Role of the media in the Yugoslav Wars

During the Yugoslav Wars, propaganda was widely used in the media of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and, to a lesser extent, Croatia.

Bosnian Media

In "Intelligence and the war in Bosnia, 1992-1995", Cees Wiebes writes that US intelligence had "exposed many media reports from Sarajevo as little more than Bosnian propaganda."[1]

In his 1995 book "Selling the Bosnian Myth to America: Buyer Beware", John E. Sray claimed that the media played up the "Good Guy, Bad Guy" dichotomy between the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, and ignored or played-down massacres committed by Muslims against Serbs: "Much of the media has become so engrossed in platitudes and their own self-fulfilling prophecies that Bosnian propaganda is now widely accepted as an article of faith, and journalists have abrogated their responsibility to verify their information."[2]

Serbian media

In the ICTY, one of the indictments against late Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, was his use of the Serbian state-run mass-media to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred among Yugoslavia's Orthodox Serbs by spreading "exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks by Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats against the Serb people..."

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A falsified image (left) with a caption stating a "Serbian boy whose whole family was killed by Bosnian Muslims", published by Večernje novosti during the Bosnian War. The image was originally a painting (right) created 100 years prior to the Bosnian War by Serbian artist Uroš Predić.[3]

Milošević's reign and control of media in Serbia

Slobodan Milošević began his efforts to gain control over the media in 1986-87,[4] a process which was complete by the summer of 1991. In 1992 Radio Television Belgrade, together with Radio Television Novi Sad (RTNS) and Radio Television Pristina (RTP) became a part of Radio Television of Serbia, a centralized and closely governed network intended to be a loudspeaker for Miloševic's policies. During the 1990s, Dnevnik (Daily news) was used to glorify the "wise politics of Slobodan Milošević" and to attack "the servants of Western powers and the forces of chaos and despair", i.e., the Serbian opposition.[5]

According to Professor Renaud De la Brosse, Senior Lecturer at the University of Reims, a witness called by the ICTY's Office of the Prosecutor, Serbian authorities used media as a weapon in their military campaign. "In Serbia specifically, the use of media for nationalist ends and objectives formed part of a well thought through plan - itself part of a strategy of conquest and affirmation of identity."[6] According to de la Bosse, nationalist ideology defined the Serbs partly according to a historical myth, based on the defeat of Serbia by the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and partly on the genocide committed against Serbs during the Second World War at the hands of the Croatian extremists that were governing the Independent State of Croatia. The Croatian will for independence fed the flames of fear, especially in Serb majority regions of Croatia. According to de la Bosse, the new Serbian identity became one in opposition to the "others" - Croats (collapsed into Ustashe) and Muslims (collapsed into Turks).[6] Even Croatian democracy was dismissed since ‘Hitler came to power in Germany within the framework of a multi-party mechanism but subsequently became a great dictator, aggressor and criminal’[7][8]

While Milošević, until the run up to the Kosovo War, allowed independent print media to publish, their distribution was limited. His methods of controlling the media included creating shortages of paper, interfering with or stopping supplies and equipment, confiscating newspapers for being printed without proper licenses, etc. For publicly owned media, he could dismiss, promote, demote or have journalists publicly condemned. In 1998, he adopted a media law which created a special misdemeanor court to try violations. It had the ability to impose heavy fines and to confiscate property if they were not immediately paid.[6] According to the report by de la Brosse, the Milošević-controlled media reached more than 3.5 million people every day. Given that and the lack of access to alternative news, de la Brosse states that it is surprising how great the resistance to Milošević's propaganda was among Serbs - evidenced not only in massive demonstrations in Serbia in 1991 and 1996-97 both of which almost toppled the regime, but also widespread draft resistance and desertion from the military.[6]

De la Brosse describes how RTS (Radio Television of Serbia) portrayed events in Dubrovnik and Sarajevo: "The images shown of Dubrovnik came with a commentary accusing those from the West who had taken the film of manipulation and of having had a tire burnt in front of their cameras to make it seem that the city was on fire. As for the shells fired at Sarajevo and the damage caused, for several months it was simply as if it had never happened in the eyes of Serbian television viewers because Belgrade television would show pictures of the city taken months and even years beforehand to deny that it had ever occurred." The Serbian public was fed similar disinformation about Vukovar, according to former Reuters correspondent Daniel Deluce, "Serbian Radio Television created a strange universe in which Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, had never been besieged and in which the devastated Croatian town of Vukovar had been 'liberated'."[6]

ICTY sentencing judgement for Milan Babić which has been first president of Republic of Serbian Krajina, a self-proclaimed Serbian dominated entity within Croatia will declare:

Babić made ethnically based inflammatory speeches during public events and in the media that added to the atmosphere of fear and hatred amongst Serbs living in Croatia and convinced them that they could only be safe in a state of their own. Babic stated that during the events, and in particular at the beginning of his political career, he was strongly influenced and misled by Serbian propaganda, which repeatedly referred to an imminent threat of genocide by the Croatian regime against the Serbs in Croatia, thus creating an atmosphere of hatred and fear of the Croats. Ultimately this kind of propaganda led to the unleashing of violence against the Croat population and other non-Serbs.

— The ICTY in its judgement against Milan Babić[9]

Željko Kopanja, the editor of the independent newspaper Nezavisne Novine, was seriously hurt by a car bomb after publishing stories detailing atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosniaks during the Bosnian War. He believed that the bomb was planted by Serbia's security services to stop him from publishing further stories. An FBI investigation supported his suspicions.[10]

Serbian propaganda cases

"Pakrac massacre" case

Main article: Pakrac clash

During the Pakrac clash, Serbian newspaper "Večernje Novosti" reported that about 40 Serb civilians were killed in Pakrac on 2 March 1991 by the Croatian forces. The story was widely accepted by the public and some ministers in the Serbian government (e.g. Dragutin Zelenović). Attempts to confirm the report in other media from all 7 municipalities with the name Pakrac throughout the former Yugoslavia failed.[11]

"Vukovar baby massacre" case

A day before the execution of 264 Croatian prisoners of war and civilians in the Ovčara massacre, Serbian media reported that 40 Serb babies had been killed in Vukovar. Dr. Vesna Bosanac, the head of Vukovar hospital from which the Croatian POW's and civilians were taken, said she believed the story of slaughtered babies was released intentionally to incite Serb nationalists to execute Croats.[12]

"Dubrovnik 30,000 Ustaše" case

Main articles: Siege of Dubrovnik and Ustasha

Before the Siege of Dubrovnik, JNA officers (namely Pavle Strugar[13]) made a concerted effort at misrepresenting the military situation on the ground and exaggerated the "threat" of a Croatian attack on Montenegro by "30,000 armed Ustaše and 7000 terrorists, including Kurdish mercenaries".[14] This propaganda was widely spread by the state-controlled media of Serbia and Montenegro.[15]

In reality, Croatian military forces in the area at September were virtually non-existent.[16] The Croat forces consisted of just one locally conscripted unit, which numbered less than 1,500 men and had no tanks or heavy guns. Also, there were no mercenaries on the Croat side.[14]

"Dubrovnik burning tires" case

Main article: Siege of Dubrovnik

During the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991, while the Yugoslav Army shelled the Croatian port town, Radio Television of Serbia showed Dubrovnik with columns of smoke explaining that the local people burning automobile tires to simulate the destruction of the city.[17]

"Fourth Reich" and the "Vatican conspiracy"

The Belgrade based media sometimes reported about the alleged conspiracy of ‘foreign forces’ to destroy Yugoslavia. In one instance, TV Belgrade showed Tuđman shaking hands with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, accusing them of plotting to impose 'a Fourth Reich', whereas even the Vatican was blamed for 'supporting secessionists'.[18] As a consequence, in September 1991, the German and Vatican Embassy were even targets of Serbian protesters, who shouted that ‘Pope John Paul II supports neo-facism in Croatia’.[19]

Operation Opera Orientalis

Main article: Operation Opera Orientalis

During the false flag Operation Opera Orientalis conducted in 1991 by the Yugoslav Air Force intelligence service, the Serbian media repeatedly made false accusations in which Croatia was connected with World War II, Nazism and anti-Semitism with the aim to discredit the Croatian demands for independence in the West.[20][21]

1992 Tuđman quote about "Croatia Wanting the War"

The Serbian media emphasized that Croatian president Franjo Tuđman started the war in Croatia. In order to corroborate that notion, the media repeatedly referenced his speech in Zagreb, on 24 May 1992, claiming that he allegedly said: "There would not have been a war had Croatia not wanted one".[22] During their trials at the ICTY, Slobodan Milošević and Milan Martić also frequently resorted to Tuđman's quote in order to prove their innocence.[23]

However, the ICTY prosecutors obtained the integral tape of his speech and played it in its entirety during Martić's trial on 23 October 2006, proving that Tuđman never said that Croatia "wanted the war".[24] Upon playing that tape, Borislav Đukić had to admit that Tuđman did not say that.[24] The quote is actually the following: "Some individuals in the world who were not friends of Croatia claimed that we too were responsible for the war. And I replied to them: Yes, there would not have been a war had we given up our goal to create a sovereign and independent Croatia. We suggested that our goal should be achieved without war, and that the Yugoslav crisis should be resolved by transforming the federation, in which nobody was satisfied, particularly not the Croatian nation, into a union of sovereign countries in which Croatia would be sovereign, with its own army, own money, own diplomacy. They did not accept."[25]

"Bosnian mujahideen" case

Serbian propaganda during the Bosnian War portrayed the Bosnian Muslims as violent extremists and Islamic-fundamentalists.[26] After a series of massacres of Bosniaks, a few hundreds (between 300[27][28] and 1,500[27]) Arabic-speaking mercenaries from the Middle East and North Africa, called Mujahideen, came into Bosnia in the second half of 1992 with the aim of helping their Muslim brothers.[29] The Serb media, however, reported a much bigger number of Mujahideen and presented them as terrorists and a huge threat to European security[28] in order to inflame anti-Muslim hatred among Serbs and other Christians.[30][31] Although Serbian media created much controversy about alleged war crimes committed by them, no indictment was issued by ICTY against any of these foreign volunteers.

"Prijedor monster doctors" case

Main article: Prijedor massacre

Just before the Prijedor massacre of Bosniak and Croat civilians, Serb propaganda characterized prominent non-Serbs as criminals and extremists who should be punished for their behaviour. Dr. Mirsad Mujadžić, a Bosniak politician, was accused of injecting drugs into Serb women in order to make them incapable of conceiving male children, thus reducing the birth rate among Serbs, and Dr. Željko Sikora, a Croat, referred to as the Monster Doctor, was accused of forcing abortions onto Serbian women if they were pregnant with male children and of castrating the male babies of Serbian parents.[30][32] Moreover, in a "Kozarski Vjesnik" article dated 10 June 1992, Dr. Osman Mahmuljin was accused of deliberately having provided incorrect medical care to his Serb colleague Dr. Živko Dukić, who had a heart attack.

Mile Mutić, the director of Kozarski Vjesnik and journalist Rade Mutić regularly attended meetings of Serb politicians in order to get informed about the next steps of spreading propaganda.[30][31]

"Markale conspiracy" Case

Main article: Markale massacres

The Markale massacres were two artillery attacks on civilians at the Markale marketplace, committed by the Army of Republika Srpska during the Siege of Sarajevo.[33][34] Encouraged by the initial UNPROFOR report, Serbian media claimed that the Bosnian government had shelled its own civilians in order to drag the Western powers to intervene against the Serbs.[35][36][37] However, in January 2003, the War Crime Tribunal concluded that the massacre was committed by Serb forces around Sarajevo.[38] Although widely reported by the international media, the verdict was ignored in Serbia itself.[33][34][35]

Lions from Pionirska Dolina case

During the Siege of Sarajevo, Serb propaganda was trying to justify the siege at any cost, and as the result of that effort the Serbian national television showed a report about Serb children being given as food for lions in Sarajevo Zoo called Pionirska Dolina by Muslim extremists.[6][39][40]

Kravica as the cause for revenge in Srebrenica

While the Srebrenica enclave was under siege by the Army of the Republika Srpska, its commander Naser Orić led several attacks around the nearby Serb held villages, many of which were Muslim villages prior to conflict overtaken by Serbian forces during the first months of the siege. Orić was later even indicted by the ICTY. In his judgment, it was established that the regular Bosnian troops in Srebrenica were often unable to restrain the large groups of starving civilians who took part in the attacks to get food from Serbian villages.[41] Nonetheless, these attacks were described by some Serb media as the main trigger for the Serb attack on Srebrenica in 1995. A TV presenter in Pale told 'Srebrenica was liberated from terrorists' and that 'the offensive took place after the Muslim side attacked the Serb villages outside the Srebrenica protected zone'.[42]

Propaganda as part of the indictment at ICTY

Propaganda as part of the indictment against Milošević

Two members of the Federal Security Service (KOG) testified for the Prosecution in Milosevic's trial about their involvement in Milošević's propaganda campaign. Slobodan Lazarević revealed alleged KOG clandestine activities designed to undermine the peace process, including mining a soccer field, a water tower and the reopened railway between Zagreb and Belgrade. These actions were blamed on Croats. Mustafa Candić, one of four assistant chiefs of KOG, described the use of technology to fabricate conversations, making it sound as if Croat authorities were telling Croats in Serbia to leave for an ethnically pure Croatia. The conversation was broadcast following a Serb attack on Croatians living in Serbia, forcing them to flee. He testified to another instance of disinformation involving a television broadcast of corpses, described as Serb civilians killed by Croats. Candić testified that he believed they were in fact the bodies of Croats killed by Serbs, though this statement has not been verified. He also corroborated the existence of Operations Opera and Labrador.[6][43][44]

Propaganda as a war crime in the Šešelj's case

Propaganda as a war crime (incitement to genocide) is the subject in the recent indictment of Vojislav Šešelj, the head of the Serbian Radical Party and an active player throughout the wars in the former Yugoslavia. According to the indictment, Šešelj bears individual criminal responsibility for instigating crimes, including murder, torture and forcible expulsion on ethnic grounds. It reads, "By using the word 'instigated', the Prosecution charges that the accused Vojislav Šešelj's speeches, communications, acts and/or omissions contributed to the perpetrators' decision to commit the crimes alleged."[45][46]


During the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the building of the Radio Television of Serbia in Belgrade was targeted by NATO.[47][48]

When Milošević's government was overthrown in October 2000, RTS was a primary target of demonstrators. After attacking the Parliament, the demonstrators headed for the RTS building.[6]

In Serbia, journalists are still[49] being threatened and some were even killed. Mostly investigative journalists are targeted.[50][editorializing]

Serbian State TV Apology

On 23 May 2011, Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) issued an official apology for the way their programming was misused for spreading propaganda and discrediting political opponents in the 1990s, and for the fact that their programming had "hurt the feelings, moral integrity and dignity of the citizens of Serbia, humanist-oriented intellectuals, members of the political opposition, critically minded journalists, certain minorities in Serbia, minority religious groups in Serbia, as well as certain neighbouring peoples and states." RTS also stated in the apology that there was no doubt that the state media were under the direct control of the late President of Serbia Slobodan Milošević and that Serbian state media were used by Milošević as a war tool for inciting ethnic hatred and deceiving his people in order to get the support needed to continue waging war in the former Yugoslavia.[51][52]

Croatian media

The Croats also used propaganda against Serbs and against Bosniaks during the 1992-1994 Croat-Bosniak War, which was part of the larger Bosnian War. During the Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing, Croat forces seized the television broadcasting stations (for example at Skradno) and created their own local radio and television to broadcast propaganda. In the same incident, they seized the public institutions, raised the Croatian flag over public institution buildings, and imposed the Croatian Dinar as the unit of currency. During this time, Busovača's Bosniaks were forced to sign an act of allegiance to the Croat authorities and fell victim to numerous attacks on shops and businesses and, gradually, left the area out of fear that they would be the victims of mass crimes.[53] According to ICTY Trial Chambers in the Blaškić case, Croat authorities created a radio station in Kiseljak to broadcast nationalist propaganda.[54] A similar pattern was applied in Mostar and Gornji Vakuf (where the Croats created a radio station called Radio Uskoplje).[55] Local propaganda efforts in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina controlled by the Croats, were supported by Croatian daily newspapers such as Večernji List and Croatian Radio-Television, especially by controversial reporters Dijana Čuljak and Smiljko Šagolj who are still blamed by the families of Bosniak victims in the Vranica Case for inciting the massacre of Bosnian POWs in Mostar, when broadcasting a report about alleged terrorists arrested by Croats who victimized Croat civilians. The bodies of the Bosnian POWs were later found in a Goranci mass grave. Croatian Radio-Television presented the Croat attack on Mostar, as a Bosnian Muslim attack on Croats who were alligned with the Serbs. According to the ICTY, in the early hours of 9 May 1993, the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) attacked Mostar using artillery, mortars, heavy weapons and small arms. The HVO controlled all roads leading into Mostar and international organisations were denied access. Radio Mostar announced that all Bosniaks should hang out a white flag from their windows. The HVO attack was well prepared and planned.[56]

During the ICTY trials against Croat war leaders, many Croatian journalists participated as the defence witnesses trying to relativise war crimes committed by Croatian troops against non-Croat civilians (Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbs in Croatia). During the trial against General Tihomir Blaškić (later convicted of war crimes), Ivica Mlivončić, Croatian columnist in Slobodna Dalmacija, tried to defend the General by presenting a number of claims in his book Zločin s Pečatom about the alleged genocide against Croats (most of it unproven or false), which was considered by the Trial Chambers as irrelevant for the case. After the conviction, he continued to write in Slobodna Dalmacija against the ICTY presenting it as the court against Croats, with chauvinistic claims that the ICTY cannot be unbiassed because it is financed by Saudi Arabia (i.e. Muslims).[57][58]

See also



  • EXPERT REPORT OF RENAUD DE LA BROSSE "Political Propaganda and the Plan to Create 'A State For All Serbs:' Consequences of using media for ultra-nationalist ends" in five parts 5
  • BIRN Bosnian Institute, Analysis: Media Serving the War, Aida Alić, 20 July 2007
  • Milosevic's Propaganda War, by Judith Armatta, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, 27 February 2003
  • British Journalism Review, Too many truths, by Geoffrey Goodman, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1999
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