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The Media War

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Issue: 35 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Europe Yugoslavia Topics: Balkans War, public relations

March 19, 2006

The Media War

Part three in a five-part series on the former Yugoslavia

by Dru Oja Jay

[ Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five ]

James Harff, of public relations firm Ruder Finn, claimed credit for the effective demonization of Serbs and the reduction of a historically complex situation to "good guys and bad guys". "The emotive charge," said Harff of the political climate following the campaign, "was so strong that no one could go against the dominant current, except on pain of being accused of revisionism."
Extensive analysis and investigation of the public record has shown that during the series of civil wars that beset the former Yugoslavia, the Western news media provided coverage that was, by any objective standard, misleading and in many cases completely false.

Recent media reports have simply stopped referring to mass graves and death camps where hundreds of thousands of people were--according to breathless TV, radio and newspaper reports during the war--systematically raped, tortured, and killed.

Seven years later, little evidence supporting the conclusion that such vast atrocities took place has surfaced, though casual references to genocide and ethnic cleansing find themselves sharing a sentence with the name Milosevic. Evidence does show that tens of thousands of combatants and civilians died in the tragic decade-long conflict. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, forced to live in refugee camps.

The silence of the same journalists that were scrambling to tell the world about genocide on the scale of "Hitler or Stalin" not only fails to correct the misinformation that hundreds of thousands of innocents were killed, it also undermines the credibility of future reports of genocide. The media's collective credibility is further undermined by its ongoing silence about conflicts where hundreds of thousands of people are being killed, with western complicity or support: in West Papua and Congo, for example.

George Kenney, who resigned from the US State Department in 1992 to protest the Bush administration's policies in the then-disintegrating Yugoslavia, wrote in 1996 that "much of the early war was fought not on the battlefield but through high-powered (and high-priced) lobbying firms."

"Since late 1992 there has also been a splendidly effective volunteer army of journalists, think-tank analysts, Capitol Hill staff and administration hawks pushing the Bosnian, and secondarily Croatian, causes," wrote Kenney. The Yugoslavian civil war began when Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia with US and European funding and encouragement. In the case of Croatia and Bosnia, significant Serb minorities insisted on autonomy or rejoining Yugoslavia, which was not consistent with the US-European plan. The fact that in the case of Croatia, members of the Serb minority had their rights systematically violated by the US- and German-backed government also did not matter.

In America, Kenney wrote, "it is almost impossible to be too anti-Serb."

UN and NATO investigations have shown that military and paramilitary groups on all sides--as well as NATO itself, which dropped 20,000 tonnes of bombs on Serbia--committed atrocities. However, the record also shows that news media repeatedly reported made-up atrocities attributed to Serb forces, while taking minimal interest in atrocities committed against Serbs. Evidence of crimes committed by Serbs sometimes turned out to be crimes perpetrated against Serbs, as was the case with BBC footage of a "Bosnian prisoner of war in a concentration camp" who was later identified as a Bosnian Serb in a Muslim detention camp. No evidence of Serbian "concentration camps" ever surfaced, though conditions in detention camps on all sides were predictably brutal.

In other cases, unidentified bodies were attributed to untold Serb atrocities before having been identified as belonging to a particular ethnic group or even as noncombatants.

In a shocking number of cases, estimates of thousands of victims were reported where later only a few dozen bodies were found.

The most striking example was State Department official David Scheffer's estimate--in the middle of the NATO bombing campaign--that "as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59 remain unaccounted for." This alarming estimate, reported widely in the media, was later reduced when the British government circulated an estimate that 10,000 were missing. A month later, NATO-led peacekeepers told the press that a total of 2,150 bodies had been found, of which 850 were civilians. It was evidence of war crimes, but of a significantly smaller scale than had been initially reported.

The radical revision of estimates after the shocking headlines was often several news cycles behind, which was exemplary of reporting during the war. In most cases, horrifying headlines and stories attributed to "government sources"--often governments with an interest in a particular outcome--were followed up with obscure corrections.

According to many sources, Bosnian Muslim leaders like President Izetbegovic were keenly aware of the impact of images of suffering on international public opinion. In the case of several high-profile massacres in Sarajevo that made headlines and rallied western support, for example, UN investigations later revealed that Bosnian Muslim forces had been responsible for slaughtering their own people. The massacres served their purpose, and western media attention focused on the "siege of Sarajevo" by Serb forces, which were held responsible for the killings.

Many atrocities against Serbs went unreported or underreported, including villages burned to the ground, describing gang rape by Croatian militias (based on the testimony of victims, not unnamed government sources), and murderous attacks--killing hundreds of Serbian civilians--by Muslim forces stationed at Srebrenica prior to the massacre of hundreds of Muslims there by Serb forces.

In the case of Srebrenica, the number of "over 8,000" missing Muslims is often cited, but the number of bodies found in a massive search of the area is under 3,000, as of last October. Only a fraction have been identified, and the bodies include soldiers and fighters on both sides killed in three years of war. One can be relatively certain that Serbian troops executed at least 153 prisoners of war in one case, which few will dispute is a horrific war crime. Evidence on the public record after extensive searches, however, does not support the much larger numbers often cited, or charges of genocide. This does not necessarily mean that larger atrocities did not take place, but simply that supporting evidence has not been found after a major investigation.

Public relations firms played a key role in the disinformation around the war. Ruder Finn was one such firm, employed at various times by Croatia, Muslim Bosnia, and the Albanian parliamentary opposition in Kosovo.

In a notable exception to media orthodoxy, the National Post's Isabel Vincent reported in 1998:

If the plight of Kosovo Albanians is today viewed around the world as an issue of self-determination for an oppressed minority group, then it is largely due to the efforts of former Ruder Finn executive James Harff, who almost single-handedly reduced a historically complex conflict to a black and white morality play, complete with oppressed good guys and bloodthirsty bad guys.

In 1993, Harff told French journalist Jacques Morlino that he was "most proud" of Ruder Finn's successful bid to mobilize major Jewish organizations like the B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. According to Morlino's transcript, Harff said that

There was every reason then for Jewish intellectuals and organizations to be hostile to the Croats and Bosnians. Our challenge was to reverse this state of things. And we succeeded in masterly fashion... The entry into the fray of Jewish organizations on the side of the Bosnians was an extraordinary move. All at once, we were able to make public opinion equate Serbs and Nazis. The dossier was complex, nobody understood what was going on in Bosnia... But in one stroke we were able to present a simple matter, a story with good guys and bad guys. We knew that the business would be played out on this terrain... All at once, there was a very clear change of language in the press with the employment of terms with a very strong emotive value, such as ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, etc., all evoking Nazi Germany, the gas chambers and Auschwitz. The emotive charge was so strong that no one could go against the dominant current, except on pain of being accused of revisionism. We hit the bull's eye.

When Morlino pointed out that Harff didn't have any proof of claims circulated to media by Ruder Finn, Harff responded that "Our business is not to verify information. We're not equipped to do that. Our business... is to accelerate the circulation of information that is favorable to us... That's what we did. We didn't assert that there were death camps in Bosnia, we let it be known that Newsday asserted it."

Pressed by Morlino, Harff insisted, "We're professionals. We had work to do and we did it. We're not paid to practice morality."

Journalists, on the other hand, have taken great pains to point out that they practice morality. In this regard, their continued silence on the question of evidence--while repeating claims without any substantiation--is confusing.

Further Reading:

» Diana Johnstone: Srebrenica Revisited

» Source Watch: Ruder Finn's work for Croatia

» Partial transcript of James Harff's comments to Jacques Morlino

» National Post: International Media Under Attack in Serbia

» George Kenney: Kosovo: On Ends and Means

» George Kenney: Steering Clear of Balkan Shoals

» George Kenney: A Premature Death

» Michael Parenti: The Rational Destruction of Yugoslavia

» Michael Parenti: The Media and their Atrocities

» Michael Parenti: The Demonization of Slobodan Milosevic

» Ruder Finn: Official Site

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