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Media denial of genocide

The media hysteria in Serbia after the arrest of Ratko Mladic, indicted by the Hague Tribunal, who has for a long time been a symbol of genocide and war crimes committed during the armed conflicts in the territory of former Yugoslavia (and not only because of the crimes in Srebrenica, but also due to crimes that took place in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, which is often ignored by the local public), proves that the media in Serbia have not passed through a necessary catharsis, and that they are not capable of making a critical assessment of the traumatic past – or just being professional. There are at least three causes of this hysteria, unprofessional reporting and, in some cases, a symbolically repeated killing of victims: the first cause is the fact that the media are under various forms of control by the political elite, practicing self-censorship or receiving “censorship advice”, and mostly report only the things that the so-called elite wants to tell the citizens; the second cause lies in the pervasive social contamination and domination of the nationalistic ideology that not even journalists or editors can escape from; and the third is the fact that none of the media “professionals” who acted as warmongers during the nineties has been held accountable for their crimes!

The recent appearance of Milijana Baletic on the programme of the public service broadcaster of Vojvodina, whose mere voice can upset some people or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder in others, is a symbolically horrendous act that has resulted in a massive outcry of citizens in Vojvodina. However, on the other hand, it is equally terrifying that her legacy is being continued by many other media outlets and journalists, relatively or absolutely. This has been highlighted by the case of Ratko Mladic and reporting on him and his (our) past. The attempt of the media to present Mladic as an innocent, ill and emotional old man who was “sacrificed” for the benefit of Serbia, while at the same time mentioning his crimes only in footnotes, is a logical continuation of Milijana Baletic’s reporting, adapted to the new age in which the media transform their black and white picture into gray, which is one of the phases of genocide. The fact that the social and intellectual force that caused the war during the eighties and nineties of the last century is still present today cannot serve as an excuse, because the media have the power to effect change.

German sociologist Helmut Dubiel says in his book “The Lesser Evil”: “It has become clear that many of the obviously irrational attitudes at that time – like the need of Germans to style themselves as victims, to lay the blame on Hitler as an individual, or to interpret the epoch of national-socialism as a form of a natural disaster – were aimed at maintaining the stereotypical perspective created by the totalitarian regime.” It is evident that today’s media in Serbia – and not only the media, of course – are maintaining the stereotypical image created during the nineties which is still prevailing. Mladic’s often-cited statement that “he didn’t vote for Milosevic” demonstrates the need to lay the blame for all evil on Milosevic as a part of a years-long process of media whitewashing. Self-victimization has been present in this part of the world and Balkan cultural models for centuries. There is a clear psychological process that can easily transform those who perceive themselves as victims into perpetrators under certain conditions, and this is why self-victimization constitutes such a dangerous trap. It has been internalized within the media, which means that it is implied and not questioned by any social controversy.

We cannot create a stable and prosperous society with such media in Serbia – the media that is still abusing the stereotypes created during preparations for war and avoiding social taboo issues like war crimes and genocide. Without the media that keep reexamining their role in the past, without trying to erase it, we will not be able to move forward. Without prosecuting the editors and journalists who used to incite to war and crimes, our society will be constantly taught that hatred and lies are socially acceptable.

Perhaps someone will say that this is too great of a burden for the media, but media professionals have to be aware of their immense social responsibility. After causing so much pain and suffering during the last fifteen years of the last century, the least they can do is to attempt to redeem themselves by professional reporting.

“What did you do during the nineties?” – is a crucial question for our profession. But equally important is to ask: “What are you doing today?”

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