Lynching was the practice of punishing the alleged perpetrators of crimes with death, most often by hanging, which was undertaken by an enraged mass, without a court verdict and without any legally regulated procedure. In the United States, lynching was largely racially motivated and persisted as such well into the second half of the 20th century. The first thing we think of when we talk about lynching as the “justice” of an angry mob is that it is the complete opposite of the rule of law. Today, that practice is mostly eradicated, but we are witnessing another phenomenon – media lynching. It represents the public persecution of an individual or organization through traditional media and social networks, either because of a personal characteristic (for example, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) or because of an expressed opinion or political belief.
For some time now, without any exaggeration, Serbia can be characterized as a media lynch society. This lynching follows a well-established pattern – it is directed primarily against those who are declared as political opponents of the current government or are perceived as such at one point by the same government; as a rule, public persecution begins with statements by the highest officials, and then tabloids and obscure internet portals appear as the main “contractors,” with the wholehearted support of all television stations with a national frequency; the matrix of persecution varies from case to case, but basically consists of continuous tossing around of allegations with potentially criminal implications, which as such are not confirmed in the legally prescribed procedure – someone is simply labeled as a “thief,” “rapist,” “murderer,” “Mafia associate,” “pedophile” – until the label sticks and they start being perceived as such; the police are often involved in these actions with their “spectacular” arrests, which create the impression that a final conviction is a “done deal;” it is of secondary importance, therefore, whether public persecution will indeed result in an appropriate legal procedure and a guilty verdict for the criminal act the target has been accused of – the primary goal is effective public chastisement and disqualification at a politically convenient moment; therefore, the central feature of all media lynching cases is the violation of fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms and legal procedures – violation of the presumption of innocence and other criminal procedural rights of persecuted persons, illegal manipulation of investigation data, violation of the right to privacy and secrecy of communication, violation of the right to equal legal protection.
The ultimate effect of a media lynching is the suppression of the constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial and undue pressure on the judiciary to resolve the case – if it occurs at all – in accordance with the “verdict” handed down during the public persecution. You can think whatever you want about Dragan Djilas; you may like or dislike Slavisa Kokeza; you can feel intimately that Mika Aleksic acted as a sexual predator; you don’t have to believe Vladimir Vuletic’s story – regardless, in a civilized society, based on the rule of law, guilt, responsibility, and verdict depend on the legal authorities, not on the “media mob.” In her famous speech from 1909, “Lynching, Our National Crime,” the well-known journalist and activist Ida B. Wells concluded that, after considering all strategies for dealing with this crime, only one conclusion can be made – “the only certain remedy is an appeal to law.” Acting according to prescribed rules and procedures is what separates a society of the rule of law from a society of lynching. It is a right that should also protect the media persecutors themselves, who naively believe that the tables will never turn and they will never find themselves on the other end of a media lynch.
In the somewhat atypical 1968 western Hang ‘Em High, in a tense scene during which three young men caught stealing cattle are about to be lynched, Sheriff Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) justifies such an action and assures Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle) that a trial is not necessary, because, in the end, “those boys are gonna be just as dead as if they had been lynched.” The judge replied: “That’s right, Cooper, just as dead. But they won’t have been lynched, they’ll have been judged. And if you can’t see the difference, you’d better take off that star, right now!” There is no message more adequate for the current Serbian sheriff and his media mob.
The author is a professor of the Faculty of Law of the University in Belgrade.
Translated by Marijana Simic