Coming to Terms with War Crimes: Media Bring the Hague Trials Home to the Citizens

When retired Croatian General Ante Gotovina was captured in the Canary Islands in December, it marked a significant moment in the history of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Third on the most wanted list behind only Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, Gotovina is charged with crimes relating to the death or disappearance in 1995 of hundreds of Serbs following an offensive by Croatian forces under his command. The historic moment also shows that the media must remain engaged if the citizens in the region are to hear the facts of the case – a process that is necessary for the region to come to terms with the horrific events of the 1990s.

Strong feelings still linger in the aftermath of ethnic violence that marred much of the 1990’s in the former Yugoslavia; people in the region have been transfixed by the trials of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and others indicted by the ICTY. Since the beginning of Milosevic’s trial in 2001, IREX, with the support of US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, has been working to enhance news coverage of the court proceedings by media outlets in Southeast Europe. In 2005, IREX supported eight journalists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro, in their reporting directly from the court at The Hague. Overall, they generated hundreds of articles and news packages aired on radio and television stations throughout Southeast Europe.

The journalists expressed how reporting from The Hague both improved their professional skills and better informed the citizens in their home countries. According to Paulin Pashku, a journalist for the Express newspaper in Kosovo, “Sadly, court reporting in Kosovo is unprofessional, and we can often see that journalists would announce the verdict long before the court would start the trial. This creates false public opinion, and when the court decision differs from what is expected by the public, the verdict is greeted by protests. So I can say that court reporting in Kosovo is in its pioneer stages.”

Another journalist reporting from The Hague, Sami Kastrati from the Koha Ditore newspaper in Kosovo, indicated that objective, fact-based reporting from the ICTY was a means for many disparate groups to cope with the effects of war. “Fair and unbiased reporting of the sensitive and poignant events from a high judicial institution such as the ICTY will not only be of interest to the citizens of the former Yugoslav republics in order to foster more fair opinions and judgments on the past wars, but will also help the international community because it will placate a region that was covered in blood during the Yugoslav wars and was the starting point of two World Wars.”

The IREX program will continue in 2006 as pressure mounts on the governments of Serbia and Republika Srpska to deliver Mladic and Karadzic to The Hague. As these governments are obligated to cooperate with the ICTY in order to achieve further integration into European structures, it is increasingly likely that the indictees will face their day in court.

Meanwhile, journalists supported by The Hague project will continue to refine their court reporting expertise in addition to professionally informing their audiences about the path of international justice. Equally significant is the debate created by fact-based reporting from the ICTY among people in Southeast Europe. As Mirsad Rastoder, a reporter at Radio Montenegro said, “Reporting from The Hague is not only a professional challenge. This is about awareness, facing up to the problem, and the lesson about how delusions could lead to the unprecedented crimes.”

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