Integral text of the above article....
The international news story since mid-1991 has been
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the atrocities, the refugees, and the World's
inaction. In most accounts, the villain has been denounced for the
worst crimes committed on European soil since the death of Adolf
Hitler and the demise of Joseph Stalin.
The evidence appears overwhelming that the military forces of
the Bosnian Serbs have perpetrated grave offenses. But throughout
the crisis the Serbs have complained that they were also victims,
and there is apparent evidence to support their complaint.
The almost uniform manner by which the international news
media, including the American media, dismissed Serb claims has
played a critical role in the unfolding tragedy in the former
Yugoslavia. As the first phase of the crisis perhaps now draws to
a close, it is time for a searching look at the performance of the
The verdict is anything but positive. As one of America's most
prominent journalists on America's most prestigious newspaper said
in a risky moment of candor early last Summer, "I despair for my
profession, and I despair for my newspaper. And this is very
definitely not for attribution." As the routine, sometimes zealous
bearers of bad news, especially in war, news-people cynically shrug
off criticism (and especially abhor self-criticism) and trudge back
to the trenches. But in the Yugoslav civil war, the press itself
has been a large part of the bad news. Legitimate concern for
personal safety undoubtedly affected the coverage. Many stories
that deserved a follow-up did not receive it because journalists
could not get to the scene of the conflict and were forced to rely
on less-than-perfect sources. But a close look at the record since
the war began on june 27, 1991, reveals avoidable media negligence
and a form of pack journalism that reached its extreme last winter
During that period, readers and viewers received the most vivid
reports of cruelty, tragedy,and barbarism since World War II. It
was an unprecedented and unrelenting onslaught, combining modern
media techniques with advocacy journalism.
In the process, the media became a movement, co-belligerent no
longer disguised as noncombatant and nonpartisan. News was
outfitted in its full battle dress of bold head-lines, multipage
spreads of gory photographs, and gruesome video footage. The clear
purpose was to force governments to intervene militarily. The
effect was compelling, but was the picture complete?
In fact, the mistakes were blatant:
By early 1993, several major news organizations appeared to be
determined to use their reporting to generate the political
pressure needed to force U.S. military intervention. In testing
the effects of their stories, U.S. networks and publications
conducted numerous polls during the Yugoslav civil war. But no
matter how pollsters sculpted their questions, majorities of public
opinion remained stubbornly opposed to all forms of armed
intervention. Finally, on August 11, an ABC news - "Washington
Post" poll said that six out of ten Americans supported allied "air
strikes against Bosnian Serb forces who are attacking the Bosnian
capital of Sarajevo." The poll also showed that Americans
overwhelmingly rejected air strikes by the United States, "if the
European allies do not agree to participate." But the poll sought
no objective opinions about Bosnian government forces who,
according to many credible reports, frequently fired on their own
positions and people in Sarajevo and manipulated artillery attacks
elsewhere in Bosnia for public relations and other purposes.
A "Washington Post" spokeswoman said opinions were not asked about
that because pollsters were "not sure the public would understand
it." Also, she said, there "was not enough space" for other
questions in the poll's format.
- street scenes of ravaged Vukovar in 1991 were later depicted
as combat footage from minimally damaged Dubrovnik on Western
- the August 17, 1992, Time cover photo, taken from a British
television report, showed a smiling, shiftless, skeletal
man who was described as being among "Muslim prisoners in a
Serbian detention camp." In fact, the man was a Serb -
Slobodan Konjevic, 37, who, along with his brother Zoran, 41,
had been arrested and confined on charges of looting.
Konjevic, more dramatically emaciated that others who wore
shirts in the picture, had suffered from tuberculosis for
10 years, said his sister in Vienna, who later identified
her brothers in the picture.
- the 1992 BBC filming of an ailing, elderly "Bosnian Muslim
prisoner-of-war in a Serb concentration camp" resulted in his
later identification by relatives as retired Yugoslav army
officer Branko Velec, a Bosnian Serb held in a Muslim
- among wounded "Muslim toddlers and infants" aboard a
Sarajevo bus hit by sniper fire in August 1992 were a number
of Serb children - a fact revealed much later. One of the
children who died in the incident was identified at the
funeral as Muslim by television reporters. But the
unmistakable Serbian Orthodox funeral ritual told a different
- in its January 4, 1993, issue, "Newsweek" published a photo
of several bodies with accompanying story that began: "Is
there any way to stop Serbian atrocities in Bosnia?" The
photo was actually of Serb victims, including one clearly
recognizable man wearing a red coat. The photo, with the same
man in his red coat is identical to a scene in television
footage from Vukovar a year earlier.
- CNN aired reports in March and May 1993 from the scenes of
massacres of 14 Muslims and then 10 Muslims who were
supposedly killed by Serbs. The victims later turned out to
be Serbs. There was no correction.
- in early August 1993, a photo caption in "The New York
Times" described a Croat woman from Posusje grieving for a son
killed in recent Serb attacks. In fact, the Croat village of
Posusje, in Bosnia near the Dalmatian coast, had been the
scene of bloody fighting between Muslims and Croats that had
caused 34 Bosnian Croat deaths, including the son of the woman
in the photo.
In May 1993, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros
Boutros-Ghali chided the media for breaking the first commandment
of objectivity as he addressed CNN's fourth world report
contributors conference in Atlanta: "Today, the media do not simply
report the news. Television has become a part of the events it
covers. It has changed the way the world reacts to crisis."
Boutros-Ghali accurately described the routine and consequence of
coverage of the Yugoslav civil war: "Public emotion becomes so
intense that United Nations work is undermined. On television, the
problem may become simplified, and exaggerated."
Three months earlier, several high-ranking U.N. officials in
Belgrade, usually reserved in their criticisms, privately shared
confidences from journalists-verified during subsequent interviews
in Belgrade with the correspondents themselves. The correspondents
reported that they had met obstructions from editors. They told of
stories changed without consultation and in some cases totally
revised to coincide with the pack journalist bias that prevailed in
Western news bureaus.
"The American press has become very partisan and anti-Serbian.
They are very selective and manipulative with the information they
use," said one U.N. official. "The reporters here have had their
own wars with their editors. It was driving one literally crazy
until she demanded to be transferred."
"I've worked with the press for a long time, and I have never
seen so much lack of professionalism and ethnics in the press," and
another, "Especially by the American press, there is an extremely
hostile style of reporting." "A kind of nihilism has been
established," said yet another U.N. official.
"I was shocked when a relative read a story to me over the
telephone," added an American correspondent in Belgrade. "My byline
was on top of the story, but I couldn't recognize anything else."
Another reporter in Belgrade, previously singled out by one group
of Serbian-Americans as especially one-sided, said he had argued
with his editors at the New York Times until "they finally said I
could write it like it really was. I finished the story and moved
it to them. And after they read it, they killed it."
Also killed in the Yugoslav war was the professional mandate to
get all sides of a story and to follow upon it despite the
obstacles. A British journalist angrily recalled how in May 1992
she had received an important tip in Belgrade. More than 1,000
Serb civilians, including men, women, children, and many elderly
from villages around the Southwestern Bosnian town of Bradina were
imprisoned by Muslims and Croats in a partly destroyed railroad
tunnel at Konjic, near Sarajevo. "My editors said they were
interested in the story," the reported said. "But I told them it
would take me three days to get there, another day or so to do the
story and another three days to get back. They said it would take
too much time." Months later, the same reporter was near Konjic on
another story and managed to verify details of the earlier
incident, though the Serb prisoners were no longer there. "The
story was true, but several months had passed." she said. "I did
the story anyway, but it wasn't played very well because of the
By late 1992, the majority of the media had become so
mesmerized by their focus on Serb aggression and atrocities that
many became incapable of studying or following up numerous episodes
of horror and hostility against Serbs in Croatia and later in
REPORTING FROM A DISTANCE
The imbalance in reporting began during the war in Croatia.
Despite steady reports of atrocities committed there by Croatian
soldiers and paramilitary units against Serbs, which some Belgrade
correspondents were later able to confirm, the stories that reached
the world talked only of Serb abuses. The other stories went
unreported "because it was difficult to get close to those villages
in Croatia. "And it was damned dangerous," said one Belgrade
correspondent. Reporters tended to foxhole in Sarajevo, Zagreb, or
Belgrade and depend on their networks of "stringers" and outlying
contacts. Most arriving correspondents spoke no Serbo-Croatian,
and interpreters were often domestic journalists or "stringers"
with established allegiances as well as keen intuitions about what
postcommunist censors in the "new democracies" in Zagreb and
Sarajevo preferred. Reporters began to rely on aggressive
government spokespeople - the government Information Ministry in
Zagreb soon acquired scores of english-fluent publicists, and the
Bosnian government also mobilized scores of handlers for the
Western media. In that struggle for media attention, the Serbs
were handicapped by the media sense that "the story"lay in the
plight of the Muslims and by the isolation of Serbia because of
U.N. sanctions and its own policies, which continued the previous
official communist disdain for foreign media.
Media newcomers to Belgrade, where the Yugoslav Federal
Information Ministry included a mere half-dozen publicists, were
therefore at a disadvantage. Coming from Western culture, they
were accustomed to patronage, cooperation, access, and answers.
But, isolated and denounced, the Belgrade government simply ignored
their harangues. So, as some reporters freely admitted last
February, they wrote what they wanted, often in adversarial tones.
When official Belgrade read the results, it was confirmed in its
original suspicion and passive media policies continued. Soon
antagonisms became entrenched all around. Yet, unlike the
controlled press in Zagreb, it was remarkable how domestic and
foreign media through mid-1993 continued to lambaste the Serbian
government. Perhaps Belgrade had a legitimate story to tell above
the rising din form Sarajevo and Zagreb, where persistence,
intensity, and volume had won the ears of the West. But, if so,
it went untold because of official negligence, international
sanctions, and a lack of media professionalism.
Before the Summer of 1991, only a handful of Western
correspondents had been based in Belgrade. The majority, along
with new reporters who arrived in late 1991 and 1993, eventually
migrated to Sarajevo or Zagreb, where technical communications with
the West became cantered - especially following the imposition of
U.N. sanctions against Serbia on May 30, 1992. Establishing Zagreb
as the communications and media hub during late 1992 and 1993 was
all the more astonishing in light of Croatia's own repression
of domestic media, which has included the resurrection of a
communist-era law that threatens five years' imprisonment for
anyone in the media, domestic or foreign, who criticizes the
Not surprisingly, Western journalists failed to produce
meaningful stories with Zagreb datelines or hard-hitting reports
that might shed unfavorable light on Croatian government figures or
the darker sides of that "new" Balkan democracy, where libraries
where being purged of volumes unsympathetic to official policies.
Although some stories were filed, foreign journalists tended to
look the other way as the government reclassified requirements
for Croatian citizenship and ordered new policies for religious
instruction in public schools. Boulevards and public
squares were brazenly renamed for World War II Ustashi figures.
Meanwhile, by late 1991 Belgrade-based journalists and
correspondents were nervously confronting the arrival of 60,000
Serb refugees from Croatia who had horrifying accounts of
atrocities and of the destruction of scores of Serb villages.
Nearly 100 of the 156 remaining Serbian Orthodox churches in
Croatia had been razed, according to the Patriarchate in Belgrade
(more that 800 Serbian churches stood in Croatia before World War II).
Media skepticism at the reports of refugees and Serbian officials
limited any reporting about "concentration camps" holding Serb inmates,
such as the one reported at Suhopolje among 18 destroyed Serb villages
in the Grubisno Polje district. Another, later confirmed to exist,
was at Stara Lipa, among the remains of 24 Serb villages in the Slavonska
Pozega district where Serbs had been evicted from their homes.
A Reuters photographer, who returned from Vukovar to report the
discovery of the bodies of 41 Serb children in plastic bags, was
initially quoted in other wire stories. But because he had not
personally seen the bodies, news organizations pulled their stories
about the alleged massacre. The same media standards regrettably
did not apply when Western newspeople dealt with reports based on
second-and third-hand sources of massacres of Croats and later
Muslims. The willingness to print without confirmation later
affected the coverage of stories about tens of thousands of rapes
of Muslim women.
By January 1992, it was too late to tell the Serbs' side of the
war in Croatia because that war had ended. The war in Bosnia was
about to erupt, with a host of new complexities. Few could follow
the bewildering and abrupt alliances and counteralliances as
Bosnian Serb and Croat forces attacked Bosnian government and
Muslim troops and then Muslims fought Bosnian Croat forces.
When the Yugoslav civil war was nearly a year old, writer
Slavko Curuvija diagnosed the cause of the media's disorientation:
the role played by Western journalists who possessed minimal
capabilities for covering a vexing civil war among South Slav
cultures and nationalities. "The greatest difficulty for West
European politicians and commentators in dealing with Yugoslavia is
that most knew next to nothing about the country when they first
delved into its crisis," he wrote in "The European." "Now that
everything has come loose, they are disgusted by the chaos and
their powerlessness to change anything overnight."
It did not help the Western media that there were few credible
guides to lead outsiders thought the twisted madness of Yugoslav
fratricide. U.N. officials, primarily because they spoke English,
became corroborating sources, spokespeople, and patient rotors for
journalists, but they too lacked sufficient Balkan orientation.
Editors back home were even less experienced about the new Balkan
events and were quick to accept the offerings from the pack.
Helpful U.N. officials were often uncertain about details or even
the veracity of incidents reported, but within minutes Western news
agencies accepted their background speculations as fact. The media,
U.N. staffers noted with eventual bitterness, cast the U.N. as
anti-Serb and then latter as pro-Serb. U.N. officials in Belgrade
and Sarajevo winced when named as the source for prematurely
blaming Bosnian Serbs for the fatal shooting of ABC-television news
producer David Kaplan in August 1992. Senior U.N. officials later
stated that their investigation had determined the shot could not
have been fired from Serb-held areas, but the disclosure went
almost unreported. Similarly, U.N. spokesman Larry Hollingsworth
in Sarajevo was widely quoted in April 1993 when he angrily stated
his hope that the "hottest corners of hell" were reserved for Serb
gunners in an artillery salvo that fell on Srebrenica, killing 56
civilians. But absent from news reports was any similar
condemnation by him or others concerning allegations that the
Bosnian army inside Srebrenica had fired its tanks on Serb
positions first, triggering the Serb artillery response, as the
U.N. was attempting to broker a ceasefire.
THE HIDDEN HAND
"Fingerprints" in the media war could be traced to public
relations specialists, including several high-powered and highly
financed U.S. firms, and their clients in government information
ministries. The Washington public relations firms of Ruder Finn
and Hill & Knowlton, Inc. were the premier agents at work behind
the lines, launching media and political salvos and raking in
hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of dollars while
representing the hostile republics, sometimes two at a time, in the
Yugoslav war. Hill & Knowlton had for several years represented
agencies in the previous Federal Republic of Yugoslavia before it
disintegrated (the firm is best remembered for producing the phony
witness who testified before a Congressional committee about the
alleged slaughter of Kuwait infants after the Iraqi invasion of
Kuwait). Ruder Finn, having simultaneously represented the
governments of Croatia and Bosnia until mid-1993, when both stepped
up ethnic cleansing of each other's civilians in Bosnia, with its
liberal donations from Islamic countries. Soon after, Ruder Finn
scored a public relations homerun in helping its Bosnian muslim
clients dominate the June 1993 Conference on Human Rights in
Vienna, virtual hijacking the two-week agents that climaxed with
88-to-1 vote deploring the failure of the U.N. to stop the war and
demanding that the arms embargo on Bosnia be lifted. Especially in
the early days of the war in Croatia, few journalists were able to
step back to take a clearer look at the images being manipulated to
shape their stories. Many rookie Balkan reporters at first could do
nothing but obediently attend nonstop press conferences. As Steve
Crawshaw reported in the London "Independent":
"One thing is certain; nobody can complain that the Croatian
publicity machine is overcautious about unsubstantiated
allegations. If it is colorful tales that you are looking for,
then Croatia can always oblige... if sometimes seems the ministers
who turn up to the press conferences live in a rhetoric-rich,
The London "Times" noted on November 18, 1991, that "clarity
was an early victim of the war in Yugoslavia and reality has
become progressively enveloped in a blanket of fog... as the
desperate attempts to win the hearts and minds of Europe grow, the
claims become wilder, the proof simpler. But the
(government-controlled) Croatian media are convinced that officials
in London and Washington can be outraged into submission, so the
assault continues unabated."
There can be little doubt that media advocacy from the field
fed editorial responses at home. A typical "Time" cover story
(March 15, 1993) led with "the agony of Yugoslavia keeps replaying
itself with new bombardments, massacres, rapes and "ethnic
cleansing." At each horrifying recurrence, world opinion is
outraged and opinion leaders call for an end to the barbarism".
Far rarer was the introspection about the media's coverage of
the war that Charles Lane voiced in "Newsweek" seven months
earlier: "There is hypocrisy in the current outrage of Western
journalists, politicians and voters. And perhaps even a strain of
An excellent case of hyperbole was the peculiar statement that
appeared in the March 15 "Time" cover story. In that article,
Sadako Ogata, U.N. High Commissioner for refugees, was quoted as
telling members of the U.N. Security Council that "civilians,
women, children and old people are being killed, usually by having
their throats cut." Ogata then said her information was derived
from uncorroborated broadcasts by unidentified ham radio operators
in Eastern Bosnia. Yet, such transmissions, an increasing source
of on-the-scene propaganda, were frequently disproved after U.N.
troops arrived. Nevertheless Ogata added, "if only 10 percent of
the information is true, we are witnessing a massacre." "Time" thus
concluded: "In fact Ogata, like other U.N. officials and foreign
journalists, had no first hand knowledge of what
"Time" also repeated that 70,000 "detention camp inmates" still
existed. That echoed an exaggerated and uncorroborated statistic
from a State Department spokesperson, whose mistake the Associated
Press and "The New York Times" publicized during January 1993.
A State Department official had admitted when confronted with the
figure of 70,000 that it was a typographical error. The correct
State Department estimate, she said, was less than 7,000.
News reports themselves showed that Bosnian Serbs were
unusually cooperative in allowing international inspection of their
camps, while Bosnian Muslims and Croats either refused or
obstructed inspection of their camps - but that fact also received
little public attention.
The media's effort to inflict a "massada psychology" upon
Serbia, as political scientist and Carleton University (Ottawa)
professor C.G. Jacobsen calls it, has not completely escaped the
notice of several academics and a handful of journalists who have
condemned manipulation and negligence in the press. "The myopia
and bias of the press is manifest," Jacobsen wrote in his report to
the Independent Committee on War Crimes in the Balkans. "The
Washington Post," France's "L'Observateur" and other leading
newspapers have published pictures of paramilitary troops and
forces with captions describing them as Serb, though their insignia
clearly identify them as (Croat) Ustasha."
In a three-month study of news reports, Howard University
Professor of International Relations Nikolaos Stavrou detected "a
disturbing pattern in news coverage." He claimed most of the
stories were based on "hearsay evidence," with few attempts to show
the "other side's perspectives. Ninety per cent of the stories
originated in Sarajevo, but only 5 per cent in Belgrade. Stavrou's
analysis cited ethnic stereotyping, with Serbs referred to as
primitive "remnants of the Ottoman empire" and Yugoslav army
officers described as "orthodox communists generals." News stories
about Serbs abounded with descriptions of them as "eastern,"
"byzantine," and "orthodox", all were "repeatedly used in a
pejorative context." Stavrou said Croats were described as
"western," "nationalist," "wealthiest," "westernized," and most
advanced in development of their "western-style democracy," while
newspaper photographs neglected to show suffering or dead Serbs or
destroyed Serb churches and villages.
THE MEDIA BECOME A MOVEMENT; CO-BELLIGERENT NO LONGER
DISGUISED AS NONCOMBATANT AND NONPARTISAN
The 1993 double-barreled Pulitzer Prize for international
reporting, shared between "Newsday's Roy Gutman and "New York
Times" correspondent John Burns, raised at least a few eyebrows.
Burns received the award primarily for his account of seven hours
of interviews with a captured Bosnian Serb soldier, Borislav Herak.
Herak's confession of multiple rapes and murder occurred under the
approving eyes of his Bosnian Muslim captors. Assured he would not
be subjected to brutality as a prisoner, Herak also alleged that
the then-commanding general of the U.N. Protection Forces
(UNPROFOR), Lewis Mackenzie, had committed multiple rapes of young
Despite its vulnerable nature, the lengthy story about the
confession, without mention of the bizarre accusations against
Mackenzie, went over "The New York Times" wire service on November
26, 1992, targeted for publication in large Sunday newspapers with
almost no opportunity for challenge or timely rebuttal. Belgrade
officials expressed serious doubts about Herak's mental competency,
but during his trial the question was ignored and prosecutors
offered little additional evidence beyond Herak's original
In a subsequent advertisement in the May 1993 issue of "The
American Journalism Review," "The Times" used curious wording to
describe Burns's achievement. He "has written of the destruction
of a major European city and the dispossession of Sarajevo's
people. He virtually discovered these events for the world outside
as they happened." According to "The Washington Post", the story
about Herak "knocked everyone (in the Pulitzer jury) over."
One of Burns's first stories after his arrival back in Sarajevo
in July 1993 contained a reference to the infamous "bread line
massacre" of the previous year, which Bosnian Muslims used to
pressure the U.N. Security Council as it prepared to vote for
sanctions against Serbia. A year after some U.N. official
acknowledged that Muslims, not Bosnian Serbs, had set off explosive
that killed 22 civilians outside a Sarajevo bakery. Burns and the
"Times" still reported the claim that a Serb mortar had caused the
tragedy. Ironically, that same July 5 story by Burns focused on
Bosnian paramilitary police in Sarajevo who were firing mortars on
nearby Bosnian army units. Repeated attempts to interview Burns,
who returned briefly to Toronto last June, were unsuccessful.
There have also been questions about Roy Gutman's
pulitzer-winning scoops in August 1992 about two Serb-run "death
camps." Gutman constructed his accounts, to his credit, admittedly
so, from alleged survivors of Manjaca and Trnopolje. But as one
British journalist, Joan Phillips, has pointed out: "The death camp
stories are very thinly sourced. They are based on the very few
accounts from hearsay. They are given the stamp of authority by
speculation and surmise from officials. Gutman is not guilty of
lying. He did not try to hide the fact that his stories were
thinly sourced." But it is also true, as Phillips noted, that
Gutman's disclaimers were placed near the end of the article. Yet
those stories were the principal basis for the world's belief that
the Serbs were not simply holding Muslim prisoners but were
operating death camps in Bosnia. Phillips also drew attention to
Gutman's visit in September 1992 to the scene of a massacre of 17
Serbs near Banja Luka, which went unreported until December 13,
three months later. Gutman could not be contacted and "Newsday"
editors would not explain the lapse in publication. Gutman did
discuss his reporting later on: in an interview in the July 1993
"American Journalism Review," he explained that he had abandoned
strict objectivity in his coverage in order to pressure governments
The entire media response to the issue of atrocities against
Serbs raises a troubling question: why did the press show such
minimal interests in Serb claim of death camps housing their own
people? Documents submitted to the European parliament and U.N. by
Bosnian Serbs have included horrible claims:
* late March 1992 - Serb females imprisoned at Breza were
raped and then murdered by Muslims; their bodies were later
Also unnoticed by the media was the submission on December 18,
1992, of the lengthy report (s/24991) by the U.N. Security Council
to the General Assembly. The report includes some of the
depositions by Serb rape victims from the incidents above. U.N.
officials have never explained why it was not made publicly
available until January 5, 1993, even though it was the only report
produced by an international agency that contained documented
testimonies from any rape victims up until that time. Yet, while
that report was receiving minimal circulation at the U.N., the news
media were focusing on undocumented claims soldiers had committed
as many as 60,000 rapes of Muslims women.
* May 27, 1992 - female prisoners from Bradina were taken to
the camp in Celebici where they were repeatedly raped.
* July 26, 1992 - an escapee from Gorazde reported Muslims
forced Serb fathers to rape their own daughters before both
* August 27, 1992 - an affidavit by Dr. Olga Drasko, a former
inmate of an Ustashi camp at Dretelj, described rapes and
mutilations of women, including herself, during her three
* November 1992 - a group of Serb women released from Tuzla
requested late-term abortions after having been repeatedly
raped by Muslim during lengthy captivities.
* December 10, 1992 - in Belgrade, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch
Pavle told official of the Swiss Federal Parliament and
representatives from European Ecumenical Movements that 800
Serb women were documented as repeated rape victims in 20
camps operated by Muslims and Croats. The Patriarch also
cited parts of an August 2, 1992, report from the State Center
for Investigation of War Crimes (Serb Republic of
Bosnia-Herzegovina). Compiled for the U.N. in November 1992,
it identified locations at Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bugojno, Konjic,
Bihac, and Slavnoski Brod where Serb women were allegedly
confined and raped by Croat and Muslim soldiers.
From the start of the Bosnian war in April 1992 until November
of that year, thousands of refugees fled into Croatia and other
countries. There, extensive interviews failed to disclose
allegation of "systematic rape." Then suddenly, in late November
and early December, the world received a deluge of reports about
rapes of Muslim women. The accounts originatedin the Information
Ministries of the governments of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The January 4, 1993, "Newsweek," for one, quoted unsubstantiated
Bosnian government claims of up to 50,000 rapes of Muslims by Serb
A European Community delegation headed by dame Anne Warburton
made a hurried investigation during two brief visits to the region
in December 1992 and January 1993. It reported that it had visited
primarily Zagreb but obtained only minimal access to alleged Muslim
victims of refugee centers where victims were supposedly located.
Of note, the delegation said it had encountered additional reports
about rapes of Croat and Serb women. Although it declined to
specify the source of "the most reasoned estimates suggested to the
mission, "Warburton's group decided to accept and report "the
number of victims at around 20,000."
An inquiry by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights soon
presented a more moderate estimate, however. Its investigators
visited Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia from January 12 to 23, 1993.
In its report of February 10, the Commission, while refraining from
giving an official estimate, mentioned a figure of 2,400 victims.
The estimate was based on 119 documented cases. The report
concluded that Muslims, Croats, and Serbs had been raped, with
Muslims making up the largest number of victims.
Finally, the EC's Committee on Women's Rights held hearings on
February 17 and 18 on the Warburton delegation's findings,
eventually rejecting the estimate of 20,000 Muslim rape victims
because of the lack of documented evidence and testimony. At the
hearing, U.N. War Crimes Commission Chairman Frits Kalshoven
testified that the evidence collected up to that point would not
stand up as proof in a court. Similarly, representatives from the
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees concluded that not enough
independent evidence could be found, while Amnesty International
and the International Committee of the Red Cross concurrently
declared that all sides were committing atrocities and rape.
The resulting handful of rape-produced births also clearly
contradicts claims of waves of systematic rape-induced pregnancies
supposedly treated in Bosnia hospitals and reported by Bosnian
government authorities and Western journalists.
The general lack of follow-up on the rape allegations is in
stark contrasts to the lone account of French journalist Jerome
Bony, who described in a February 4, 1993, broadcast on the French
television program "Envoye Special" his trek to Tuzla, notorious
for its concentration of Muslim rape victims:
"When I was at 50 kilometers from Tuzla I was told, 'go to
Tuzla high school ground (where) there are 4,000 raped women'.
At 20 kilometers this figure dropped to 400. At 10 kilometers only
40 were left. Once at the site, I found only four women willing to
At the height of the rape story, media gullibility reached new
levels. In mid-February 1993, the Associated Press, citing only a
Bosnian government source, reported alleged cannibalism by starving
Muslims in Eastern Bosnia. The story achieved instant headlines in
the United States. Receiving little if any play, however, was the
vigorous denial the following day by U.N. officials in Bosnia, who
rushed to the scene of supposedly starving villagers and discovered
them still in possession of livestock and chickens.
In its effort to force Western military intervention, the media
also critically neglected to report essential details about the
17-hour debate last may that led to the Bosnian Serb Parliament's
rejection of the Vance-Owen plan. No fewer than 50 reports were
filed on the Associated Press and "New York Times" wire services in
the 18 hour period following the final vote by the Bosnia Serb
Parliament, but only one of them attempted a minimal description of
Among their objections were the following:
- the plan's narrow umbilical connection between Serbia and
Serb-populated territories adjacent to Croatia and within
Bosnia was not a defensible, long-term proposition.
- some 460,000 Bosnian Serbs would end up in Muslim provinces
and 160,000 Bosnian Serbs would be located within Croat
- of a total of $31,4 billion in identified assets in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Vance-Owen plan apportioned $18
billion to Muslims, $7,3 billion to Croats, and $6.1 billion
- none of the known deposits of bauxite, lead, zinc, salt, or
iron would be given to the Bosnian Serbs.
- out of 3,900 megawatts in electrical generating capacity,
Muslims would receive 1,765 megawatts, and Croats would
receive 1,220 megawatts, and Serbs would receive 905 megawatts
(all 10 hydroelectric plants would essentially be under the
control of Bosnian Croats).
- of the 920 total kilometers of railway lines, 260 through
Croat areas, and 160 through Serb-controlled lands.
- only 200 out of 1,200 kilometers of improved roadways would
lie within Bosnian Serb jurisdictions.
- Bosnian Serbs would have been required to relinquish or
would have otherwise lost nearly 24 percent of the land they
have held for generations.
"The mauling of Sarajevo, the worst single crime against a
community in Europe since Auschwitz, cannot be watched impassively
night after night on television news bulletins," as Robert Fox of
the London "Daily Telegraph" put it. That was the general image.
But another side of the story deserved more attention.
As early as July 1992, senior Western diplomats had stated
publicly that Bosnian Muslim forces in Sarajevo were repeatedly
provoking Serb shelling of the city to trigger western military
intervention. But few wire stories from Sarajevo bothered to
establish that the almost daily artillery barrages and ceasefire
violations were not always started by Bosnian Serbs, who often,
officials said repeatedly, were returning fire from Muslims who had
fired on Serb targets and neighborhoods first. Without making such
distinctions, stories implied that the Serbs were alone to blame
for the "Siege of Sarajevo." Also, U.N. observers were positioned
primarily to detect artillery actions by Serbs, raising questions
about the volume of non-Serb artillery fire, which was often
observed to be almost as intense as Serb shelling.
"Kosevo" hospital in Sarajevo was a favorite backdrop for
television journalists who, when the hospital's water supply was
interrupted because of the shelling, eagerly awaited the first
birth without water in the maternity ward. Once they got their
pictures, the Western film crews dismantled their cameras and
returned to the nearby Holiday Inn, where hot water was abundant.
Unreported was the fact that on their exit from the hospital they
had to avoid tripping over a shielded Bosnian army mortar
emplacement that was never identified as the probable reason why
Serbs sporadically fired at the hospital.
Countless news stories rarely heeded statements from U.N.
officials that Bosnian Muslim units frequently initiated their own
shelling of Muslim quarters of the city as well as Serb
neighborhoods. For instance, on March 23, 1993, major Pee Galagos
of UNPROFOR in Sarajevo described the previous day's exchanges;
"There were 341 impacts recorded: 133 on the Serbian side and 208
on the Bosnian side with 82 artillery rounds, 29 mortar rounds and
22 tank rounds hitting the Serbians; and 115 artillery, 73 mortar
and 20 tank rounds hitting the Bosnians."
It was a rare exception to the media's usual tilt when, on July
22, 1992, the "Guardian" reported U.N. commander Mackenzie's
reaction to attacks on civilian targets in Sarajevo: "Mortars are
set up beside hospitals, artillery beside schools, mortars and
other weapons are carried in ambulances. I've never seen the Red
Cross abused like that, on both sides." Such reports seldom
appeared in the American media, which may explain some dramatic
differences in the public perspectives about intervention between
Europe and the United States.
French general Phillipe Morillon, following his relief as
commander of UNPROFOR in late June 1993, emphatically blamed the
Bosnian Muslim government for failing to lift the siege of
Sarajevo. In an interview with the Prague daily "Lidove Noviny",
Morillon said the Bosnian regime wanted to keep Sarajevo a focal
point for world sympathy and repeatedly refused to allow UNPROFOR
to achieve a ceasefire.
By mid-1993, the ability to tell the Serb side of the story was
gone, as some observers recognized. "The Serbians have much to say
and as yet have had virtually no opportunity to do so," argued Mary
Hueniken in "The London Free Press." "Sanctions slapped on Serbia
prevent it from hiring a PR firm to help it put its two cents in,"
reported the June 7, 1993, issue of "O'Dwyer's Washington Report,"
a public relations and public affairs publication that monitors the
PR industry in Washington.
"As a result, Serbs, thought surely guilty of numerous
atrocities, have been pilloried in the press. Reporters,
meanwhile, cheer on the out-gunned Bosnians, who undoubtedly have
their own skeletons in the closet, and give Croatia, which wants to
carve up its own chunk of Bosnia, a free ride. The U.S. public
won't get a clear picture of what is really happening in the
Balkans until Serbia is allowed to present its case
The tentative media self-criticism that has emerged so far has
focused superficially on television coverage of the Yugoslav civil
war. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a
nonprofit research organization in Washington, for the first three
months of 1993 the major networks aired 233 stories on Bosnia
during prime-time news, as opposed to only 137 stories on president
Bill Clinton's economic plans.
Similarly, Marc Gunther, of Knight-Ridder newspapers, noted the
"depressing regularity" of ABC's "World News Tonight" broadcasts
about Bosnia. "Is ABC doing too much with the story, or are its
rivals not doing enough? And what accounts for the different
approaches?" he wrote. Gunther's story was based on the "Tyndall
Report", which monitors evening newscasts. It found that ABC's
Yugoslav war reporting had provided 301 minutes of coverage,
compared with 179 for NBC's "Nightly News" and 177 for the CBS'S
"Evening News" during the 11 months that ended in March."
"In 1992, excluding the election, the most covered story on ABC
was the Balkans," Gunther continued. "CBS's top story was the Los
Angeles riots, while NBC devoted the most minutes to Somalia.
ABC's "Nightline", meanwhile, has devoted more than a dozen
programs to the Balkans since last year, many consisting entirely
of reporting from the scene of the fighting." The analysis
suggested a special ABC commitment to the Bosnian war. Gunther
noted that Roone Arledge "has a personal connection to the war
because, as president of ABC sports, he produced coverage of the
1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Last year, David Kaplan, a
producer for ABC's "Prime Time Live", was killed by a sniper's
bullet while preparing a report on the war." Gunther also
underlined Peter Jennings's "personal convictions on Bosnia" and
his admonitions that the world community had failed to ease the
suffering there. An ABC spokesman, contacted for response, said
Gunther and the Knight-Ridder story were "right on the money."
In ABC's case, the motive for its coverage may be easy to find.
But that is not the case for many other news organizations. In the
wake of the negligence and pack journalism that have distorted the
coverage of the Yugoslav civil war to date, the media would be
well-advised to gaze into their own mirrors and consider their
dubious records. At some point, historians or unofficial
international investigation will determine the true culpability of
all the actors in the Yugoslav tragedy. But one of those actors is
the press itself. In Bosnia, where major governments had few
intelligence assets and where the role of international public
opinion was central, it was critical that the news media report
with precision and professionalism. Instead, the epitaph above the
grave of objective and fair reporting in the Yugoslav war probably
will be written with the cynicism conveyed in an internal
memorandum of April 19, 1993, from a cartoonist to his syndicate's
"I was SKEDed earlier today for a cartoon on the Rodney
King verdict to be faxed out this afternoon. However,
given the racial and legal complexities of the case we
have decided that such an issue is best left unaddressed
in the uncompromising language of an editorial cartoon.
I will be sending a cartoon on the war in Bosnia
* * *
* Peter Brock, a special projects and politics editor at the "El
Paso Herald-Post", has lectured and written about Yugoslavia, as
well as Eastern Europe and Russia, since 1976. He is writing a
book on the Western media in the Yugoslav civil war.