Media & the Balkans

Bosnia is again in danger of conflict, and the press will play a defining role

Opinion | Bisera Bozinovska | February 2009

The question appears over and over again, while the answer is much harder to be found. What, or who was the main force in the breakup of Yugoslavia? This issue came back to life in a recent conference in Vienna: "The Resident Immigrants Who Stayed in Our Countries," which questioned media’s involvement in the tragic events in the Balkans in the 1990s. The discussion was sparked by the recent renewed hostilities in Bosnia which were correctly predicted by Richard Holbrook, the chief architect of the Dayton peace agreement. The multiethnic country, which has gone through a long war after the breakup of Yugoslavia, is once again in danger of an arising conflict. The main threat is no one else then the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, once favorite of the international community.

"It was a combination of media, politics, and individual counties," said Radomir Licina, senior editor and member of the board, DANAS, Serbia.

Diana Johnstone, formal European editor of In These Times, and press officer for the Green Party Conference in the European Parliament, at another meeting of international media in 1998, reported on the web, said that, "In the case of the Yugoslav tragedy, the irony is that ‘alternative’ or ‘left’ activist writers have frequently taken the lead in likening the Serbs, the people who most wanted to continue to live in multi-cultural Yugoslavia, to Nazi racists."

What was compelling about the discussion was not the accusations that "outsiders" alone were responsible, but rather to show the impact they had on the events at the time and what have become enduring tensions. Media’s main influence was in the spreading and emphasizing the individualistic ideas of the want-to-be leaders of the different ethnic groups, or territories. However, the local media at the time had its share of influence:

"People who watched censured news had no way of feeling the closeness (of Yugoslavia) with the other nations," said Agron Bajrami. Also the media at the time of the crises named the newly established countries the failed states – too small to matter. The media had presented the Balkans as "a place where everyone hates each other and where we (foreign powers) need to intervene."

"The journalistic and historical narratives that were imposed upon these wars have systematically distorted their nature, and were deeply prejudicial, downplaying the external factors that drove Yugoslavia’s breakup while selectively exaggerating and misrepresenting the internal factors," said Edward S. Herman, a professor emeritus of finance at University of Pennsylvania, and David Peterson, an independent journalist, in an article for The Monthly Review.

It might be too late for Yugoslavia, but it is not too late to objectify reporting, and pay more attention to reporting the truth instead of more colorful distorted version of it. The Balkan, however, can only try to be as optimistic as Dusan Galjic, who believes that "good news might also become news in the Balkans."

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    the vienna review February 2009