled from Srebrenica to the UN base in Potocari the previous day, that artillery had fired on them while they tried to escape, and that there were many people wounded there.

The daily quoted the last radio report that was broadcast immediately before the fall of Srebrenica, authored by local reporter Nino Catic for AFP:

“Everything is turning into a huge slaughterhouse. The killed and the wounded are constantly being transported to the hospital. It is impossible to describe it. Three deadly projectiles are fired on this town each second. Currently, there are 17 killed and 57 severely and lightly wounded people in the hospital. Can anybody at all in this world come to witness the tragedy that is happening to Srebrenica?” Catic was among the thousands of Bosniaks killed in only a couple of days whom nobody knew nothing about in Serbia.

Reports by pro-government media, such as the Politika daily (on 13 July), featured statements from representatives of the UN peacekeeping force in an article headlined “Peaceful in UN base in Potocari,” that said refugees offered no resistance, while the Republika Srpska army reported that their units “continued to neutralize Muslim terrorists in the Srebrenica and Potocari area,” and that a part of the shattered Muslim army continued to fight but that the “loyal population of the area showed readiness to cooperate with the RS army.”

In addition, the Republika Srpska army stated and Politika reported that eight soldiers had been killed and 18 seriously and/or lightly wounded in those operations.

‘SAFE AREA FULL OF ARMS’

At a time when the massacre of Srebrenica refugees was in full swing, Vecernje Novosti on 13 July published a statement by Mladic that the civilians were safe, and in an article titled “Safe Area Full of Arms,” the newspaper wrote that “despite the agreement to demilitarize Srebrenica, Serbian forces evicted or captured thousands of soldiers and captured four tanks, howitzers, and anti-tank systems.”

“A number of Muslim soldiers fled to the hills. Some were captured, and they are being treated in compliance with the Geneva Convention,” the newspaper reported.

Politika Ekspres published news from the battlefields in its foreign news section. On 15 July, the same paper reported that the “transfer of 30,000 Muslims to central Bosnia was concluded” and that “all the wounded persons of Muslim nationality who needed medical care were hospitalized in Bratunac, where Serbian doctors and other medical workers are doing their best to provide everybody with necessary medical care.”

On the same day Nasa Borba reported something quite different: “Bosnian Serbs hold between 700 and 3,000 men in captivity in the football stadium near Bratunac,” it said. “We have reports that some of them are very young, boys between 12 and 14,” stated Rod Redmond, a spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency.

Mirko Klarin, Nasa Borba correspondent from Brussels, reported that Christian Chartier, spokesman of the Hague tribunal for Balkans war crimes, had called it the “biggest, most brutal and barbarous act of ethnic cleansing in the history of the war in Bosnia so far, for which General Mladic is responsible.”

‘BODIES PILE UP IN SREBRENICA HORROR’

On 15 July, Studio B TV aired a piece by Zoran Petrovic Pirocanac, who filmed Mladic’s soldiers 13 and 14 July 13 in and around Srebrenica. The report included footage of corpses of some 20  men lying by the bullet-dotted wall of a village cooperative warehouse in Kravice. As unbelievable as it may seem, the footage did not get much public attention at the time, not even of the media that struggled to report objectively.

In his report titled “Painting of the Town Has Begun” published by Intervju weekly on 21 July, Pirocanac described how Mladic handed out chocolates to refugees, how tearful Serbs hugged their Bosniak neighbors and brought them bread and milk, and how “the Muslims shot each other.”

Pirocanac glorified Bosnian Serb generals Mladic and Radislav Krstic, and wrote, “The person authoring this report shall responsibly report on the number of 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers killed in the battle for town of Srebrenica and during Muslim attempts to break out of the encirclement.” There was no mention of dead bodies in the village of Kravice.

Only later, during a trial in The Hague, did the public learn that after the broadcast in which the footage showing the killed civilians had slipped through by mistake, officials of the Republika Srpska confiscated the tapes. 

“Pirocanac was not a person anyone could trust completely,” Dusan Masic, a Radio B92 journalist, said, explaining why Belgrade independent media did not report on this footage. 

Dragan Kojadinovic, then-editor in chief of Studio B, could not recall any reaction following the program, because, as he explained, “Srebrenica was merely one of the events that we reported on routinely.”

“We were a media house of the opposition. We were in a constant clash with the ruling regime, but we struggled to present everything that happened in a trustworthy manner, not thinking about any consequences at all,” Kojadinovic told Cenzolovka.

For Robert Block of The Independent and NIN writer Dragan Cicic, the piece of film aired on Studio B was the motive to try to get into Srebrenica. They were not allowed to enter the territory of the Republika Srpska at the border crossing closest to Srebrenica, but some people crossing into Serbia told them something about the events there. The article titled “Bodies Pile Up in Horror of Srebrenica,” published by The Independent on 17 July, was the first in the international press to point to a mass crime.

Cicic wrote in NIN on 21 July that the fate of the men from Srebrenica is “a complete mystery.” He cited a conversation he had with a bus driver who delivered some food to the female and child refugees in Potocari couple of days earlier. “I spent somewhat more than an hour in Potocari and I didn’t see a single man younger than 70,” the bus driver told Cicic.

Cicic also wrote that representatives of the UN’s refugees agency “in Bratunac heard shots from the direction of the stadium, but they were told that it was only the soldiers celebrating their victory.”

“Rumors about the mass executions are impossible to check, because the government in Pale has not allowed a single international organization to visit prisoners of war yet,” Cicic wrote at the time.

STARRY LIGHT OF BELGRADE

Unlike the Vreme and NIN weeklies, which followed the war operations and peace negotiations in detail, the Duga weekly celebrated its 50th anniversary without publishing a single piece of news from the war zone. Serbian First Lady Mira Markovic chose not to mention these events in her famous Diary as well. On 12 July, she watched the stars from her garden, while the massacre of civilians went on only 150 kilometers away, and wrote that “Belgrade has always been the starry light, just like the entire earth, observed from a distant corner of the universe, is only a star.”

“Keeping silent about it or minimizing it – that was the official policy. Media control was overpowering and any attempt to write anything about it roused the [pro-government] ‘journalists on watch duty’ who didn’t spare the insults,” RFE’s Radulovic told us.

“Still, the main reason it took so long for the news from Srebrenica to reach the front pages, apart from ‘patriotic’ self-censorship, was that it often resembled rumors that were impossible to verify. I personally know some serious, independent, and brave media who hesitated to publish information they got, exactly for those reasons,” NIN’s Velickovic explained to Cenzolovka.

‘EXECUTIONERS IN THEIR GENES’

Parallel with scarce but horrific information disseminated by independent media about the Srebrenica victims, pro-government media reported on crimes against Serbs.

On 17 July, Vecernje Novosti published an article headlined “One Serbian Head – 25 Kilos of Flour,” on “the torture suffered by the Serbs in Srebrenica by Alija Izetbegovic’s Army” and on how “Kemal Mehmedovic and Hajrudin Memisevic carried 12 severed Serb heads through the town, impaled on stakes,” which was allegedly witnessed by a Bosniak prisoner. Two days later Politika Ekspres started a series called “Executioners in the Genes” by Simonida Simonovic about crimes committed by Croats and Bosniaks against Serbs.

Only journalists from selected media, such as Vecernje Novosti or Politika Ekspres, were allowed to enter Srebrenica and publish their reports about the return of Serbs to their destroyed homes from 18 July on, about a church that was turned into a stable and about an old woman, a Serb, who was found slaughtered.

When asked why Vecernje Novosti reported much more about the crimes against Serbs at the time of the mass shooting of Muslim refugees, Brajovic replied:

“If you are going to weigh which stuff there is more of in the newspapers and which stuff there is less, then it is the end of journalism. It was easier to learn about crimes against Serbs, it was easier to obtain information about these events.”

In the 1990s as well, Vecernje Novosti was considered biased and war-mongering, but Brajovic could never acknowledge such criticism, either back then or now.

“If one chooses not to write about the things one sees, that is anti-journalism,” he said. “If my journalists wrote about their people in a more engaged manner, I’m proud of that. It’s a natural thing to do, to love one’s own people is absolutely natural, it is just like loving one’s own family more than others.”

The international press, however, wrote more and more about the crimes their reporters learned about from refugees arriving in Tuzla. On 22 and 23 July, Nasa Borba relayed from the foreign press the testimonies of refugees struggling to escape through the woods for days about how they were decimated during that time, and about how 1,600 people were killed in a series of ambushes in just one day.

Some claimed that Bosnian Serbs, disguised as UN peacekeepers, lured refugees out of the woods and then shot them on the spot, but the reporters distanced themselves from those claims, which lacked independent confirmation.

On 18 July Nasa Borba and Vecernje Novosti quoted Emma Bonino, European Commissioner of the European Community Humanitarian Office, who said that after the fall of Srebrenica “at least 12,000 people were gone missing without a trace,” four buses with young people and women setting out from Srebrenica were reported, but that “they never arrived to Tuzla or any other town in the territory controlled by Bosnian government.”

One could tell nothing about the fate of the “missing” Bosniaks for quite a long time. “I cannot tell whether our general public got a complete picture about that crime at the time. Probably not,” Brajovic told us. “Such stories followed later on. It was only afterward that mass killings became a known fact.”

In September 1995, B92’s Masic managed to visit a refugee camp near Tuzla. “Even then, the women there did not know what had happened to their husbands, brothers, or sons. They still hoped that they were somewhere else, alive and captured,” Masic told us.

A CRIME TOO BIG TO BELIEVE

Reporting on Srebrenica lasted for a couple of days only. This was followed by new military operations in Zepa, by the opening of new front lines, … and then by announcements of the Croatian army offensive on Krajina.

“Military operation Oluja (Storm) ‘devoured’ the events of Srebrenica,” Masic said. “Oluja took place only two weeks later and when the long lines of refugees headed to Serbia, other stories became bygone. Moreover, information received from various sources, including the satellite footage broadcast on CNN that showed the digging of mass graves, were received with reserve, simply because the scope of the crime that it depicted surpassed everything we could possibly imagine. It was so huge that it could not fit any imaginable logical framework. That was why the initial reaction was doubt,” Masic told us.

“There was no awareness of the scope of the crime,” Janjic, of the Beta agency, agreed. “We could not verify the accuracy of available information on-site, media were already exhausted from the relentless propaganda war. It was the end of the war and nobody, not even the international community, had any interest in making a big story out of it at that moment, because everyone’s focus was on the plans for peace negotiations and end of war.”

Independent media, with their editorial policies directed against the politics of Milosevic and war, showed restraint and disbelief before the scope of this crime. The pro-government ones denied the crime altogether.

Twenty years on, and the overall impression is still devastating. Despite all the insight into the enormity of this crime, disagreements on whether there was a crime of genocide in Srebrenica, on the actual number of people killed there, and on whether they were civilians or soldiers, create a sordid picture of a society incapable of facing the crime or honoring the victims. Media undoubtedly have their share of blame for this. 

This article was produced by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation for its Cenzolovka.rs website, which covers media issues in Serbia.