An interview by the Serbian daily newspaper, Politika, with Veselin Šljivančanin – a former general of the Yugoslav army, who was sentenced to ten years imprisonment by the ICTY – violated the ethical obligations that the media must observe when reporting about war crimes.
By David Abramović
In this article I will consider what ethical obligations the media have when interviewing people who have been found guilty of war crimes. This question is especially important in the countries of the former Yugoslavia where – 20 years after the beginning of the conflict and almost the same time of the work of the International Criminal Tribunal For the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – people sentenced for war crimes are already leaving prison and returning to the region. They inevitably attract media attention and many journalists are interested to hear and publish their story. I will assume that when interviewing these persons ethical obligations exist for the media in addition to their legal ones and show how, in my view, these were violated by the Serbian daily newspaper, Politika, when it published an interview with Veselin Šljivančanin, a former general of the Yugoslav army who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment by the ICTY. My assumption is that ethical obligations exist in all areas of media work, but that those are increased in situations when the media are reporting about war crimes because their work can affect the process of reconciliation.
The overarching principle of any media work is freedom of expression, which is only limited by constraints placed in the relevant laws. However, it is almost universally accepted that the media have an ethical responsibility to society because information plays an important role in the formation of citizens’ personal attitudes and the development of social and democratic life (1). Citizens have the right to be informed in a truthful and honest way, and news organisations are today increasingly perceived as special socio-economic agencies that have the obligation to provide access to this fundamental right (2). These obligations are further augmented when journalists are covering complex and sensitive legal cases, such as war crimes trials before the ICTY. This is especially true in the world where people do not have the resources and expertise to research convoluted legal decisions and therefore rely on the media to inform, summarize and explain. In Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia – where ICTY trials and judgements are more often than not used as tools in political battles rather than as an opportunity to face the past and learn lessons from the facts established in those judgements – not adhering to highest standards of truthfulness in reporting and accountability for journalists is highly perilous.
Unfortunately, none of these standards were applied by Politika, the oldest daily in Serbia and the Balkans, when it published the interview with Veselin Šljivančanin under the title, ‘Šljivančanin: I will not sue Serbia’ (3).
From this title, those who are not familiar with the name Šljivančanin could only get the impression that this is a person against whom Serbia did some injustice for which he could, or even should, sue the state – but he does not want to. From the text of the interview, the reader is lead to believe that by not litigating against Serbia, Šljivančanin is doing a favour to the country and its people as he generously declines to ask for damages he is entitled to because of the wrongdoings carried out by the state.
But what hideous wrongdoing did the state of Serbia do to him? And who is Veselin Šljivančanin?
The journalist simply describes him as a former officer of the Jugoslav Peoples’ Army who came back from the Hague a week ago. He was there indicted (not sentenced) for grave criminal acts but was released from accusations. Even though he was illegally arrested, he will not take legal action against the state that sent him to The Hague. The introduction written by the journalist and the body of the interview lead us to believe that Šljivančanin was arrested for no reason (people who in certain moments had the opportunity to decide his fate did not want to listen to what he had to say about the accusations against him). After his extradition to the ICTY and seven long years of prison, justice prevailed and he was found not guilty by the judges of the Tribunal.
What Politika omits to mention is – how did it come about that Šljivančanin spent seven years behind bars? Maybe it is more appropriate to say that Politika is intentionally misleading the public by presenting the whole case as a horrendous mistake.
It is true that the ICTY found Šljivančanin not guilty of aiding and abetting the murder of prisoners; but that does not make him a person erroneously charged with crimes who should get a compensation for the time he spent in prison. The facts that Politika did not see fit to explain are that Šljivančanin was found guilty of persecution, as a violation of the laws or customs of war, under Article 3 of the ICTY Statute, for having aided and abetted the torture of prisoners of war at the hangar at Ovčara by “ordering the selection of prisoners of war from amongst the persons taken from the hospital, ordering their transport to the barracks and then to Ovčara, transmitting the order to withdraw the military police … and failing to issue orders required to prevent the crimes” (4). For this crime, on 8 December 2010, the ICTY sentenced Šljivančanin to 10 years imprisonment.
Šljivančanin was released from prison after seven long years not because he was found innocent by the Tribunal, but because his request for early release was granted after he served two-thirds of his prison sentence for persecution. (5)
This example poses a complex question – is it ethical for the media to provide a public forum for people convicted of war crimes to tell their stories the way they wish to present them, without any interference by the editors or placing their stories in context? What role in society does the journalist perform and under which code of professional ethics is she acting if she asks questions which serve only as a link between vindicating statements instead of confronting questions that take into account that every crime also has victims? And how is a journalist respecting the interest of the public to know the truth if there is not a single sentence in the text that explains the crimes for which this person has been found guilty?
Regrettably, this can hardly be interpreted as oversights of an ill-informed journalist or innocent error. The contrast between the article and the truth is so stark that any reasonable person would be able to notice an error. The facts of this case, including judgments and other court documents are readily available for free in both Serbian and English with relatively simple internet research. Surely, one could hardly expect that the interviewed general would insist on his personal responsibility, but the fact that no other sources were cited to substantiate the claims, and no other opinions were sought to balance those of Šljivančanin, demonstrates a deliberate intention to merely allot space for his story instead of providing unbiased and accurate information. Maybe this is rather a case of solidarity with a fellow soldier who was putting into practice the nationalist propaganda that dominated the pages of Politika during the last decade of the twentieth century.
4. Mrkšić et al. Trial Judgement, para 655 (pdf), available by clicking here.
5. Decision of President on Early Release of Veselin Šljivančanin, 5 July 2011 (pdf), available by clicking here.