Humanitarian Law Centre, Serbia
Monitoring period: June, 2001
THE MEDIA ON MASS GRAVES IN SERBIA
In June, both the print and electronic media reported the discovery of mass
graves and related developments in Serbia. All the main media carried official
reports on the locations of graves, exhumations and estimates of the number of
bodies contained within, plus statements from government officials and judicial
experts. But on issues such as responsibility for the killings, the victims, and
the impact of the discovery on society, there were major differences within the
media. Very few media seriously considered the questions of collective
responsibility and the accountability of society as a whole. This was
particularly true of the electronic media, including RTS and BK Telecom, the
most influential television stations, which covered the discoveries briefly and
without any attempt at independent investigation.
Although the victims were correctly identified as being from Kosovo, the
media show no compassion for their suffering and fate. The media accepted the
existence of the mass graves and - indirectly - responsibility for the crimes,
but did not take the opportunity to deal seriously with the issues of crime and
accountability in general.
Reports on mass graves appeared almost every day in the Danas, Glas Javnosti
and Politika dailies, apart from June 11, when they did not carry a single item
on the topic. Mass graves were the lead reports and cover stories in two issues
of Vreme and one issue of the NIN news magazine. Since Serbian Radio-Television
(RTS) and BK Telecom reported only the discovery of new mass graves and
accompanying government news conferences, several days then passed before they
mentioned the topic. Thus RTS had no coverage on mass graves between 24 and 27th
The dailies printed 97 items on mass graves in June: Glas Javnosti 38, Danas
31, and Politika 23. In the first half of the month, the reports were front page
items which carried over to the inside pages. In the latter half, items on the
topic appeared on the inside pages with the exception of reports on the
discovery of new grave sites or the controversy between the police and the
military as to which of those two forces was in charge in Kosovo when the
RTS's prime time news program - Dnevnik 2 - totalled 16.52 hours in the
period monitored, of which 20 minutes, or 2% of total time, was given up to the
mass graves and related topics. BK Telecom's Telefakt 4 amounted to 4.30 hours,
in which the topic took up five minutes (or 2%) of total time.
All the media reported the discovery of new graves sites, their location,
details relating to exhumations, and carried official releases and statements on
the subject. The approaches adopted by the dailies, however, were substantially
different. Thus Glas Javnosti mainly carried press releases issued by the law
enforcement agencies and statements by politicians with no other comment, while
Danas also featured analytical and critical reports: "The Serbian public
may therefore expect to be confronted more and more frequently with instances of
monstrous crimes committed in an era which is still fresh in its memory. This,
unfortunately, is the tragically cruel reality, one that can no longer be
concealed or, still less, justified" (Danas, 2 June).
Politika's attitude was this: "It is not easy to descend from heaven to
earth. But this nation is much underestimated ... when it is imputed that it
believes itself to be the chosen people. It is time to give this nation proof
that it was right. The people of this country do not deserve to literally to
walk unaware over bodies that have been loaded, reloaded, dumped out and then
buried" (Politika, 10 June).
NIN and Vreme magazines ran investigative reports and interviews with senior
law enforcement officials in which their reporters posed very direct questions.
The articles were critical of the police: "The fact that the grave is
located in the police's own yard casts doubt on the inability of the 'new
Serbian police force's' investigative bodies to disclose who carried out the
final stage of the attempt to cover up the traces of the crime. The number of
eyewitnesses of the sinking, floating up and pulling out [from the Danube River]
of the refrigerated truck, the discovery of its horrendous freight and its
reloading, the destruction of the truck, the 'handing over' of the new truck and
the 'burial' of the victims must run into hundreds, and the number of officers
involved in Operation Depth 2 into at least dozens" (Vreme, 7 June).
RTS and BK Telecom reported new details of the investigation by carrying
official statements and showing footage of the location at which the remains
were exhumed, but without any comment, interviews or investigative reports of
Danas published the findings of the Humanitarian Law Centre's investigations
into the killings of ethnic Albanian civilians in the Suva Reka, Glogovac and
Djakovica areas in Kosovo, which included information on the identity of victims
based on witness accounts. The paper announced the publication of the first part
of the HLC report on the front page with a headline, but placed it
inconspicuously at the bottom of the page. None of the other monitored media
carried the HLC report or commented on it.
RTS broadcast a statement by Public Prosecutor Miroslav Srzentic that the
bodies in the refrigerated truck pulled out of the Danube were of Kosovar
Albanians (RTS, 16 June). In its own reports on the exhumations, RTS used the
terms "bodies brought from Kosovo" (19 June), and "victims whose
identity will be established by the investigators" (23 June). BK Telecom
described the victims as "bodies which have not been identified thus far
" (15 June) and "bodies originating from Kosovo" (18 June).
Glas Javnosti cast doubt on this when reported a statement by an unidentified
person who took part in the exhumations at the Batajnica location, without
quoting directly. The unidentified source allegedly "throws into question
claims that all the victims are from Kosovo, since there are indications that
the remains are more than two years old and might be from Bosnia..." (Glas
Javnosti, 16 June).
The paper also quoted journalists and politicians as saying the victims were
from Kosovo: "The bodies were taken from mass graves, of which there were
several in Kosovo territory. One of the biggest was in the Djakovica cemetery.
According to Vitomirovic, the editor of Timocka Krimi Revija, the magazine that
first disclosed the existence of the refrigerated truck full of bodies, the
former chief of the Serbian Public Security Department Vlastimir Djordjevic and
a certain 'Beli' of the State Security Department were in charge of the
operation of transporting the bodies" (Glas Javnosti, 20 June).
Toward the end of the month, a semi-official report on the origin of the
bodies was publicised: "The available data indicates that they were
Albanians from Kosovo and Metohija, people from Suva Reka. There were leaks from
several sources that personal documents belonging to people from that town were
recovered from the Batajnica grave. The Humanitarian Law Centre had earlier
published information indicating that the refrigerated truck contained the
bodies of Albanians killed on 26 March 1999" (Politika, 29 June). Danas
also carried this semi-official report while Glas Javnosti carried nothing on
the subject that day.
Following the discovery of the first mass grave and the start of the
exhumations, a recriminatory exchange began between the military and the police
over the responsibility for the crimes. The media covered their respective news
conference but also aired their own views about the relationship between the
Yugoslav Army and police, and their involvement in the crimes and the
destruction of evidence: "However unreal it may seem, the conflict did not
break out over sharing responsibility or the doubtful technicality of who was in
command and who was subordinate in Kosovo. Invoking the traditional naive
warrior's excuse 'I was only carrying out orders' is therefore no defence"
(Politika, 15 June).
In its own investigative reporting on the chain of command in Kosovo, Danas
published confidential military documents: "According to a photocopy of an
order marked 'Strictly confidential,' Chief of General Staff Nebojsa Pavkovic
ordered the engagement of Ministry of Internal Affairs units, i.e. police,
during the NATO intervention against FR Yugoslavia. The document Danas obtained
from a reliable source shows that on 8th May 1999 Pavkovic issued an order
titled 'Engagement of Yugoslav Army and Ministry of Internal Affairs forces on
combat control of territory'" (Danas, 14 June).
RTS and BK Telecom covered the military and police news conferences without
comment or any inquiries of their own.
In an interview with Serbia's Minister of Internal Affairs Dusan Mihajlovic,
NIN posed very direct questions and criticized the Ministry's silence on the
removal of evidence: "Why did you wait so long to give the public details
on the removal of traces of crimes in Kosovo and why did you let the facts be
covered up until somebody else disclosed them?" (NIN, 7 June). The weekly
expressed doubt that the whole truth about the crimes committed would ever come
out: "The public was first shocked by the disclosure of many details of the
operation codenamed 'Depth 2.' Then questions and dilemmas arose - will the new
government and the new police authorities be able to win the battle (ie with the
criminals and those in whose interest it is to cover up the crimes...) on which
they have embarked?" (NIN, 7 June).
Politika published an interview with General Lazarevic, one of the top
Yugoslav Army commanders in Kosovo during the NATO campaign, who said the
removal of bodies from Kosovo was a subterfuge: "Asked about the 'mystery'
surrounding the order to sanitise the ground in Kosmet after combat actions, of
which there has been much talk these days, he just said a 'subterfuge and big
issues, which have a backdrop, were involved'" (Politika, 15 June).
In the opinion of Vreme, both the Army and police bear responsibility: "Why
were Official Secret acts signed where these bodies are concerned? Why is
everyone so scared when these bodies are mentioned? The Army and the police are
now busily passing the buck, shifting the command responsibility in Kosovo onto
each other" (Vreme, 21 June). In another investigative report on the mass
graves, the weekly noted: "You don't have to be very smart to conclude that
Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, Chief of Public Security Sreten Lukic, and Captain
Dragan Karleusa, a senior official of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs,
are working with information received from participants in covering up the
evidence of the crimes. Dusan Mihajlovic shielded the latter from the curiosity
of reporters by saying the public had no need to know who was informing the
police 'as many unwilling participants in these events, who were on the payroll,
are now the chief sources of information.' The public should instead focus on
the issue of who ordered, organised and declared the cover-up a state secret.
Captain Karleusa, however, answered this question back on 25 May this year when
he said the operation was ordered by Slobodan Milosevic in March 1999" (Vreme,
The media monitored reacted differently to the issue of collective
responsibility. Glas Javnosti did not analyse or deal directly with the subject,
while Politika and Danas treated it in signed articles but from a different
Politika considers the responsibility of individuals who represent the system
to be greater than any collective responsibility: "What we are dealing with
is much more important than a general national catharsis and the realisation
that such a crime is possible: namely, how and on what bases did a system that
covered up such crimes function? Before that, of course, the same apparatus
committed the crimes or it would have had no reason to invest so much effort and
dilettantish callousness in desecrating the bodies and endlessly prolonging the
horror" (Politika, 15 June).
Danas focused on the reaction of society as a whole: "Bodies are
surfacing all over the place. First hundreds, then thousands are mentioned. They
are coming up out of the water, the soil. Like the Last Judgment. Instead of
exchanging greetings, neighbours ask each other, 'Do you believe there really
was a refrigerated truck loaded with bodies?' Ordinary people are confused. For
ten years and more - much more - they have been fed lies about the immaculate
conception of the Serb being and its heavenly essence. And now such an obscenity,
dark and terrible. To a nation which closed its eyes to the truth for a long
time, the truth is appearing as a nightmare which does not end when they wake
up. The crime is real and so are its consequences" (Danas, 22 June).
Vreme interviewed one of the drivers of the truck in which the bodies were
transported from Kosovo to Serbia, endeavouring to gauge his feelings and sense
of responsibility: "His story is simple and terse. He sticks to what he
himself heard and saw at first hand. He realises that one brief, decisive moment
changed the rest of his life. There are things with which a man cannot
live" (Vreme, 21 June).
In their news programs, RTS and BK Telecom did not delve deeper into the
issue, restricting themselves to covering the exhumations and carrying
statements made by politicians and officials in charge of the investigation.
P.O. Box, CH-8031