TANJA MITROVIC AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 753

Council Meeting: August 1999

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint that The Press newspaper in Christchurch had shown bias in its presentation of information and comment on the situation in Kosovo and had failed to publish letters supporting the Serbian position.

The complaint had its origin in two articles in The Press. The first was about Gerry Kostic, a Serb living in Christchurch. According to the article, Mr Kostic, who had been a schoolboy playmate of Slobodan Milosevic now denounced him but at the same time, criticised NATO bombing as futile in the light of special features of the Serb mentality.

Thie led to another article presenting the views of Andrew Reid, a Christchurch photographer who had spent time in Bosnia and who challenged Mr Kostic’s picture of himself as a patriotic New Zealander.

According to Mr Reid, Mr Kostic had been prosecuted for threatening violence over Mr Reid’s photographic exhibition of Serb atrocities against Muslims in Bosnia.

The article went on to repeat a number of Mr Reid’s severe generalisations about the Serbs. One was that they saw themselves as a master-race and the Muslims as sub-humans. And he was quoted as saying: “To their way of life, lies and exaggeration are normal. The bigger the lie, the closer to the truth they say it is.”

This led Dr Tanja Mitrovic, a lecturer at Canterbury University to complain to the editor of the newspaper. She said she was a Serb who had lived here since 1995 and was a New Zealand citizen. She said that she and all members of the Serbian community had been offended by Mr Reid’s views. She was outraged that his opinions should have been printed and that The Press should support such an expression of racist and nationalist hatred. She demanded that the newspaper apologise and stop printing such articles.

The editor acknowledged that Mr Reid’s views were extreme and that Dr Mitrovic could have been disturbed by them. But that did not mean that they were supported by The Press.The essence of democracy was free speech. The paper printed a wide range of opinions but its own standpoint was presented in the editorials where racist and hateful opinions would never be sustained.

There was a further exchange of letters in which Dr Mitrovic accused The Press of not printing letters from members of the Serb community and of writing editorials hostile to the Serbs. To this, the editor replied that the paper supported NATO action but that stance did not affect news coverage and other expressions of opinion. And he referred to a letter printed in the paper from Anja Mitrovic, a member of Dr Mitrovic’s family.

On 19 May, Dr Mitrovic complained to the Press Council about what she saw as the biased presentation of information and comment about the situation in Kosovo, in The Press. She said that journalists should not take sides as the editor had done in supporting NATO action, for this influenced impressions received by the public.

The editor in turn replied that in presenting Mr Reid’s comments, which he again described as extreme, The Press was not making a judgment on their merits any more than it was in presenting Mr Milosevic’s comparison of President Clinton with Hitler. The newspaper’s judgments were confined to the leader column where it had used measured terms to support NATO actions as a necessary response to the atrocities in Kosovo.

On the complaint about non-publication of letters, he recalled that Anja Mitrovic’s letter had been published; others signed with the surname Mitrovic had been too long, but The Press had offered to a consider shorter version. It had printed many letters about Yugoslavia, several of which were critical of NATO, together with feature articles, some of them equally critical.

This drew an extended response from Dr Mitrovic in which she contended that The Press had presented an unbalanced coverage that portrayed the whole Serbian
Nation in a very negative light. Through what she described as his ‘hatred of Serbs,’ the editor was in a position to influence New Zealand opinion. This accusation the editor strongly rejected.

The Press Council gave particular attention to the complaint that in publishing Mr Reid’s views The Press had accorded them its own support. In its recent Annual Report the Council has affirmed the scope enjoyed by writers of opinion pieces to express a wide range of views. Mr Reid’s views were immoderate , but were expressed not in a labelled opinion piece but in a feature article. Members of the Council drew a distinction between the two forms of comment and considered that opinions attributed to someone in a feature article called for closer scrutiny than if they were in an opinion piece. They did not feel, however, that in this instance the editor had fallen short of his responsibilities. Mr Reid’s views were his own and, however sweeping and extreme, reflected his own experiences in Bosnia and presumably his feelings over Mr Kostic’s behaviour towards him. The editor was entitled to make his own judgment about their suitability for print, but that did not amount to giving them his support. It was disclosed in the article that Mr Reid’s wife was a Bosnian Muslim and that would assist the public in their assessment of his views.

The Council also did not uphold Dr Mitrovic’s complaint that The Press had failed to publish letters that she and her friends had submitted. It was for the editor to decide the contents of the letters column and it was reasonable for him to reject letters as being too long, especially if he offered to consider a shorter version. The Council noted that Dr Mitrovic did not challenge the editor’s statement that The Press had printed letters from other correspondents supporting the Serbian position and critical of NATO.

The Council acknowledged that condemnatory generalisations about the Serbian people were likely to be distressful to the local Serb community. But it did not feel that The Press could fairly be found at fault over the range of opinions on Serbia that it had allowed in its columns or had expressed in its editorials. It found no justification for the charge that the editor had shown ‘hatred of Serbs.’