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Media Failure

The Untold Story of the Floods in Serbia

by ILIJA M. TROJANOVIC

Two kilometers away from the Tamnava River near downtown Obrenovac, Snezana Hasanovic didn’t think the flood waters would reach her neighborhood. During the Yugoslav War in 1992, she fled Sarajevo along with her husband and young son, and never thought she’d have to be an evacuee twice in her life

“On Friday at around 1:30am my parents came knocking at my door telling us to get out of the house immediately. The water was now surrounding the house, when an hour earlier my husband and I were watching news of the flood on TV and it wasn’t near us.”

Little did Hasanovic know, both rivers around Obrenovac burst their banks, the Sava and the Tamnava, and by now the “water was almost up to our knees, it was raining, there was a foul odor, and I simply could not believe that we would be leaving our house without anything once again.”

“We are homeless again,” said Hasanovic, who works at the International School of Belgrade – Serbia’s leading school in English.

The rain has stopped, yet the water is still rising, and the media has only just begun to cover the worst flooding to afflict Serbia and neighboring states in recorded history.

As Serbia sinks further into oblivion in front of an international community selective about the natural disasters they choose to assist, scores of people are dying and thousands are displaced. Hasanovic’s hometown of Obrenovac, a sleepy town not to far from the capital, Belgrade, now resembles an Eastern European version of Venice – minus the pulchritude – as bodies are floating across the streets – err, canals. Ninety percent of the city is under water.

The region’s worst flooding coupled with the fact that Serbia is one of Europe’s poorest countries spells a gloomy conclusion to one of mother nature’s worst disasters so far this year. To make matters worse, the international community slept on the story for more than 3 days before really covering it. In those overlooked three days, 3 months of rainfall plummeted on Serbia and the Bosnian state of Republika Srpska.

Even when news outlets like the BBC or CNN began taking the story ‘seriously’, the only reporting came from meteorologists, whose airtime on the respective channels are both minimal compared to anchors and foreign correspondents. Only after the Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic lambasted the two news channels did they pick up their reportages.

Understandably, the biggest democratic election was wrapping up in India, Turkey witnessed its worst mining disaster, and 300 innocent girls were kidnapped by terrorists in Nigeria, so flooding in Serbia – at least on the first day – was behind in the pecking order. After three days of minimal reports (i.e. news tickers), and a mainstream media estimate of 40 dead and 25,000 displaced, the devastating floods clearly did not receive the right publicity.

According to people on the ground, there has been more than the reported amount of deaths and the number of displaced soars well into the hundreds of thousands. The only correct sum being reported is the amount of aid which will be in the range of hundreds of millions if not a billion dollars.

Had a correspondent been sent to the hardest hit places, the correct figures may have been conveyed to the masses, which in turn would have speeded the delivery of foreign aid to Serbia. With the exception of Al-Jazeera Balkans’ extensive coverage, there are only a handful of reporters on the ground, and due to this sad reality more than just a modicum of media integrity is being washed down the drain.

The hurricane in Tacloban received wide media coverage, as did the floods that hit south Britan and Ireland in 2012, so the question beckons, why have the floods in Serbia not been taken seriously by the media?

In the end, it’s political, as always seems to be the case. Instead of highlighting the nation’s plights such as widespread corruption or human trafficking, the mainstream media – in other words Western media – only dwells on the past tribulations of the war that split up Yugoslavia, and only the mistakes of the Serbs. Every few years Serbia is back in the headlines for someone accused of being a war criminal, and the world is reminded of Serbia as the cruelest of nations. Even calling Serbia a nation is comical, because the West – and not with bombs or guns anymore, but with their weapon of choice which is the press – is dismantling Serbia slowly and delicately. First Montenegro. Then Kosovo. Who’s next, Vojvodina or Sandzak?

As a result, the perpetual castigation of Serbia and its people have tarnished the reputation of a country that was pivotal in the Allies victory in WWII. Even Hollywood has jumped on the smear campaign with movies such as ‘The Hunting Party’, which depicts Serbs as cannibals.

Serbs love meat, fair trade, but we prefer swine over homo sapien.

In the end, the media had to step in, on ethical grounds at the very least. Arguably still being underreported, and with more deathly drops of rain scheduled for Thursday, Serbia will only receive two types of publicity: negative publicity or diminutive publicity. Because the spin can’t blame Serbia (Serbs didn’t flood themselves), the type of publicity is clearly the latter. This intentionally shy approach by Western media will forever keep Serbia in the dark, and in the doldrums.

“I lost any sense of time and could not feel anything at all. At one moment I thought that all this could not be happening, it had to be a nightmare,” Hasanovic added, echoing the sentiments of many other Serbs suffering the repercussions of the floods, but also a fair rendition of pre-submerged Serbia.

Ilija M. Trojanovic can be reached at: ilija.trojanovic@gmail.com.