The international news story
since mid-1992 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 international media.
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 and spring.
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
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
In fact, the mistakes were
- Street scenes of ravaged
Vukovar in 1991 were later depicted as combat footage from minimally damaged
Dubrovnik on Western television networks...
- 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 detention camp.
- 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
- In its January 4, 1993,
issue, "Newsweek" published a photo of several bodies with an 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 Iugust 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.
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 "airstrikes 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..
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
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
"I've worked with the press
for a long time, and Ihave 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".
killed in the Yugoslav war was the professional mandate to get all sides
of a story and to follow up on 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 late
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, ...
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 centered - 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 government.
Not surprisingly, western
journalists failed to produce meaningful stories with Zagreb datelines
or hard-hitting reports that might shed unfavourable 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 scepticism
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.
The Hidden Hand
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 & Knowltion, 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 Bosnian villages,
finally abbandoned the capital-drained Croatia and hired on exclusivelu
for Bosnia, with its liberal donations from Islamic countries. Soon
after, Ruder Finn scored a public relations home run in helping its Bosnian
Muslim clients dominate the June 1993 conference on human rights in Vienna,
virtually hijacking the two-week agents that climaxed with aN 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.
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 racism.".
An excellent case of hyperbole
was the peculiar statement that appeared in the March 15 Time cover
story... Time also repeated that 70,000 "detention camp inmates"
still existed. That echoed an exaggerated and uncorroborated statistic
from a Sstate 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.
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.