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"It is a rare occasion that a member of the Politburo mentiones the Truth:

Writing about the meeting with Haris Silajdzic on April 14th, 1992, at the very beginning of the civil war in Bosnia, James Baker III, US Secretary of State, in a roundabout way, gives a hard to come by detail on setting "free" Western media into action:

"The politics of diplomacy: Revolution, war and peace, 1989-1992," 
James Baker, III with Thomas M. DeFrank 
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons 
ISBN 0-399-14087-5

Pages 643-644:

" ... After the meeting, I had Larry Eagleburger take Silajdzic to see the EC troika political directors (who happened to be visiting the Department) and asked Margaret Tutwiler to talk to the Foreign Minister about the importance of *using* Western mass media to build support in Europe and North America for the Bosnian cause. I also had her talk to her contacts at the four television networks, the "Washington Post," and the "New York Times" to try to get more attention focused on the story. ... "


by Peter Brock

Published in:
Number 93, Winter 1993-94,
pages 152 - 172.

For fair use only
Published under the provision of
U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.


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 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:

- 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 different story.

- 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.

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 "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 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 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".

Also 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 timing".

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 Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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

"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 & 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.

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.


Integral text of the above article...

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.

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