bosnia report
New Series No:49-50 December - March 2006
The Strange Case of Josip Jovic and The Hague1
by Miljenko Jergovic

When, at the age of 22, I got my first permanent post as Nedjeljna Dalmacija’s Sarajevo correspondent, Josip Jović was party secretary in Slobodna Dalmacija,2 i.e. he was one of the more important persons within the paper’s nomenklatura. I was not a party member nor did I wish to become one, despite the clear disadvantages of such a decision on my part. Five years later when I joined the paper’s Zagreb office in the middle of the war, Jović was a leading fighter for the national cause, enjoying a promising career and expectations of high office. My own position had not changed, except that in the meantime I had succeeded in staying alive - albeit at the price of personal cowardice. During the following twelve years Jović moved from being chief editor of Slobodna Dalmacija to become an internal dissident, though one who as an open opponent of Mesić’s presidency and Račan’s [past] premiership has been able to choose when to write, what about and at what length. During the same period I changed jobs and papers, but remained on the other side from him. The paths of our lives never crossed. Jović was always high above me in terms of formal social status; but he was also much lower, since in those days that was the only way to acquire high positions and official acknowledgement.

I have no right, of course, to single out Jović for criticism. One might as well criticise hundreds of thousands of Croatian citizens who, by being loyal to their party secretaries, moved to the top of the housing list; and then overnight turned into prominent fighters for the national cause. Like so many others, Jović always took the side of the majority. What made him more visible was the fact that he was a journalist.

I do not believe that seventeen years ago Jović would ever have defended the human rights of those in a minority, regardless of by whom or how those rights were denied. Both as a fighter for Communism and as a fighter for the national cause, he has felt no responsibility towards those not on his path. Have you ever seen our journalistic and parliamentary right wing show sympathy for those who think differently?

Selective justice

There is no doubt, however, that Josip Jović’s recent arrest was as unjust as were the charges brought against him by the tribunal in The Hague. I say this because I do not wish to have on my conscience - symbolically, of course - the minutes, hours and days that Jović spends in custody. It may well be that his arrest was perfectly lawful, but it nevertheless seems to me to represent a somewhat overzealous concern on the part of our government for its international situation. I would think differently, perhaps, if Ivica Rajić and people like him had been arrested with similar promptness. As things are, however, a journalist’s freedom has been sacrificed, while such bandits were spared. One could call this a selective application of justice, which is the worst form of injustice. The same thing can be said about The Hague’s treatment of Jović, and several other media activists. It does not matter at all whether they are all journalists, or like Markica Rebić simply spies: all have been charged with divulging the name of a protected witness.

The better to understand the whole issue, we should imagine how the whole affair will look ten, fifteen, or maybe twenty years ahead, when the bony South Slav children living within the European Union come to learn about the historical role of the court in The Hague. A small paragraph will tell them that the court also indicted bad journalists. The kids will learn, of course, that journalists and editors were tried at Nuremberg too. But most likely they will not be told that, in our case, it was a matter of divulging the identity of the state president [Mesić]. Nor the fact that the media started the war before the guns and the tanks ever moved, and that probably there would not have been quite so many keen gunners available had it not been for the papers and the television. Belgrade’s Politika alone was worth at least three armoured divisions, and its television even more. Not to speak of Titograd’s television and Pobjeda. The war against the [Bosnian] Muslims began in the early spring of 1993, but a year before that Ivan Aralica started to draft its guidelines in Slobodna Dalmacija - at a time, moreover, when it was an independent paper under Kulušić’s editorship. We should recall Croatian television at that time, and all the things that we were able to learn about our former brothers from, for example, Smiljko Š agolj’s reporting. This does not excuse the actual killers, of course. But do you not think that some of them might have hesitated, had they not repeatedly been told by television that all Muslims were our enemies, and that it was inconceivable that they could be victims or their executioners criminals?

The court in The Hague has been guided by the principle that only the main protagonists of war crimes should be tried, but without ever clearly establishing who they actually are. Thus Biljana Plavšić - the president of a para-state that international representatives treated as a state, saluting its emblem and anthem - was given a minimal sentence and sent off with a speech that resembled a sermon to a prodigal daughter; while General Krstić, who acted under her supreme command, was convicted and given the greatest sentence to date for genocide committed in Srebrenica. It would follow from this that those most responsible are those who committed war crimes, rather than those who conceived, planned and ordered their execution.

Nominal charge

Josip Jović is charged with disrespect for the court’s decision, though he published the name of the protected witness only after other media had already done so. But the prosecution did not know this, or maybe did not care. It was after all only a nominal charge, and the court was ready to accept his formal apology as it had done in the case of a Montenegrin journalist. Jović did a favour to the government by resisting the court’s order, thus allowing it to display its full cooperation with The Hague. But the public became confused and divided: for some, what was important was that Jović had provoked a ‘law-abiding state’ to act; for others, that Jović was a journalist arrested for his writing. It seems to me that this is to miss the point.

There is no such free, democratic and law-abiding a government that would deserve our praise for arresting a man who had provoked it by speech or the written word. At the same time, there is no state in which the publicly stated or written word should be immune from criminal proceedings or its author from arrest. Josip Jović should not have been arrested or charged for the simple reason that he has done nothing wrong. It would have been different, if the protected witness had been called Milan Levar.3 But even then it would have been strange for proceedings to begin six or seven years after the act.

After the passage of time, and after the last trial at The Hague had been completed, it is possible that the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia will be remembered as a big lie, just as our national policies and our proud imperial designs have proved to be. Jović is nothing but a worthy child of his time. However his trial ends, he will return from The Hague as a victor. It is the duty of us all - who were never models - to speak up in defence of his freedom. It is necessary to do so for our own sake, for the sake of justice, which should be the measure of our own freedom. Otherwise we will prove right those who always side with the imaginary majority, be it the Communist one of yesterday or the nationalist one of the present day - or even perhaps one day a Hague majority.

Translated from Globus (Zagreb), 14 October 2005


1. The right-wing nationalist journalist Josip Jović was charged by ICTY with contempt of court for identifying a protected witness - namely Croatian president Stjepan Mesić - although the latter’s identity as a prosecution witness was widely known and had already been made public by others. Jović then refused a sub poena to attend the tribunal and answer the charge, deliberately courting arrest - in which the Croatian authorities obliged him.

2. Slobodna Dalmacija is a leading Croatian daily newspaper, based in Split; Nedjeljna Dalmacija is its semi-autonomous Sunday edition.

3. Milan Levar, who had spoken to journalists - and testified as a prosecution witness at the Hague tribunal - in connection with atrocities against civilians committed near Gospić and in the 1993 Medak Pocket operation, was killed by a bomb in Gospić in September 2000.


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