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Reporting On Both Sides Of The War

Serbia -- Pedestrians cross a street in Belgrade near the former federal military headquarters destroyed during the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, March 10, 2014. Photo by Andrej Isakovic (AFP).
March 24 marked the 15th anniversary of the onset of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict. The 78-day campaign was a reaction by Western powers to reports of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslav province, the legitimacy of which remains a contentious topic in Serbia today, and media coverage of the anniversary illustrates the difficulty of advancing an honest examination of what took place.

As RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports, while most Serbian media provided extensive anniversary coverage of the memorials dedicated to the hundreds of Serb civilians killed in the bombing, there was one key element missing: context.

“Serbian mainstream media and tabloids used the opportunity of the anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia to claim that the bombing signaled the end of international law,” said Branka Trivic, Belgrade Bureau chief with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “All of the national media coverage only spoke about our own civilian casualties. In terms of collateral damage, only Serb casualties exist for them.”

Trivic says that while the service also remembered the Serb victims, it filled the contextual gap by providing background information on the events in Kosovo leading up to the bombing. With the disinterest of historians and using the full range of radio, TV, internet and social media platforms, the journalists endeavored to provide a full picture of events, including the violence targeting Albanians in Kosovo and clashes that preceded the NATO response.

As Trivic explained, anniversaries of tragedies in the wars of the 1990s are exploited by politicians throughout the region to advance a divisive agenda, something the Balkan Service actively works to counter as part of its mission to promote dialogue, understanding and reconciliation among the ethnic and religious groups that populate the Yugoslav successor states.

As part of its anniversary coverage, the service republished a video of the bombing accompanied by an in-depth article examining the rhetoric of Serbian politicians and other public figures on the anniversary.

“All the politicians were talking about Serbia being a victim and throughout Serbian national media you couldn’t see any discussion of the backdrop, the run-up to the bombing, or what [former Yugoslav President] Milosevic had done to Kosovo Albanians before,” said Trivic.

Though Serbia’s recent parliamentary elections resulted in a win for a pro-European Union party, Trivic remains keenly attuned to the fragility of the region’s progress and the potential for politics and demagoguery to reverse it.

“RFE/RL is one of the very rare media outlets here that have this independent position,” said Trivic. “We have been trying all these years to bring that perspective, to seek truth, responsibility, and culpability for these wars and to remind people of the repercussions of these wars, which are still with us.”

--Emily Thompson