VUKOVAR: Every morning, decorated Croatian war veteran Davor Markobasic sips his coffee and looks at a photo of his late wife Ruzica, killed by Serb soldiers in 1991.
Her offense? She was married to him.
"I was branded a monster and the biggest war criminal by Serb media at the time," Markobasic, a 59-year-old retired special police officer, told AFP.
"My worst fear, that she would be killed because of me, came true," he said.
As Serb troops fought Croatian security forces in the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar -- now a symbol of the horrors of the 1991-1995 war in this former Yugoslav republic -- Belgrade-controlled media branded Markobasic "the Vukovar cutthroat" and a "monster".
One report even claimed that "a necklace made of children's fingers was found in his house".
His case -- and dozens of others -- prompted Serbia's war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic this year to launch an investigation into the state-controlled media's war reportage.
No evidence has ever supported the claims against Markobasic, and no one has come forward to say they were his victim.
But in the Serbian media -- then firmly under the control of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic -- such reports circulated. Some papers even published the name of Markobasic's wife and their address.
After Vukovar fell to Serb forces in November 1991, Ruzica Markobasic was fatally shot in the stomach and thrown into a mass grave, along with some 200 fellow Croatian civilians at a pig farm in nearby Ovcara.
She was five months pregnant.
Markobasic denies the crimes attributed to him and Croatian and Serbian war crimes prosecutors told AFP they have never received any evidence implicating him.
"I dare anyone to find a single case of a child" being tortured to death with its fingers cut off, Markobasic said.
The media horror stories were aimed at the "complete dehumanization of enemies", said Vukcevic, the prosecutor.
"Such propaganda cleared the executioners from any moral dilemmas and that is why media propaganda in the former Yugoslavia was a prelude to the (1990s) war," he said.
Unlike the United Nations war crimes court for Rwanda, which tried and severely sentenced journalists on charges of inciting genocide and crimes against humanity, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has never officially probed wartime reporting.
-- 'I am the victim' --
Years after the slaying of Markobasic's wife, witnesses at trials over what happened in Vukovar -- both before The Hague-based UN war crimes court and the Serbian war crimes court -- testified that the 32-year-old woman was taunted for being married to him.
Serb soldiers were "pulling her ... throwing her things around, saying: 'You whore ... where are photos of your husband cutting off children's fingers and making necklaces out of them?'" witness Ljubica Dosen told the UN court.
Markobasic joined Croatia's special police on the eve of the war between Zagreb forces and Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs who opposed the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
"I have done nothing wrong during the war. I could not have retired as a decorated veteran and I would have never come back to live here if I had committed war crimes," Markobasic insisted.
Even now, he struggles to clear his name.
"I am the victim in this story: because of those false reports I lost my wife," Markobasic said.
The Serbian probe, still in its early phase, is looking at some 30 journalists and editors from several media outlets, the prosecutor's spokesman Bruno Vekaric told AFP.
"We are now seeking elements to launch an official probe into some journalists and editors for inciting or instigating war crimes," Vekaric said.
The national television network RTS, notorious for its wartime reporting, may also be included in the probe. Its management issued an official apology a few years ago.
The probe has prompted a wide debate in Serbia, with some journalists' associations backing the move while others, including one that was formerly loyal to the Milosevic regime, calling it a witch-hunt.
Ljiljana Smajlovic, of the formerly pro-Milosevic Association of Serbia's Journalists, faulted prosecutors for not investigating the politicians controlling media at the time.
"The prosecution does not want to go into who instructed the journalists, who created the state propaganda, it just wants to blame some reporters as the weakest link in the chain," Smajlovic said.
But she stressed that if there is any concrete evidence a journalist incited a war crime, that person should be prosecuted.
Prosecutors see Markobasic's case as one that may result in charges.
"A woman was eventually killed because her husband was allegedly a brutal murderer. It should not have happened," Vekaric said.
For Markobasic, the ordeal is far from over.
"It's something I've gone to bed with and get up with every morning" for the last 20 years, he said, visibly shaken.
Sometimes, when he goes into a bar, a drunk Serb will ask: " 'Why did you come here, you were cutting children's fingers.'
"I would like to face those who wrote those lies ... who slandered me without evidence," he said.