The superficial treatment of Mladić’s arrest and trial is a testament to the country’s unwillingness to face up to its past.
“A giant step towards the European Union!”; “Strawberries and Tolstoy for Mladić!”; “He survived three heart attacks!”
Such were the sensationalist media headlines that followed Serbia’s arrest of Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Republika Srpska Army (VRS), in May 2011.
Newspapers filled their front pages with reports from the village where he was arrested - Lazarevo in Vojvodina - with the reactions of villagers, speculation about who first knew of the arrest and reports of what Mladić told the Special Court while awaiting transfer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Victims of the crimes he is alleged to have committed stayed in the shadows, and serious analysis of the crimes for which the ICTY had indicted Mladić was notable by its absence.
Reporting at the beginning of the trial in May 2012 continued in the same vein. This time, the focus was on his neighbours in The Hague detention unit, and whether he was being taken good care of.
Opinion is divided among media analysts as to why Serbia’s media reacted to the arrest in such a sensationalist manner, treating Mladić more as a show-business star than as a man accused of some of the gravest crimes in modern history.
While some say the media merely wanted to boost circulation figures, others see the reaction as an accurate reflection of a society that is still not prepared to face up to its past.
The ICTY indictment against Mladić, issued on July 25, 1995, charged him with genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportations, inhumane acts, terror, unlawful attacks and taking hostages during the 1992-5 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For all its focus on trivia, the media reaction suggested that the aura around Mladić as a Serbian war hero had faded.
While debate about Serbia’s moral responsibility to extradite a man indicted of the gravest of crimes was absent, there was no repeat of the public demonstrations that took place in July 2008, when the police arrested Radovan Karadžić, the former president of Republika Srpska.
For the politicians whose statements the media covered, Mladić's arrest meant only one thing: Serbia had removed an important obstacle on its path towards joining the European Union.
Mladić’s extradition to The Hague, along with the arrest of Goran Hadžić, the former Croatian Serb leader, was a formal requirement of the European Union for Serbia to continue its accession process, and possibly gain candidate status. This duly occurred in March 2012.
Well hidden in Serbia
Finding the ICTY’s most wanted fugitive just one hundred kilometres from the Serbian capital ended the speculation about where Mladić had been hiding for 16 years.
Although the authorities had claimed on countless occasions that he was not in Serbia, the arrest revealed that the country had, in fact, long been his safe haven.
The trials of those who harboured and shielded him, which began in 2009 and are on-going, showed that Mladić, two years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, had moved from the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, to Belgrade, together with a group of senior Bosnian Serb officers.
That year, at the request of Slobodan Milošević, the then Yugoslav president, the so-called 30th Personnel Centre was formed by decree of the Yugoslav Army General, Momčilo Perišić.
This mostly consisted of former members of the Bosnian Serb army, tasked with taking care of Mladić.
Mladić moved freely about Belgrade until April 2002, when the Serbian parliament adopted a law on cooperation with the ICTY. According to the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, Mladić hid in a variety of locations in Belgrade until 2006, when all trace of him was lost.
Numerous attempts to arrest him followed several warnings from Serge Brammertz, the ICTY chief prosecutor, that the tribunal’s most wanted fugitive was in Serbia. Mladić was finally arrested by Serbian security services on May 26, 2011.
The news was first carried by the Croatian media and then by the media in Serbia, before Serbia’s then president, Boris Tadić, confirmed the arrest that day around noon.
But up until then, both the Serbian government and Chief War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukčević had continued to claim that Mladić was not in Serbia, assuring both the domestic and international public that ICTY claims were unfounded.
Until today, the Serbian media have offered no explanation as to how, and with whose assistance, Mladić stayed out of the public gaze in the years preceding his arrest.
The weekly magazine Vreme was the only paper to ask how Mladić, by then in ill-health, managed to treat his ailments yet remain in hiding.
“If he suffers from hypertension, how did he obtain his medicine? If he had several strokes, how come he was not in hospital?” Vreme asked in one of their editorials on May 31, five days after Mladić’s arrest.
“If he suffered three strokes, how come he worked on building sites digging paths for pipes?” it continued.
“If he is a kidney patient, did his attacks require emergency medical intervention? If Ratko Mladić is really sick, as has been said, who helped him to keep things under control?”
Ticket to Europe
During their visits to Serbia, EU officials regularly pointed out that Serbia could only hope to obtain candidate status once both Mladić and Goran Hadžić were on trial at The Hague.
Hence the official euphoria over potential membership of the EU when Mladić was arrested and extradited, which then spilled over into the media.
The voices of human rights activists who pleaded for the indictment, the war crimes and the victims to remain the key focus, went unheeded.
President Tadić’s first reaction, typically, was to announce that Serbia’s road to the EU was now open.
“We have opened the door to obtaining candidate status, the start of [membership] negotiations and finally to EU membership,” he declared immediately after Mladić’s arrest.
Now Serbia had the right “to ask the EU to fulfil its part. We fulfilled our part and we will continue to do so,” the president added.
Vuk Drašković, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement, continued likewise, describing the arrest as “the liberation of Serbia”.
“The doors are wide open to the European and democratic future of our state and nation,” he said.
Political analyst Dejan Vuk Stanković also described the arrest as “a positive step for the EU accession of Serbia”, writing in the pages of Večernje novosti on May 27.
“I have no doubt that Serbia will soon get candidate status and the date for a start to [membership] negotiations,” Sonja Licht, president of the Fund for Political Excellence, told the same newspaper. “It is certain that Mr Brammertz will have to write a new report.”
Dragan Bujošević, editor-in-chief of the daily Politika, in a piece published on May 27, conducted no retrospective of the crimes attributed to Mladić but instead opined that the arrest gave Serbia a moral right to demand favours in return.
“With the moral credit of the arrests of Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, Serbia has the right to look into everyone’s eyes and ask for an investigation of the crimes committed against Serbs in all the wars of the Nineties,” he wrote.
“With the arrest of Mladić, Serbia has reaffirmed that it is entitled to raise the question of Dobrovoljačka Street, of [Operation] ‘Oluja’ and of the ‘Žuta kuća,’” Bujosevic wrote, referring to the killings of Yugoslav National Army soldiers in Sarajevo in 1992, the Croatian Army’s “Operation Storm” against rebel Serbs in the breakaway Krajina region in 1995 and to the site of alleged organ harvesting from Serbs during the Kosovo war in 1999.
Tomislav Nikolić, then leader of the opposition Serbian Progressive Party and the current Serbian president, went further, remarking that ordinary Serbs had never viewed Mladić as a criminal in the first place.
“This is a matter of a man who is wanted by The Hague Tribunal for war crimes, but in Serbia they never succeeded in convincing us he was a [suspected] criminal and felon”, Nikolić said after the arrest.
Dragan Šutanovac, vice-president of Serbia’s Democratic Party, responded that such a reaction showed that “although he had changed his rhetoric, he [Nikolić] had never abandoned the ideology of the [Serbian ultra-nationalist] Radical Party and his mentor, Vojislav Sešelj”.
This referred to the fact that Nikolić had formerly been a leading light in the Radical Party, led by Šešelj, before leaving to found the more moderate Serbian Progressive Party.
Commenting on the media reports, Nataša Kandić, director of the Humanitarian Law Center, an NGO based in Belgrade, said that these and other official responses to the arrest showed that meaningful and serious debate on what was really happening before the ICTY was sadly lacking.
“However, what is important, comparing this with when Karadžić was arrested, is that we did not have the protests,” she added.
“After all this time, people simply do not care, they are saturated, and they are not interested in Mladić any longer.”
Hunt for exclusives
Media critic Dragan Ilić, commenting on the arrest, notes that the media competed to find the best “unnamed” source, to be the first to get to Mladić’s house and to film the yard, the neighbours, members of the family and appearances at the Special Court.
“The Croats eavesdrop on Brammertz!” “Congratulations, you’ve found me!” “Bury me next to my daughter!” “Mladić quarrels with the TV!” “Mladić saved me from death!” “Sloba is to blame for everything!” “Šešelj: Ratko, say what is needed!” “Serbia looks EU in the eyes” “What else do they want from us?”
(Daily newspaper Kurir, May and June 2011)
“The opening credits were read by the president at a special press conference and then the circus began,” he recalled.
“There were breaking news reports that Mladić had drunk his medication (and had issued a) list of demands, including copies of Russian classic books, strawberries, a TV set and the psychiatric expertise of Slavica Đukić-Dejanović.
“Primacy was given to such an amount of trivial topics and details that all this tension amounted to a soap opera,” he continued.
Rade Veljanovski, professor of political sciences at Belgrade University, says the Serbian media behaved much the same way when Karadžić was arrested in July 2008.
“Instead of the focus being on what Mladić had done in the Nineties and the grounds on which he was indicted, the media focused on information such as his appearance or health,” Veljanovski noted.
He said one of the main factors behind the sensationalist approach was the media’s need to boost circulation figures and so earn money.
This is supported by the fact that the daily Blic, the day after the arrest, published news that the newspaper had sold its entire previous day’s edition in record time.
Another daily, the tabloid Kurir, even linked the arrest of Mladić to a rise in share values on the Belgrade Stock Exchange.
“Brokers associate the jump in the value of shares in NIS [Naftna Industrija Srbije] with the arrest … and advise people not to sell, because they [the shares] will soon be worth more,” the newspaper wrote on May 29.
The traditional division between the so-called serious press and the tabloids melted away when it came to the Mladić’ arrest, as comparative analysis of the articles in the tabloid Blic and the serious Politika indicates.
Blic compared the arrest of Mladić to the action of US security forces when killing Osama bin Laden.
“The Security Information Agency's action in arresting Ratko Mladić, the most wanted war crimes suspect to be indicted by the ICTY, was carried out on the same principle that American security forces applied during their intrusion into the shelter of the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, in early May,“ Blic claimed, citing sources in the Security Information Agency (BIA).
The police's failure to divulge details about the arrest meanwhile gave the media more space to indulge in its own speculation about how the arrest occurred.
Blic wrote that “the wartime leader of the Serbs greeted the BIA with cheese and ham”, that he did not resist arrest and that he drank homemade brandy with police officers “to invigorate themselves before setting.”
In the hunt for an exclusive story, Blic called former Republika Srpska president, Radovan Karadžić, who told them that he was “very sorry and that he expects that they will cooperate in order to reveal the truth about what happened in Bosnia”.
Under the headline “We are disgusted that Serbs are rejoicing”, the same newspaper carried a sympathetic report from Mladić’s birthplace in Bosnia, publishing quotes from his relatives.
“I expected everything from these traitors to the Serbian people, so this as well, unfortunately,” one was quoted as saying.
On the other hand, Blic was one of the few newspapers to carry a story from Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, where more than 7,000 Bosniaks were killed in a military operation led by Mladić in 1995.
But for the most part, the health of the suspected war criminal was a more important story than the indictment or the reaction of victims.
Anonymous sources “close to the investigation” were often cited as sources for Blic’s many articles on Mladić's health.
One detailed that “because of a stroke Mladić cannot move an arm, is decrepit, has lost weight and can hardly move. According to our interlocutor, Mladić also has kidney problems”.
Articles of a similarly sensationalist tone could also be found in the highbrow Politika, Serbia’s oldest daily newspaper.
In one, entitled, “He lived in a humid room; he did not turn on the lights”, the newspaper imagined how Mladić had lived before his arrest, adding bizarre new details such as the layout of the house where he had been hiding.
“So they say, the gate of the house which was built in 1965, was always locked,” Politika mused.
“He ate this yesterday. According to the recommendation of the doctors, everything is unsalted:
Breakfast: Egg, melted cheese and tea
( Daily newspaper Kurir, May 30, 2011)
Politika also published what Mladić had eaten for breakfast and noted that, shortly before his arrest, “he was baking pizza, which was a bit thick”.
“He ate butter and jam for breakfast, hake and mashed potatoes for lunch, and chicken with boiled vegetables for dinner. All this was prescribed to him by a nutritionist,” one article said.
According to Kandić: “The media wrote about what he ate, how he looked and what he said ... [but] it is interesting that no one published the indictment against Mladić. They did not write about what is in the indictment, what crimes are in question.”
Prosecutor fuelled trivia
Kandić partly blames Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office for the sensationalist and trivial tone of the media coverage.
“I was very angry at the prosecution and at Bruno Vekarić, the prosecution spokesman, who gave many senseless and reckless statements about what Mladić said when they met, what he wanted and what he looked like,” Kandić said.
For example, Vekarić told the daily Večernje novosti on May 27, 2011, that Mladić “looks like himself except that he is a little thinner. As in the Nineties, he had the need to broadly talk about everything. He represented his known views and was often straightforward to me.”
“When we finished the informal part of the conversation, I asked him whether he was watching television, and he said that he was. He even made comments regarding appearances of the prosecutor, Vladimir Vukčević. That was interesting to me.”
The next day, Novosti continued to write about the relationship between Vekarić and Mladić: “In an informal chat, he asked to visit the grave of his daughter Ana. He did not get an answer. He also asked someone to bring strawberries to his cell,” the newspaper reported.
“Vekarić said he personally would do it. Sometime later, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serbs said that he would also like to watch the television and Vekarić has offered to lend him his TV set from the office,” it added.
Analytical articles about the Mladić case could only be read in the daily newspaper Danas and in Vreme. These alone contained critical reflections on the media coverage of the arrest and carried the reactions of relevant international and domestic experts.
In a column published immediately after Mladić's arrest, Miloš Vasić of Vreme said that the key question in relation to the Mladić story is the question about why Mladić was so important to all of them, to both the “new” and “old” government, the security structures and to those who had hidden him.
“As we see it today, on the mythological level, they had to save and preserve the bankrupt project of Milošević and his fascist helpers,” Vasić concluded.
This article has been produced as a part of BIRN's book "Spotlight on Mladic: Villain or Celebrity"
In July 1995 Srebrenica was shelled and occupied by the Army of Republic of Srpska,VRS, despite being declared a protected area by the United Nations. More than 7,000 people were killed, the victims of genocide.
Key dates and events in the Bosnia war.
The Bosnian Serb commander’s role in the genocide committed in Srebrenica is described in detail in many indictments and verdicts pronounced before local and international judicial institutions.