20th anniversary of siege of Sarajevo

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint questioned the balance of a series of episodes on CBC Radio's As It Happens on the siege of Sarajevo, 20 years later. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In the first week of April 2012, CBC Radio's As It Happens broadcast four segments to mark the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo.

The siege, part of the wider Bosnian war, endured through 1996 and was the longest assault on a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The number of killed or missing totaled nearly 10,000, including 1,500 children, with 56,000 wounded, including 15,000 children.

Co-host Carol Off had reported from the city during the siege and returned to Sarajevo for the series. Sarajevo Remembered comprised four episodes on the daily life, on the political aftermath of the war, on the artists who kept culture alive, and on a documentary filmmaker.

The complainant, Miroslav Gligorevic, wrote April 4 to express concerns about journalistic balance. He asserted that the Serbian perspective had been distorted and that the Bosnians in the series were not adequately representative and reflective.

“This radio serial could seriously mislead listeners in understanding what has really happened in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and entire former Yugoslavia in the last decade of the 20th century,” he wrote.

Gligorevic outlined what he asserted were inaccuracies in the series, among them that:

  • Serbs were driven out of the city through ethnic cleansing and other pressures; he said 157,000 were in the city before and only 10,000 after the war.
  • Serbs suffered in the siege without power, water and other essentials.
  • The city was never under the control of its citizens but under Muslim paramilitary organizations, some with a direct influence under Al-Qaeda.
  • The program overstated the siege because the city had an air bridge to humanitarian aid.
  • The program featured someone charged with war crimes without noting it.

Gligorevic argued the series could raise anti-Serbian sentiment in Canada and re- victimize Serbians from the Bosnian war.

Robin Smythe, executive producer of As It Happens, wrote Gligorevic on April 30. She outlined the concept of the series: a return to Sarajevo 20 years after the siege, part of the Bosnian war that killed hundreds of thousands, forced one million into exile, brought tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers to the country, and led 40,000 Bosnians to flee to Canada.

Smythe said the program sought to include a “wide range of views and voices,” including Serbs, but “did not attempt to find people who shared the ethno-nationalist view of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, since his view has been largely discredited by international law.”

She added: “The story was about Sarajevo, and the voices on our program present what we heard from people in the city.”

The individual Gligorevic said was accused of war crimes was accused only in Serbia, Smythe said, and attempts to extradite him to face trial in Belgrade had been rejected as politically motivated.

The humanitarian supply line was referenced in the series, she noted.

She said there was no source of the numbers Gligorevic asserted, that there “is no evidence to support any of your claims that the city was under the control of Muslim militias. Indeed, quite the opposite.” Nor was there any evidence of al Qaeda in the Bosnian Army.

“We approached the interviews and the stories from the assertion that the conflict in Bosnia was a war of aggression, initiated by Bosnian Serbs with the political and ideological backing of Serbia and with the military support of the Yugoslav National Army. The Bosnian Serb forces launched a calculated campaign to eliminate non-Serb residents from any of the territories that they occupied.”

Smythe said there was no evidence of ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Serbs but there were criminal elements operating without Bosnian government sanction that murdered Serb civilians.

Gligorevic wrote again May 28, asserted that the program should not have referred to Sarajevo as a multicultural city when so many Serbs were gone. He argued that a statement in the program by an interview subject, former vice president Ejup Ganic — namely, that more Serbs died in traffic accidents than in the war — would inflame anti- Serb sentiment.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for respectful, even-handed treatment of varying perspectives across platforms over a reasonable period. The policy permits, if necessary, point-of-view documentaries in the context of wider ranging content at other times. And it calls for accurate presentation of facts in clear and concise language.

CBC avoids “generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

Conclusion

The series principally sought recollections and contemporary reflections on Sarajevo. Even though it was expansive, it was not designed to be definitive, so it has to be assessed in that light.

I take note also that the series was coordinated with another CBC Radio program, The Current, which featured another set of guests from Sarajevo and elsewhere on the same theme.

CBC policy calls for a range of perspectives across platforms over a reasonable period, so any finding about balance must be alert to what CBC provided overall. I also note that As It Happens has carried other related segments since as a commitment to continuing coverage.

That being said, I did not find inaccuracies or imbalances overall in the presentation of content. Listeners heard from an acceptable range of voices. I did not conclude that any omissions the complainant identified would have been valid elements in a balanced presentation; much of what he asserted has not been chronicled impartially, while some of what he asserted found its way into the series.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

One assertion in the series deserves additional comment. Former vice president Ejup Ganic remarked that more Serbs died in traffic accidents than from Bosnian bullets.

Estimates of the Serbian death toll in the war range from roughly 22,000 to 25,000, including about 4,000 to 7,500 civilians, so it is difficult to believe more died in traffic than in conflict — although there are not figures to disprove this, either.

The remarks spurred some byplay. Host Carol Off responded that some felt more Serbs would have been killed had more weaponry been available. Ganic then said the Serbs committed 95 per cent of the atrocities — a figure largely borne out by academic and institutional research since.

I concluded Ganic's remarks were a form of rhetoric, unsurprisingly in the context of his experience. While it might have been better to call him out for his exaggeration, the remarks did not violate standards.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman