Serbia confronts past, prosecutes war criminals using new digital archive

Archiving software built by the Jefferson Institute, funded by Knight Foundation and available for any community to use

(MIAMI) May 26, 2011 – A new, digital tool is unlocking 40 million pages of previously guarded Serbian military secrets – helping prosecutors indict war criminals and families locate loved ones killed over a century of political turmoil.

In one case alone, 14 paramilitary members were charged with the deaths of 70 unarmed civilians, based on archive evidence from the Milosevic era, a new Knight Foundation report has found.  In addition, prosecutors from The Hague, now involved in today’s arrest of one of the world’s most wanted fugitives – Gen. Ratko Mladic – have also frequently visited the archive.

The Serbian archive now allows records once in disarray to be key word searched and annotated in seconds.

“With this new archive, our military history is no longer hidden behind thick walls where we can only guess what’s in the record,” said Sonja Licht, a leading Serbian human rights activist and founding member of the Washington-based Jefferson Institute, which built the tools in part with $50,000 in seed funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In addition, the software built – and also being used in Bosnia - is now open source. That means communities and archives around the world can adapt them to help preserve their own records.

Edward Papenfuse, chief archivist for the state of Maryland who has visited the archives twice says the tool “has no peer,” noting that many archives in the U.S. remain largely indexed in paper collections.

Knight Foundation tells the story of archive in a new report: “From Ruins of War, a Nation’s History Preserved,” part of the foundation’s Reporter Analysis series which contracts independent journalists to evaluate its grant making.

The report highlights stories of Serbians seeking information on their families, including: a man who yearns to know whether his father who disappeared during Communist rule is actually interred in a recently-discovered mass grave, and another who through the archive discovered his father’s important role in helping Serbia reject Hitler and join the Allies during World War II.

The report also found that the digital archives have some shortcomings. Lead reporter Joan McQueeney Mitric discovered 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.

Knight Foundation, which fosters informed and engaged communities, has invested more than $400 million since 1950 to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression worldwide.

“Whether the topic is as extreme as war crimes or as commonplace as city government salaries, the basic issue is the same: Information matters. People need to know the facts of their situation before they can do anything about it. With better news and information comes better justice," said Eric Newton, special adviser to the president, Knight Foundation.  

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.

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Report: www.kflinks.com/serbia

Blog post: http://www.kflinks.com/serbiapost

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.