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Prof. Dr John BURNS

Serbs and the West: The Role of the Media in Defining Policy Towards Serbia and the Serbs

From the outbreak of war within the borders of post-war Yugoslavia, in Slovenia during the summer of 1991, more has been written and spoken about the events and their causes, the atrocities and the failures to deal successfully with those wars than on almost any other single topic. Yet the themes discussed and written about are predominantly only individual atrocities, pious expectations for certain future actions and the apportioning of blame, primarily and effectively against the Serbs, for the existence of a state of war. In a nutshell, were it not for Serbia and the Serbian political leadership, civil and "international" conflict would not have arisen.1

A secondary theme is that of the failure of international institutions to prevent this civil conflict, and flowing from this perceived failure, numerous suggestions within diplomatic, political and journalistic circles have been made for the future organization and development of security and political institutions: specifically, the United Nations, the European Union, Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe as well as European defense structures (the Eurocorps, Western European Union).

However, if the following analysis of the global media effect upon foreign policies of "western" powers is correct, then the debates being held within Europe on future security arrangements are based heavily upon a mistaken view of Serbia, the Serbs of former Yugoslavia and the ethnic elements which constituted that Yugoslavia. Such analysis should be of interest to us in the "West", for the implications for our own futures and to you here, as a sad reflection upon the difficult task that faces Serbia and the Serbs to reintegrate fully into the European family where they belong.

Furthermore, it is significant that many of the characteristics of journalistic practice which are criticized and identified in this paper are far from unique to the Yugoslav context,2 but they are intensified and highlighted to an unusual degree and often invalidated by emotional hysteria.

Few serious journalists would admit to deliberate bias, however in the Yugoslav context and with regard to matters Serbian, normal good journalistic practice evaporates and stories are transmitted without verification and characterization of sides is simplified to an unacceptable degree. This, in turn, does have an effect upon the formulation of foreign policies of western governments, in a direction that many would not choose, but feel pressured to do so. Boutros Boutros-Ghali told a CNN Conference in Atlanta in May 1993 that "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... Public emotion becomes so intense that the United Nations' work is undermined."

Our criticism of the journalists' method towards Yugoslav matters begins with their simplification of a complex political scenario. "Western-looking" democratic Republics were contrasted with the ex-Communist expansionist "undemocratic" state of Serbia, seeking to create its dream of a "Greater Serbia". Once that hypothesis had been postulated, all other facts and events were made to fit the scenario. For example, it was absurd to label the President of Serbia an "ex-Communist", whilst omitting to recall that every one of the leaders in Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro were themselves ex-Communists. The label is meaningless except to denote that these were career politicians, not recently elevated individuals. Of course, the Bosnian Muslim leadership are in a different category.

The concept of self-determination as the ultimate right, as defined by the original seceding Republics, Slovenia and Croatia, has been accepted without proper questioning. Few commentators and no public figures have compared the treatment of the "peace process" in Northern Ireland with that in former Yugoslavia. No UK government could ever contemplate with equanimity the unilateral seizure of national assets or customs posts in Northern Ireland by any group, religious or ethnic and yet such actions in Yugoslavia were accepted as justified.

The received view of the war in Croatia was centered upon reports emanating from Croatian government press conferences and spokesmen, with little firsthand verification.3 Few reporters were based in Belgrade or Serbian territories and film of corpses and destruction appeared on British and American televisions as evidence almost entirely of Serb military operations.

Similarly, most reporting from the Bosnian conflict is concentrated in and around Sarajevo, elevating tragedies on a small scale to world-level, whilst ignoring tragedies on an equal or greater scale elsewhere in Bosnia-Hercegovina.4 Marcel Ophulus, in his documentary "War Correspondent" filmed in 1994, speaks scathingly of false war correspondents, many of whom lived in Sarajevo "but some journalists live here (Sarajevo) and have never left the TV station".

Such a picture based so heavily in one camp must inevitably be distorted and compound errors of interpretation through ignorance of other events or points of view and through the deliberate omission of contrary evidence. In other words, if the facts do not fit the preconception, they are omitted altogether.

It is this second type of journalistic practice that lies at the heart of the way in which foreign policies are skewed by the effects of dramatic television and printed reports. From 1991-2 some 251.000 Serbs left Croatia and were housed in Serbia, as reported upon in detail by the UN Secretary-General in March 1993. No detailed reports of this movement of people were published and so they do not feature as one element in the pressures upon international bodies to act on behalf of one or other side. If we look only at examples from this year of the war, there are dozens of examples of the way in which the electronic and print media distort the public's view of the Yugoslav scene through omission or use of language.5

For example, around the 28 July 1995 Croatian army troops launched an offensive causing some 7.000 Serbs from Glamoc and 6,000 from Grahovo to flee. Apart from the bare fact of this taking place, no interviews with refugees, no detailed film and harrowing photographs were published. Instead, BBC World Service of 29th. July headlined firstly UN concern for missing Muslims in the hills around Zepa, which was described by a UN spokesman as "burnt and looted". No such descriptive phrases were used for the Croatian actions, which were described as "the Croatian army continued to advance..." and had "taken" two Serb towns in the Livno valley.

In the same vein, ITN Channel 4 News reported on the 16th. October 1995 about muslim refugees from the Sanski Most/Prijedor region. Gaby Rado, the reporter, gave full and detailed interviews with refugees about their uncorroborated and unverified experiences. There is often a short disclaimer at the end of such reports that acknowledges these stories are unchecked, but they are still transmitted in all their detail. In the same period, Serbs were being expelled from Kljuc and other towns, but not one interview with one Serb was used in the same context.

The Bosnian Muslim and Croat authorities are fully aware of the power of the media to affect policy. It is interesting to note that Anthony Lloyd in The Times of 5th. July 1995 wrote of the harassment of foreign journalists by Muslim Army troops when it seemed as if despite every endeavor and the full weight of the media circus western powers would not directly engage in a war against the Serbs on the side of the Bosnian government. Revealingly, Lloyd repeats that which we have noted earlier "the media (is forced) to rely either on official information channels, or alternatively on going it alone, a recourse that results in abuse and arrest at any number of roadway checkpoints. In Sarajevo, the foreign press is denied access to anything but the most banal of official statements."

Sometimes a more balanced view of the Yugoslav situation emerges, but this is either ignored completely or never repeated by other channels or newspapers. The Vase Miskina street massacre in 1992 is the obvious first example, used as the trigger of SCR Resolution 757. The Independent of 22nd. August 1992, as did The Time 24th. August, reported in full the UN's unpublished report that this was not attributable as a Serb atrocity, but the event is still regularly quoted in books and articles.6 Similarly the Markale Market massacre of 1995, triggering the NATO bombardment of Bosnian Serb military assets and affecting the course of the war in favour of the Muslim/Croat federation, was shown in The Sunday Times of 1st October 1995 to be wholly unattributable to Serb actions.7 These examples are further confirmed by Lord Owen in his own writings.

I have tried to give some broad picture of the way in which the mass media have a significant effect upon our perceptions of Yugoslavia and the Serbs. It is a sad and difficult task for Serbia to counteract these pressures and indeed, it is noticeable that another campaign is developing, even as the Dayton agreement is being signed.

Since late August 1995, distracting attention from the military attacks by Croatia upon the Krajina Serbs, allegations of mass graves in Serb areas of eastern Bosnia have been promulgated, in the first instance by the United States Ambassador to the UN. From this time the phrase "up to 1.0,000" men have disappeared from Srebrenica regularly appears in the media. The figure seems to originate in the International Committee of the Red Cross Report of 1.7 August 1995, which states that "up to 10,000 tracing requests have been made" from the displaced persons in Tuzla and Srebrenica. A tracing request is not synonymous with a casualty. The same report affirms that several thousand men escaped from Srebrenica and were deployed into the Bosnian government forces and "were not given an opportunity to contact their families in Tuzla". The theme of "possible" mass graves in Serb areas has developed considerably in January 1996. Typical of the genre of reporting are significant reports from Ljubija and other towns which provide not one known fact, but a mass of speculation.

Some comfort may be drawn from the fact that opinion poll surveys in the United States and the UK show that, despite the overwhelming media concentration upon one side, the ordinary people do not wholly believe that which they are being fed. So the media affect governments in the short term, to be seen to "do something", but in the longer term foreign policy rarely follows the whims of the "laptop bombardiers". Long may we ignore the wishes of those without responsibility or answerability.


Europe and the Serbs


1. Underlying most analysis is that the Serbs and the JNA were the primary aggressors. This is most openly stated recently by Vlad Sobell, "NATO, Russia end the Yugoslav War", The World Today 51(1995) 213 n. 4.

2. Two examples of complaints about media bias and distortion are interesting since they come from right-wing sources: firstly in the right-wing magazine The Spectator, which has campaigned vociferously and often maliciously against the Serbs, Anthony Sampson, Review article Andrew Marr, Ruling Britannia, The Spectator, 9 September 1995, 41, "The commentator's role is inevitably much less responsible. They are not interested in follow-up or detailed investigation... most of the media are becoming more trivialized just as they are becoming more influential. Their columnists are paid to attract readers by stirring things up and creating controversy"; Report by Tom Spencer, MEP, Leader of the Conservative Group in the European Parliament, February 7995, "Media - Mad or Bad?"
It is worth noting also that whilst it is accepted as an axiom that the media in the warring countries and factions are controlled, censored, biased and liable to exaggeration or omission, a similar skepticism is rarely trained towards the western media. Cf. Mark Thompson, Forging War: The media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Article 79, London 1994.

3. Misha Glenny The Times 22 September 1992 recalls that "the overwhelming majority (of foreign journalists killed) were on their first assignment in Yugoslavia". An interesting parallel with the inexperience of the journalists is that of the State Department officials who have resigned in the course of trying to encourage more active policies from Washington. None had had military experience or had even visited Yugoslavia, except for one who had been in Macedonia for four months, sec Lenard J. Cohen, Broken Bonds; Yugoslavia's disintegration and Balkan politics in transition,2 Westview, Colorado and Oxford 1995, 324 on n. 37.
Ian Traynor in The Guardian sometimes relies for whole stories upon one source: "Croatian government spokesman" and "official" 24 July 1991, 26 July 1991. Sylvia Poggioli in Niemann Reports, Harvard 1993 describes her experience both in Slovenia and Croatia of the careful guidance and psychological manipulation of foreign journalists.

4. A striking example is the contrast in coverage between the events in Sarajevo during late January to 5th. February 1994 and events in Kabul in the same period. Civil wars raged in both Bosnia-Hercegovina and Afghanistan. However, from the western press, only the BBC had one reporter in Kabul in late January 1994. In Sarajevo it is said that 68 people died on February 5th. and approximately 30 in the previous three weeks. In one week in Kabul, the ICRC estimated 10,000 Afghan citizens died from aerial and Grad multiple rockets, in addition to normal artillery bombardment. One report for the BBC's Newsnight tried to cover this human carnage, but world interest was concerned only with Sarajevo.

5. E.g. there is a curious silence in the media on prisoner camps run by the Croat and Muslim sides, in Bosnia or in Croatia itself. Indeed, one wonders where the 900 prisoners exchanged in the last week of January 1996 have been held, since they have not existed as far as the western media have been concerned. The only camps referred to are Roy Gutman's "concentration" camps.

6. Despite the immediate reports in British newspapers questioning the responsibility for the bread queue explosion, most subsequent commentators do not entertain the possibility of one warring faction firing upon its own citizens. The suggestion is usually ridiculed as impossible, as for example, Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia, Penguin and BBC, London 1995, 344 referring to the 1992 massacre and the February 1994 market square. Naturally such certainty enters the consciousness of the general public cf. the poem The Bright Lights of Sarajevo by Tony Harrison, The Guardian 5 September 1995 ...where in 1992/ Serb mortars massacred the breadshop queue/ and blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread/ lay on this pavement with the broken dead".
The carefully considered views of those politicians and soldiers who had direct involvement in the daily negotiation in Bosnia are not so sure: Lewis Mackenzie, Peacekeeper. The Road to Sarajevo, Vancouver/Toronto 1.993 308. Referring to the Markale Market massacre, even the American press admits the uncertainty, cf. lames Rupert, The Washington Post 9 March 1994, "UN team said it could not pinpoint the source of the attack..." and Boris Johnson, The Sunday Telegraph 13 February 1994 remarks upon the editing of the television footage released by CNN and analyses its influence on the episode.

7. Hugh McManners, The Sunday Times 1 October 1995, quoting British ammunition experts who had examined the scene. Lord Owen repeated his doubts about responsibility for spectacular explosions in a BBC interview for Panorama October 1995.