Before the Balkan war, my parents, my sisters and I lived in one country: They were in Montenegro, and I was in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our country’s collapse came with the assault of the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, first on Slovenia, then on Croatia and, in April 1992, on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I still live in Sarajevo, but for 11 years my parents and sisters have lived in Sweden. They had to leave their homeland because of the hurricane of nationalistic frenzy that was launched from Belgrade under the command of Slobodan Milosevic. Their “sin”—just like the sin of thousands of other people who sought refuge and salvation throughout Europe and in the United States—was being Muslims. Some of their neighbors decided, despite the murders and various forms of pressure, to remain in Montenegro. My parents and sisters were advised to leave—because of me. Why? Because Politika Ekspres, Belgrade’s daily newspaper, published on several occasions that I was in the group of famous Sarajevo artists, athletes, journalists and public figures who were (in this city that was besieged by Serb guns) “murdering and slaughtering Serbs, raping Serb women, and throwing Serb children into the lion cage in the city zoo.”
My family’s destiny is not as tragic as is that of millions of citizens who lost their beloved ones in the wars that ravaged what was once Yugoslavia during the last decade of the 20th century. However, what links these tragedies is the crucial, dirty and indecent role that has been played by the great majority of the media organizations and journalists.
The Media’s Role in Yugoslavia’s Collapse
The warlords of the former Yugoslavia, led by Milosevic, would not have succeeded in using the lethal mechanism of their army unless a nationalist euphoria had not been generated in the first place. Even the most superficial analysis of post-World War II bloody European wars leads to this conclusion. A key player—besides the nationalist elites, churches and religious communities—in the creation of an environment in which the country’s collapse occurred is the media. Simply put, every bullet and artillery shell fired, every fallen civilian, every concentration camp prisoner, and every destroyed cultural and historical monument was preceded by careful media preparation.
The recently published book, “Prime Time Crime: Balkan Media in War and Peace,” by distinguished Sarajevo journalist Kemal Kurspahic, provides excellent testimony of the devastating things that happen to journalists when they fall under the control of authoritarian leaders. And what happened was especially harmful because this was a society in which decade-long Communist rule had been replaced by the rule of ultranationalists.
Serbia foremost, but also Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose media Kurspahic analyzes in his book, became paradigmatic models of societies in which professional immorality and irresponsibility paved the road to hell for millions. As Kurspahic writes, “Once the demons of the Balkans’ myths and history had been unleashed, flooding the newspaper pages and radio and television programs with horrifying stories of once-good neighbors as dangerous enemies, the nationalistcontrolled media became instigators—not just witnesses—of terror, killings and exodus of genocidal proportions. The front pages of newspapers and evening television newscasts churned out a nightmarish years-long prime time crime.”
Kurspahic’s book is divided into seven chapters. The first, “The Yugoslav Media in Tito’s Time,” compares the development of the media during the 35-year-long rule of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito to what happened in other Communist countries of Eastern Europe. In “Manufacturing Enemies,” his next chapter, he offers a detailed analysis of the key role played by the media in Milosevic’s rise to power in the League of Communists. In his chapter “Serbo-Croatian War: Lying for the Homeland,” Kurspahic analyses the role of the media in strengthening the rule of the nationalist president of Croatia, the late Franjo Tudjman, and in their attempts to hide the crimes committed by Croatian military forces in both their defensive war for Croatia and their aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fourth chapter, “Bosnia: Ground Zero” describes the role of the media in the nationalist destruction of the multiethnic structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, alongside imported Serbians and Croatians, yet another extremism emerged—that of Bosniak, which represented the Muslims.
In “Balkan Media Post-Dayton: Missed Opportunities,” one learns about how media developed in the post-war period, from 1995 to 2000. Through positive and negative examples of international “media interventions,” the author points to weaknesses that can arise when international support for the media ignores local capacities and, by doing so, can undermine the process of building civil society. “The Year 2000: The Beginning of Change” deals with dramatic events surrounding the end of Milosevic’s era in Serbia and of Tudjman’s in Croatia and the strengthening of the antinationalist Bosniak alternative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the book’s final chapter, “Policy Recommendations,” Kurspahic helps readers understand what the international community could have done better in its efforts to help the development of the free media in the Balkans.
This book benefits by the fact that Kurspahic is one of the most prominent and highly respected journalists in the Balkans and also because of the comprehensive interviews he did with 30 journalists from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These journalists, like him, refused to betray the principles of professional ethics for the sake of serving nationalist leaders in their regions. By offering readers numerous examples of journalistic dishonesty on one hand and impressive cases of heroic servitude to truth on the other, he shows us the opposing faces of what journalism looked like in the Balkans during the last part of the 20th century.
“Prime Time Crime: Balkan Media in War and Peace” is an extraordinary and important book that should be must reading for a wide circle of readers. For both students and professors of journalism, as well as working journalists throughout the world, this book is a welcomed reminder of how journalism can be a noble calling, but also a foul profession. Also, from experts of Balkan history to those who find this region too complicated to grasp, this book helps to make clearer the picture of what has been and is now the Balkans.
I will send this book to my parents and sisters in Sweden. I am certain it will give them a much clearer understanding of why they were forced to leave our home and live thousands of miles away in the other, much happier part of Europe.
Senad Pecanin, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, is editor in chief of Dani Magazine in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kemal Kurspahic is a 1995 Nieman Fellow.