Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

New digital tool helps Serbians prosecute war criminals, unlock secrets

May 25, 2011, 12:02 p.m., Posted by Mayur Patel

Today, the president of Serbia announced the arrest of one of the world’s most wanted fugitives Ratko Mladic – a general accused of masterminding a 1995 massacre.

Prosecutors from The Hague, where the general will be tried, frequently visit a new digital archive in Serbia that is unlocking some of the country’s long-guarded secrets. Records from the archive already have helped indict 14 paramilitary members, charged in the deaths of 70 unarmed civilians during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, a new Knight Foundation report has found. (It's not yet known if the archive played a role in the general's arrest.)

Using new digital software developed with seed money from Knight Foundation, records dating to 18th century Serbia can be key word searched and retrieved in seconds. Previously, the country’s military records were scattered around the city, many of them disintegrating in basements and in complete disarray.

Serbia enacted a law opening many government records to the public in 2005. But practically speaking, military records were available -- but not accessible -- until the digital software made them easy to retrieve.

The report  found that this powerful new tool also helped the government uncover mass graves of people who disappeared during the post-World II Tito regime.

“For too long, the government in Belgrade acted as if it owned history – to hide and manipulate as it chose,’’ said Aaron Presnall, president of the non-profit Jefferson Institute, a Knight grantee. “The digital archives have returned the ownership of history to the people who lived it … and made government accountable for its abuses and mistakes.’’

What’s more, the tools are open source, so archives around the world can use and adapt them.

While federal agencies in the U.S. are making huge strides toward digitizing federal records, state and especially local records are decaying “before our eyes,’’ Presnall said. The Serbian digital project has captured the interest of U.S. archivists, museums and libraries, Presnall said.

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The digital archives are not without shortcomings, a Knight-commissioned Reporter Analysis report that overall gave the project high marks.

Lead reporter Joan McQueeney Mitric found that too many military records are still classified and that hoped-for media interest in the records has not been piqued. After four years, only about 10 percent of 40 million records are digitized – although these are from critical periods in Serbia’s history. The archive’s location on a military base is not ideal. But plans for web access are under discussion; meanwhile, the National Archive in neighboring Sarajevo has engaged Jefferson Institute to digitize its records.

Using new tools to increase access to information is key to Knight Foundation’s mission of promoting informed and engaged communities. Eventually, Jefferson hopes that archives – in post-conflict countries and U.S. cities and towns alike – will use the tools to keep public information in the public’s hands.

Judy J. Miller, Editor, From Ruins of War, Nation’s History Preserved; Former Managing Editor, Miami Herald

Mayur Patel, Vice President for Strategy and Assessment, Knight Foundation