AIPR Communications Intern Christopher Kousouros files this report from a panel discussion on The Media in Srebrenica.
On Monday a panel discussion was held in New York on the media’s role in uncovering the 1995 Srebrenica genocide and, given the upsurge of citizen journalism, the evolution of the media’s structure and role in preventing future atrocities.
The discussion, organized by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, featured the following speakers: Laura Silber, an investigative journalist who interviewed Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic soon after the genocide took place; Michael Dobbs, who wrote the first in-depth article about Srebrenica; Emma Daly, communications director at Human Rights Watch, who was a journalist covering the Bosnian war at the time of the genocide; and David Rohde, the journalist who exposed the mass graves outside Srebrenica, leading to the uncovering of the genocide that took place.
Srebrenica proved indicative of the abilities and limitations of investigative journalism in the ’90s, before the advent of the citizen journalism that has so critically reshaped the media’s role today. In the early ’90s, there were journalists from all over the world in Bosnia. In fact, Michael Dobbs claimed that the media played a decisive role in creating the six safe areas, Srebrenica among them, in 1993. Professional media coverage was one of the most effective weapons Bosnians had to get the international community involved.
However, by July 1995, Srebrenica had been cut off to all journalists. Consequently, it was only when news started trickling out of the city, by way of escaped Muslim men arriving in Tuzla, that thanks to investigative reporting by people like David Rohde, the genocide was uncovered. In other words, investigative journalism at the time was capable only of exposing the genocide after the fact, but since no reporters were allowed into the city, as is usually the case in areas under threat of genocide, no one was able to get word out in time to prevent it. Dobbs was the first to write an in-depth report on the genocide, but it came in October, three months later.
Times have changed. With the advent of citizen journalism, on-the-ground coverage of events in places inaccessible to professional journalists is available virtually everywhere, whether via cell phones or social media such as Facebook and Twitter. According to Dobbs, if this kind of technology had been available in 1995, it would have been much harder to cover up and carry out the genocide in Srebrenica. However, these new technologies also present a problem, in that it is sometimes near impossible to confirm the stream of information pouring out of places like Syria and Sri Lanka, where professional journalism has been effectively eliminated.
The media, however, hardly bear all the responsibility for the international community’s failure to prevent genocide in Srebrenica. Ivan Barbalić, a representative of the Permanent Mission of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Nations, was present at the panel discussion and said enough evidence was in fact available. He said that while technologies like cell phone video recordings and Facebook weren’t available in 1995, media institutions like Headline News and CNN were providing enough real-time coverage in Bosnia for decisionmakers to conclude that something was going to happen in Srebrenica. He believes that the writing was on the wall, and that the failure to act belongs to the international community as a whole. He points specifically to the lack of political will in institutions such as the UN.
Nevertheless, Barbalić also pointed out the decisive role that citizen journalism has played in the Arab Spring, and said that had this information been available in 1995, perhaps the genocide could have been prevented. In discussing the Libya intervention, he said, “When Libya was opening up, the information coming from the media was very important to create a complete picture: ‘If we don’t do something, there will be major bloodshed in Benghazi.’ ” The coverage provided by Libyan citizens effectively made it impossible for the international community not to intervene in Libya, but in places like Syria and Sri Lanka, where there is a virtual blackout of professional media coverage, the ability to verify information that might drive the international community to act is largely absent.
Looking towards the future, all of the panel speakers agreed that professional journalism still holds an important role in preventing and exposing mass atrocities. They believe that new technologies and citizen journalism can be a very powerful resource, but one that needs to serve a complimentary role with the professional media, which are charged with providing verifiable facts that can influence international action. Without reliable information from places like Syria, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, the atrocities being committed will not be brought to light, let alone prevented from happening in the first place.