Shining a light into the dark corners
Shining a light into the dark corners
During the project, Mediacenter Sarajevo also searched more than 100,000 evidentiary materials from the database of court files of the ICTY.
The crucial question that journalists who appeared before The Hague Tribunal as witnesses were asked as part of the Journalism as the First Draft of History project was: “Why did you testify?”
The response of BBC war veteran Jeremy Bowen can be summarized as follows: “We talk a lot about being a witness to events, well, you can also be a witness in a courtroom.”
A witness in the Milošević case, Belgrade newspaper Vreme journalist Dejan Anastasijević, who sadly passed away too early, explained his appearance in the courtroom from the point of view of ethics: “It seemed to me that my refusal to appear before the court in The Hague and publicly confirm my words would be unprincipled and cowardly.”
John Sweeney demonstrated a temperament that we are not traditionally used to from the British: “Have I given evidence to The Hague? Yes. Would I do so again for a similar body? Yes. Not absolute yes in every circumstance, obviously, I’d be careful about it, there are some times you got to protect your sources, but this wasn’t that issue in The Hague. Because if you see somebody stab somebody, it doesn’t matter if you’re a reporter or a bank manager or unemployed, it doesn’t matter. It matters that you give evidence because otherwise the killing will continue.”
Veton Surroi, journalist and prominent intellectual from Kosovo, saw his testimony in The Hague as a moment of desired satisfaction because “it was a pleasure to meet Slobodan Milošević in The Hague courtroom, not in his Belgrade residence.”
“Why did I begin this long arduous cooperation with the prosecutors at the Hague?” To the question he asks himself, journalist Ed Vulliamy responds: “I was still kind of traumatized and angry and dismayed by the inefficacy of all our work from the Krajina, from the Drina, from Sarajevo, from central Bosnia…“
Florence Hartmann, war correspondent for the French Le Monde, was the only one to testify on her own initiative. At the time, she was working at the Tribunal as a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor’s Office. During the trial of JNA officer Veselin Šljivančanin, she gave evidence on his denial that he knew about the fate of the missing people from the hospital immediately after the fall of Vukovar.
Hartmann remembered her wartime journey to Vukovar as a journalist, her meeting with officer Šljivančanin and the questions she asked him at the time. When asked how it was possible that the people at the Tribunal had not known about her article published in Le Monde in November 1992, Hartmann replied: “Because they did not look at non-Anglo-Saxon sources.” Her boss, the Chief Prosecutor of The Hague Tribunal, Carla del Ponte, had been against her testimony. The reason? “I was her closest associate and she was afraid of my mixed role, as I was supposed to testify as a journalist from the 1990s.”
Ed Vulliamy, war correspondent for The Guardian, testified the most times before the court in The Hague, in as many as eight cases. In his interview for the Mediacentar Sarajevo project, he said that employees of the Tribunal told him that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had been set up partly because journalists had discovered the Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm camps.
“Journalists’ footage from the war was the reason for the establishment of The Hague Tribunal and their testimonies were crucial for shedding light on the crimes,” Senka Nožica, a lawyer from Sarajevo who defended those accused of war crimes before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague several times, said unequivocally at the Mediacentar Sarajevo conference about the Journalism as the First Draft of History project.
Sarajevo journalist and war reporter Sead Omeragić expressed his strong belief that “only foreign journalists and The Hague court were on our side.”
On the sidelines of the Verona Forum, an event dedicated to Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 1996 in Budapest, Sarajevo Faculty of Law Professor ZdravkoGrebo was asked the following question in a conversation with journalists: Will the heads of state, their ideologues, the most responsible people, actually stand before the Court in The Hague one day? The professor responded that it depended on the “international community’s assessment of how much they could still serve them in achieving their goals”. He also observed that the situation was heading in that direction, although only concentration camp guards were being tried at the time. However, he saw it as sending messages to the “leaders”.3 What made him, a lawyer, think that way? In a normal trial, the court would only establish the factual situation, said Professor Grebo, continuing: “The current practice of bringing in experts, even using the BBC series ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’ - in which, to a smart man, the criminals painted themselves as such - is just a message that one day, if needed, a trial could also happen to presidents of states.”
In 1996, one of the accused, Dr. Milan Kovačević, confessed to Ed Vulliamy the crimes committed in Prijedor, in northwestern Bosnia. His notes of his conversation with Kovačević served as important court evidence, but they were also a topic of debate among journalists. Does a journalist belong in a courtroom?
American journalists, for example, refused to appear as witnesses before The Hague court. The now retired New York Times journalist Nina Bernstein wrote with regard to Ed Vulliamy’s testimony that, as described by Vulliamy, he handed over his notebooks for culling by the defense and thus “he’s jeopardizing contacts, he’s grandstanding.” Roy Gutman (“who I have the deepest respect for,” Vulliamy emphasizes), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of reports from the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, aptly titled A Witness to Genocide, was also against it, saying that the press “are the third estate, working alongside the law, not subject to it”.
In Vulliamy’s reply to Gutman, he insists on primal humanity: “What kind of priests are we? We are citizens. If I see an old lady being mugged and stabbed on the street and her handbag taken and two people see it, and one is a plumber and one is a journalist, it doesn’t mean that the plumber has to testify and the journalist does not.”
To use modern terminology, giving testimony in court in a way goes out of one’s “comfort zone”. Regarding his many appearances before The Hague court, Ed Vulliamy says: “This was a stressful, a time consuming, at the time a potentially dangerous thing to do and it was quite the opposite of grandstanding.”
Ed Vulliamy responds to objections, even attacks, by fellow journalists that he betrayed objectivity by testifying before the court: “That is to confuse objectivity and neutrality. Objectivity is fact-specific. Neutrality is something else. Neutrality says that I see an equation of some kind between the women who had been violated every night in the camp of Omarska and the beasts who were doing it.”
For Jeremy Bowen, the professional credo of one’s newsroom is important: “Impartiality, which is a very important thing for us at the BBC and other journalists, means that you put your views in a box and you leave them on the doorstep and you try and approach everything with as much as you can a fairly open mind. And you try and realize that you have to be fair, you have to be honest, you have to try and talk to all sides, but it doesn’t mean that you say, you know, on the one hand and on the other hand and the truth is in the middle. The truth is not in the middle. So, it’s still impartial to say: ‘They say that and they say that, but actually that is what the truth is.’ And you have to show in your reporting how you’ve come to that conclusion.”
Martin Bell, who comes from the same journalism school as Bowen, talks about the dramatic change in the professional paradigm while reporting from Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina: “So, I had then a completely different way of thinking about journalism. I devised something, I thought up something which I called the ‘journalism of attachment’. You couldn’t be neutral between the aggressor and the victim, between good and evil. Although it was fair, it cared... Was I biased? Yes, I was biased on the side of the victims. It was more compassionate than anything that I’d done before.”
In his interview for the Mediacentar Sarajevo project, Bell said that he was criticized: “I think I was criticized for, you know, I was brought up in the BBC tradition of total on the one side this, on the other side that, only time will tell,” concluding: “But I think that the more influential of my colleagues [who were not neutral between the aggressor and the victim, author’s note] came around to my way of thinking or I came around to theirs.”
Belgrade TV producer Branimir Grulović, who worked for Reuters during the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and testified in The Hague in the case of Colonel Ljubiša Beara, has a different view. “During the events in Vukovar, one of my colleagues from Reuters was on the Croatian side and I was on the Serbian side. Thus, in the same locations, but from different sides. We had the idea to make a short documentary about Vukovar by combining our materials into one story. Only then would we get objectivity. That, in my opinion, would be the real truth.”
But objectivity in a war becomes very difficult to maintain when you are actually witnessing the aftermath, said Andrew Hogg, detailing his personal drama: “My ex-wife she got really agitated about what she claimed to be my loss of objectivity. I wasn’t in the end even allowed to mention Bosnia in the house.”
Let us conclude this theme with a quote by Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and prisoner of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
During the trial of Radovan Karadžić, his legal team made a motion to “exclude testimony of war correspondents.” In its decision dated 20 May 2009, the ICTY Trial Chamber threw out the request as unfounded and lacking in merit because “it seeks to exclude from giving evidence potential witnesses who are plainly competent to do so.” Remarks by Miroslav Toholj, a minister in the Bosnian Serb government, during the 50th session of the National Assembly held on 15 and 16 April 1995 in Sanski Most, explain in a certain way the fear of journalists’ testimonies. In the spring of 1995 Toholj could not understand how they missed “that famous journalist, the famous Serb hater, Van Lynden from Sky News, how did he pass through to Bihać? He was there for seven days, reporting, and I think he hurt our offensive against Bihać.”
Reading transcripts of interviews with journalists who gave testimony before the Hague Tribunal, I noticed one word that was often repeated. Notebook. Mostly for foreign journalists. Domestic journalists generally relied on memory.
Martin Bell explains that the notebooks were of utmost importance: “Like if you’re talking to a warlord or interviewing a victim, you’d need something in which to write down the name. And sometimes the people would tell yousomething quite remarkable and you write that down. When Tihomir Blaškić held his news conference after the Ahmići massacre, I noted down what he’d said in my notebook and I was able to introduce that as evidence in the International Criminal Tribunal. I’ve got a whole box of them upstairs and I sort of dig them out.”
For Andrew Hogg, it was crucial not to get it wrong and he kept making notes. “I would just keep recording what everybody said, I’d write in shorthand. I’ve got every notebook that I have ever filled up in Bosnia, two thick Filofaxes, every interview I conducted in Bosnia I’ve still got. My intention is when I die they’d be put in the coffin with me, ‘cause there are so many stories, so many horrible things that happened.”
I had to give my notes to the defense with all my shorthand, said Ed Vulliamy. “I do shorthand, it’s called Teeline, about 110 words a minute. All your shorthand is sent to experts, notes in the margin are asked questions, ‘Who is that person? Whose is that telephone number?’”
Florence Hartmann also had to hand over her notebooks from that time. Until then, she had jealously guarded them. The prosecutors told her that her notebooks were very interesting, but they no longer needed them. Hartmann quotes them: “You met at least 15 people from the potential ones we are working on. You really kept good company!”
A journalist’s work is cement and legal work is to connect every brick with that cement, Florence Hartmann said in her interview for the Mediacentar Sarajevo project, and concluded with a message to younger journalists: “Buy a notebook, write down everything you observe, practice.”
Speaking about his war experience from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ed Vulliamy is certain that the work has not ended: “It’s the Hotel California, you know, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
The example of veteran Jeremy Bowen, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article, speaks of this. In the spring of 2022, we saw him in a BBC team during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While we are still following the events there from a physical distance, I believe in what he said in his interview for our project: “It was important that someone could shine a light into the dark corners.”