Written by: Kvitka Perehinets
The media has always had significant political influence in communist societies, such as Yugoslavia, and often served ‘as a conveyor belt for the views of authority’. As long as that authority worked toward bringing Yugoslavia’s diverse society together ‘in the Titoist spirit of “brotherhood and unity”, it was not a problem. However, it soon became clear that as Yugoslavia fell apart, the media of the individual republics served not as an informational platform for its peoples, but rather as a tool for boosting support ‘for the stances taken by their leaderships’.
After establishing himself as the leader of the Communist Party in 1986 and later as the leader of Serbia in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic quickly proved to be skillful with using national media as a loudspeaker for his ideas, as he was aware of its capability of effectively penetrating and manipulating society’s mindset. When opposition groups started claiming that Radio Television Belgrade (RTB) ‘…was biased in favor of the socialists’, the Socialist Party of Serbia responded by initiating the Radio and Television Act of 1991, resulting in the dismissal of radio and television management, and the unification of media into a single body, Radio Television Serbia (RTS). The law made it easier for socialists to banish reporters who were unwilling to cooperate with the party and bolster ‘…the official message of hatred and fear towards the other Yugoslav peoples’, highlighting not only how much control the regime had over mass media, but how important it was for the party to sustain that control. Having a legislative grip on media allowed for the manipulation of reporting and the unnoticeable integration of propaganda campaigns into respected news sources. Consequently, because there were very few alternative sources of information, what an average Yugoslav believed depended on their media intake and what their media was telling them. The Milosevic regime was successful in making official state media the main outlet for information: while some independent publications and television networks remained intact, they soon lost meaning either due to limited circulation or after being nationalized by the socialists. The access to independent media outlets became even more restricted when the United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions upon Yugoslavia in 1992. As a result of sanctions, inflation rates soared, increasing production costs for independent publications and leaving ‘only 8 per cent of Serbian families [that] could afford a daily paper’ (Gagnon Jr., 2004). Consequently, it is estimated that ‘69 per cent of the population relied on state television as their primary source of information, and that over 60 per cent watched the news program of state-owned RTS (Dnevnik)’. With no other news sources available or affordable, a vast majority of Yugoslav peoples were left with no choice but to rely on state TV.
In a report issued by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) titled Milosevic’s Propaganda War, it is noted that a parallel may be drawn between Milosevic’s propaganda campaigns – broadcasted through government-funded TV networks, such as RTS, and newspapers – and techniques used by Adolf Hitler, with the exception being that Milosevic had the additional power of television. The report goes back to the idea exploited by the Nazi party of ‘myths binding the masses together tightly’ and fear of the unknown as a tool for stirring violence between groups. Professor Renaud de la Brosse of the University of Reims, commented that Serbs, similarly, used a technique of ‘drawing on the sources of Serbian mystique, that of a people who were mistreated victims and martyrs of history, and that of Greater Serbia, indissolubly linked to the Orthodox religion’. Indeed, after the death of Tito, the Serbian Orthodox Church endorsed the violent tactics of the Milosevic regime, in hopes of encouraging ‘a shift from secular to religious approaches’ in public affairs. Priests and church officials were shown blessing Serbian soldiers before they went off to war in the 1990s, and public and private radio stations were used for releasing public proclamations of support by the Church of the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. The analysis by IWPR additionally highlighted the repetitive use of derogatory descriptions by the Serbian television and radio, such as ‘Ustase hordes’, ‘Vatican fascists’, ‘fundamental warriors of Jihad’ and ‘Albanian terrorists’, which soon became part of the common vocabulary in the media. Unverified stories were presented as facts and became common knowledge, such as a segment about ‘Bosnian Muslims feeding Serb children to animals in the Sarajevo zoo’ featured by a Serbian television network RTS. Such stories turned neighbours, friends, co-workers into ‘others’, further enforcing a concept of ‘us versus them’ to dehumanize familiar faces. Similar stories came from television networks from within Bosnia – a pro-Bosnian-Serb broadcaster Pale Television had once commented on evening news: ‘NATO forces used low-intensity nuclear weapons when they conducted airstrikes on Serb positions around Sarajevo, Gorazde and Majevica’. The announcer referred to Serbian examiners, who reportedly found signs of ‘contamination by radiation’ in Serbian residents of the areas. The statement was unreliable, as it was not corroborated by any other news outlets, yet it was still impactful as it provided further reasons for mutual fear and hatred.
Another objective of the Serbian-run media was keeping the arguments for war intact. Therefore, when the story of Maja Djokic, a 17-year-old girl of Serbian descent shot dead by a Serbian sniper in 1995 emerged, it quickly became the story of a Serbian girl, who was caught, raped and then killed by Muslims ‘as she attempted to escape to the Serb part of Sarajevo’. Djokic was only one of the many ‘rearranged’ stories, created to enforce the rhetoric behind Radovan Karadzic’s argument for war: ‘life with ‘muslim enemy’ and ‘the fundamentalists’ was impossible.’ To Karadzic and his followers, the Serbs who chose to stay in Sarajevo despite the siege were even worse than Muslims as they were ‘a living rebuttal’ to their argument.
As the conflict progressed, international media responded to the atrocities in what became known as CNN effect: ‘use of shocking images of humanitarian crisis’ around the world compelling US policy makers to intervene in humanitarian situations they may not otherwise have an interest in’. Indeed, the coverage of the war by international news outlets, to a large extent, had contributed to the eventual resolution of the war by putting pressure on the international community to react. A Newsweek poll on the opinions of the American public regarding airstrikes noted a dramatic shift from 35 per cent to 53 per cent of support for intervention after images of a Serbian concentration camp were shown by British television network ITN. While relying on polls to make conclusions is inefficient due to inaccurate representation of opinion, the poll serves as proof of how impactful media can be in stirring public opinion. However, Nik Gowing, a British journalist, argues, that ‘media influence upon strategic decisions to intervene during a humanitarian crisis was comparatively rare, whilst tactical and cosmetic impact was more frequent.’ He had discovered that media reporting had the power to influence tactical decisions – like the creation of ‘safe areas’ such as Srebrenica or Goražde – or ‘limited airstrikes against Bosnian Serb nationalist artillery positions’. Gowing’s argument is more compelling, as it takes into consideration the nature of policy-making: decisions of the legislative branch are not dictated by the public opinion alone, and those decisions are not as straightforward as they may seem.
Throughout the 1992-1995 conflict between Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks, the different sides of the war employed a number of resources with the goal of stirring public opinion in their favour and exerting pressure on local and international communities. In Milosevic’s Serbia, mass media was nationalized in efforts of promoting fear and hatred towards other Yugoslav peoples, while international media used a tactic of repeatedly broadcasting violent images of the war as means of persuading the international community to work on a resolution. The media has therefore demonstrated it holds the power to equally, provoke and resolve conflict. But we have learned our lesson?
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