Background Briefing


The War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office has a small office specifically dedicated to outreach. It comprises a spokesperson and a public information coordinator, the latter position funded by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). This breaks new ground as it is the first time that any Serbian prosecutor has had a spokesperson. The outreach office’s primary strategy has been to sensitize journalists to war crimes issues generally.16 The office has also attempted to provide information to the press about the ICTY’s work and, in particular, the fact that non-Serbs are being prosecuted for war crimes. The War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office views the ICTY as a key operational partner as they are both working towards the same objective—prosecution of war crimes committed in the region—and both also face some common challenges with presentation in the media. As part of its outreach, the office assisted in arranging a visit for 20 young Serbian journalists to the ICTY and co-sponsored (with the OSCE) visits of Serbian journalists to courts in Bosnia and Croatia and to crimes scenes. The spokesperson has been on a number of OSCE panels and has appeared on local television stations. The office has published a magazine, “Justice in Transition,” which is distributed to the media, politicians, and members of parliament.17 The office is also involved in efforts to reform the law to allow television cameras into court (see below).18

With respect to its main objective of shifting the attitudes of the press, the outreach office has met with some success. Initially the prosecutor’s office faced attacks from the press, which was still under Milosevic-era influences. The image then presented by the press was predominantly that Serbs were victims and had not committed war crimes. This has changed over time. The fact that people were not gathered outside War Crimes Chamber premises protesting trials was itself viewed as an outreach victory by the press office.19

Though the press coverage has been reasonably positive about the prosecutions, it is not extensive.20 In a December 2006 public opinion survey conducted for the OSCE and the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, the majority of respondents felt the public should be more informed about the trials, with 72 percent indicating that media coverage of domestic war crimes prosecutions in Serbia is insufficient.21 Although public awareness about these trials has improved somewhat as a result of efforts by the prosecutor’s office and the chamber to educate the public about war crimes directly through websites, more remains to be done.22 The same survey indicates much greater awareness of the war crimes prosecutor’s work in 2006 than in previous years, but still only half the respondents considered themselves at least “a little” familiar with the work of the prosecutor’s office.23

In this regard, some observers expressed frustration that the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office is not learning from the ICTY experience and being more proactive in going to communities to talk about its work, as was done by the Special Court in Sierra Leone.24 They feel the office has not been able to reach communities to educate the population about the War Crimes Chamber. The lack of success in reaching the public was demonstrated in interviews with applicants for joint internships with the War Crimes Chamber and the ICTY.25 The Youth Initiative for Human Rights, with Swiss government support, sponsored an eight-month internship for Serbian law students whereby they would spend six months in The Hague at the ICTY and two months at the War Crimes Chamber in Belgrade to gain practical experience in international and domestic law relating to war crimes.26 Most internship applicants (despite likely being interested in these cases) knew little about the War Crimes Chamber’s work; some could not name any of its cases.27 Indeed, the December poll found that most citizens surveyed (59 percent) were unable to name a single case before the domestic war crimes courts (though this number was an improvement over previous years), despite the fact that some of them were fairly notorious cases, in particular the Scorpions case and the Ovcara case.28 The limited reach of the office may be due in part to the fact that the office is understaffed. It may also relate to the court’s prioritization of educating the media about war crimes issues rather than emphasizing community-related activities, plus the fact that the media has paid limited attention to the chamber’s proceedings.

Televised Proceedings

In order for the court to maximize its impact, the proceedings should be made as accessible as possible to the general public. Film footage would be one of the best ways to inform the public about War Crimes Chamber activity. The December 2006 OSCE/Belgrade Center for Human Rights public opinion survey indicates that 71 percent of people list electronic media—mainly television—as their primary source of information about war crimes trials.29 However, strict restrictions prohibiting cameras in court have so far made it impossible to film proceedings. Under the current law, the Supreme Court president and all parties have to agree to the presence of cameras before they are allowed in court. However, judges and prosecutors have been reluctant to appear on camera,30 and obtaining the parties’ permission has so far proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to filming proceedings. None of the proceedings have been filmed by the media to date.

To address this problem, a working group including the district court president drafted new legislation to make it easier to allow cameras in court. It is not clear whether proceedings would be broadcast live, delayed, or otherwise edited, but filming would be permitted at the trial judges’ discretion. The law is still at the Ministry of Justice and is in line for consideration behind numerous urgent matters at the National Assembly, so it may not be adopted for a long time.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office prosecution and outreach staff, Belgrade, March 30, 2007.

17 Human Rights Watch e-mail correspondence with War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office outreach staff, June 27, 2007. For further information on the “Justice in Transition” magazine, see (English version) and (Serbian version).

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ivan Jovanovic, national legal advisor on war crimes, OSCE Mission to Serbia, May 14, 2007; Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Sonja Prostran, municipal court judge and former spokesperson for the War Crimes Chamber, May 24, 2007.

21 Strategic Marketing Research, “Public Opinion in Serbia: Views on domestic war crimes judicial authorities and The Hague Tribunal,” December 2006, (accessed June 18, 2007), pp. 19, 20.

22 Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Sonja Prostran, May 24, 2007.

23 Strategic Marketing Research, “Public Opinion in Serbia,” pp. 13, 14.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with civil society member, Belgrade, March 29, 2007. For further information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s outreach program, see Human Rights Watch, Justice in Motion: The Trial Phase of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, vol. 17, no. 14(A), November 2005,, pp. 28-29.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with civil society member and ICTY staff, Belgrade, March 29, 2007.

26 “Scholarships Granted for Internships at the ICTY and Serbia’s War Crimes Chamber and Prosecutor’s Office,” Youth Initiative for Human Rights press release, May 4, 2007, SCHOLARSHIPS%20GRANTED%20FOR%20INTERNSHIPS%20AT%20THE%20ICTY.php (accessed June 18, 2007).

27 Human Rights Watch interview with civil society member and ICTY staff member, Belgrade, March 29, 2007.

28 Strategic Marketing Research, “Public Opinion in Serbia,” p. 15.

29 Ibid., p. 21. Only 39 percent listed print media as a source of information on war crimes trials.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with War Crimes Chamber official, Belgrade, May 30, 2007.