Early in 1994, almost three years into the conflict which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, the United Nations peacekeeping force in former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) took one of its most ambitious steps as it struggled to win credibility among the public in the Yugoslav successor states: it decided to produce its own TV broadcasting. Though UNPROFOR had already operated a small film unit as part of its public information activities, which mostly made videos about the UN mission, the team of international producers recruited to join United Nations Television or ‘UNTV’ in the spring of 1994 hoped to achieve a goal beyond what any media organisation had attempted so far: to use UNPROFOR’s access to the front lines to inform the public in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia about conditions in places that journalists from their own side could not reach, and to hold the UN accountable to the public they believed UNPROFOR served.

A screenshot from the titles of a United Nations Television programme
Still from the closing titles that feature on many of the UNTV films © UN610A

By broadcasting the same information to audiences on different sides, UNTV also aspired to break the near-monopoly that state broadcasters with their own nationalist agendas had been exercising over narratives of the conflict since before the wars themselves began.

Led by a chief producer, Roy Head, who had pioneered UN peacekeeping’s use of television while working for the UN Transitional Administration in Cambodia, UNTV spent its first few months as part of UNPROFOR’s new Department of Public Information researching pilot programmes and investigating the practicalities of broadcasting to a larger potential audience than any national broadcaster in the region. Its ability to reach viewers depended on negotiating airtime with state broadcasters in countries directly involved in the war, and with more than two dozen of the private local broadcasters which had sprung up around Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian towns and cities since Yugoslav media had fallen apart.

On 29 July 1994, Radio-Television Bosnia-Herzegovina and several local stations broadcast the first package of UNTV films, including a documentary about a UNPROFOR logistics convoy and a video message from a Bosnian Croat refugee to relatives in Sweden, hoping they would be reunited in the town where she now lived. Between then and January 1996, when the UNPROFOR mission came to an end, UNTV would make 211 feature films and 91 ‘video letters’, in which members of the public spoke directly to friends and family members from whom they had been separated by the war. The films were shown on UNTV’s partner broadcasters in twice-weekly slots every Tuesday and Thursday night, including on Bosnian and Macedonian national television, the independent Belgrade station Studio B, and a range of local stations in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina – yet UNTV’s more complicated relationship with Croatian state television, which only showed their films sporadically, indicated that bypassing powerful vested interests in state media was even more difficult than it might have seemed.

A screenshot of the titles from a United Nations Television broadcast
Still from the titles that feature on many of the UNTV films © UN610A

During the almost two-year period when UNTV worked in former Yugoslavia, its team of international producers and journalists plus locally recruited editors, translators/interpreters and technical staff witnessed the rise and fall of hopes for peace – from the easing of the siege of Sarajevo in spring and summer 1994, which temporarily let Sarajevans and the UN look forward to future reconstruction, to the escalation of hostilities on the part of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) in 1995 which culminated in the genocidal attack on Srebrenica in July. The aftermath of the Croatian Army’s victorious offensive in August 1995 against the so-called Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK), which had occupied a third of Croatian territory, even saw UNTV journalists in the position of documenting evidence of alleged atrocities against Serb civilians to bring this evidence to international attention.

At the heart of the UNTV film and document collection, saved from disposal when UNPROFOR was closing down its mission in former Yugoslavia, are the hundreds of finished films that UNTV journalists made, the rushes they filmed in the course of production, and nine boxes of the unit’s internal and external correspondence. The collection also includes videos inherited from UNPROFOR’s previous film unit, videos from elsewhere in the UN, and reports from other international organisations and NGOs that journalists collected in the course of some of their research. Together, the films and documents give insight not just into what UNTV chose to produce and how it produced it, but also into the challenges of getting the films on screen – from what subtitles would be necessary to keep up with the fast-changing language politics of former Yugoslavia, to the delicate diplomacy of negotiations with Croatian Television, not to mention the unit’s endless struggles with UNPROFOR bureaucracy for suitable office space or use of UN cars.

Dr Catherine Baker (University of Hull), an expert on peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina and on Croatian television during the Yugoslav Wars, is currently helping IWM to investigate the significance of the UNTV collection through a Research Networking Grant funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. IWM will be holding more workshops and public events based on this collection in the course of 2020.

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    © United Nations
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