Propaganda and Srebrenica
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Submitted by Ella Lloyd, Remembering Srebrenica Wales Ambassador, in Srebrenica Memorial Week (5-11 July 2021)
In the aftermath of a genocide, much effort is put into asking how did we, humanity, let this happen? In Srebrenica, the accountability of the international community was evident- in April 1993 the UN Security Council produced a report which specifically warned of ‘a massacre in which there could be 25,000 victims’ if Serb forces entered the enclave. Years later, the Dutch state was ruled as 10% responsible for 350 of the 8,372 deaths. Genocide could have been prevented if the international community had acted, however that is not the end of the story. How does a society reach a point where international intervention is needed to stop genocide? What makes a population turn on its neighbours to that extremity?
Genocide Watch defines 10 stages to a genocide. Within these, Stage 4, Dehumanization, and Stage 6, Polarization, include the dissemination of hateful propaganda. The ICTY recognized the importance of media propaganda in the genocide in the sentencing of Milan Gvero. Gvero had issued a press statement on the 19th of July 1995 alleging that the Bosnian Serb force’s actions in Srebrenica were ‘neutralizing Muslim terrorists and not civilians’. The trial ruled that by disseminating false information, Gvero contributed to the joint criminal enterprise, which aimed to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Srebrenica. The role of propaganda was also recognized in the trial of Momcilo Krajisnik, where the court heard that control of Bosnian television and radio stations by the Serbian military since September 1991 saw programmes broadcast with the intent to ‘intimidate other nationalities.’.
The intention of genocidal propaganda is to create an atmosphere where the population think it is necessary and right to commit war crimes, and furthermore, that they will be free to do this, and will not face punishment. To convince people to commit atrocities against their fellow humans, propagandists attempt to take that very quality- shared humanity- away. Or, at least, position them as the wrong type of humans, not native to the land they live on. By denying someone their humanity, you deny them their human rights. So often, propaganda depicts certain groups as inhuman- as a disease, or vermin. In Nazi Germany, Jews were depicted in propaganda as rats, as untermenschen: subhuman. In Bosnia, Muslims were positioned as invaders, as Turks not native to the land. This narrative of invaders was also used elsewhere in the Yugoslav wars, notably Milosevic’s Gazimestan speech, which made allusions to the Turk Ottoman invaders at the Battle of Kosovo, on its 600th anniversary.
Black propaganda also reported false claims of atrocities committed by Muslims against Serbs. These claimed that Muslim doctors had been sterilizing Serbs, and all Muslims had been given a list of Serbs to kill. Serbian Tabloid Večernje Novosti published a report accompanied by an illustration supposedly of a Serbian child whose entire family was killed by Bosnian Muslims. This report was falsified, the illustration actually being 1888 Uroš Predić painting. This served to incite fear of Muslims within the population. By legitimizing Muslims as a threat, they were also legitimized as a target, and through this justification, some of the worst crimes were committed.
The potential of anti-muslim propaganda to radicalize is still a problem. On the internet, far-right, nationalist propaganda continues to circulate. In memes, songs, videos, and chat rooms, dangerous, hateful material is all too easy to find. When I first started working with Remembering Srebrenica Wales, I knew very little about the Bosnian War. In fact, having been born 5 years after the genocide, I knew only that there had been a war in Bosnia, and it had something to do with religion.
When I went online to do some research, I quickly found tweets, and TikToks, and Reddit posts venerating war criminals and making false claims about the war. It’s material like this that the Christchurch Shooter inscribed on his weapon and these songs that he played before he killed 51 innocent people, and injured 40 others.
This serves to remind us that the dangers of hatred and propaganda have not disappeared. Genocides are not only things of the past; things we can only see in black and white photos. Srebrenica was within my parent’s lifetime, and just 26 years later there’s similar anti-muslim propaganda fueling hatred in Myanmar. Atrocities can repeat themselves, and they will if this material continues to circulate. It is up to us to recognize when this is happening and to work to prevent it.