Oct 1 1992

Death Camps and Desert Storm Frame Bosnia Coverage

Emaciated prisoners, cattle car deportations, genocide. This summer, starting with a Newsday expose (8/2/92) based on the testimonies of two Bosnian Muslims, an extraordinary flood of emotionally charged words and pictures led the evening news, made the covers of Time and Newsweek, and dominated political commentary. From Bill Clinton to Margaret Thatcher, Anthony Lewis to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, calls to action–and to arms–gained momentum and a sense of moral imperative.

As a Washington Post editorial argued (“And Now, Death Camps,” 8/5/92), the Serbs’ “Nazi-like war crimes” were the “clincher” in asserting the need to try “some sort of military option.” “The net effect of the week of horrors and political reactions to them,” the Post reported (8/9/92), “was to increase sharply U.S. and international pressure against Serbia and to move the United States closer to taking part in U.N. military intervention in the former Yugoslav republics.”

Amid the sensationalist coverage, a few sobering facts filtered through. U.S. intelligence officials, who had “redoubled and tripled their efforts to establish what had been happening in detention camps for Croats and Muslims,” found no evidence of systematic killing of prisoners (New York Times, 8/23/92–although Times editorialists continued to write of death camps and “genocide,” 8/28/92). The Guardian‘s correspondent (8/12/92) reported that “all camps run by the Serbian Army [as opposed to two run by autonomous militias] were of good standard.”

The Red Cross consistently maintained that all sides ran internment camps under deplorable conditions, and when they were granted partial access to camps run by Croatian forces they found women and children held as “part of a policy of forced transfers of populations.” (AP, 8/14/92; Guardian, 8/15/92) Holocaust historian Simon Wiesenthal warned against a “minimization” of the term “concentration camps,” and reminded the press that “the first refugees were the 40,000 Serbs who fled Croatia after a constitutional amendment defined them as a minority.” (International Herald Tribune, 8/12/92)

Such reports, however, have had little effect on the bulk of U.S. press coverage, which has scrutinized and sensationalized the conduct of only one of the warring parties, in a way usually reserved for an enemy in time of war. Of course, some are already looking forward to putting Serbia in that role: “The Way to Win the War in Yugoslavia” was the title of a Wall Street Journal op-ed (8/20/92).

Public debate on Bosnia-Herzegovina has largely taken its cue from the images and rhetoric of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The focus on atrocities (real and manufactured), the comparisons to Hitler, the “spectre of Munich”–all were made common currency during the Gulf War. Belatedly and incompletely brought to light with respect to the Gulf War, the role of PR firms in manipulating public opinion and policy on the Balkan conflict is just beginning to be exposed. (See “Spin Doctors of War,” New Statesman & Society, 7/31/92.)

“Getting Away with Murder”

Civil war in the old Yugoslavia began in the summer of 1991, and as reported in Extra! last year (“Cold War Lives On in Yugoslavia Reporting,” 11-12/91), it was from the beginning miscast by U.S. news media as a simple morality play pitting communist aggressors against democratic freedom fighters, resulting in coverage that “presented the official Croatian view and the Croatian view of the Serbian view.” Since the fighting spread this spring to Bosnia and Herzegovina, print and television coverage have increased dramatically, but balanced reporting and informed public debate remain scarce.

Coverage has focused on the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, where scenes of urban destruction and disrupted daily life provide powerful images. But throughout the republic, Serbian, Croatian and Muslim militias fight for territory, wreaking havoc on a scale often much greater than in Sarajevo.

When journalists do venture beyond the capital, their reporting remains selectively focused on the Serbian military campaign in the east. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Croatian troops, manned and armed by the Croatian government, take large swaths of territory–“cleansing” villages along the way–while the news media turn a largely blind eye. (A rare exception was the Los Angeles Times, 6/18/92.) Ignoring such major military operations in a republic smaller than West Virginia and teeming with reporters is no mean feat.

And the implications are lethal, as a Red Cross official pointed out: “The Croatian side is committing the same if not worse atrocities in the west of Bosnia. They are getting away–literally–with murder. If you want to see justice done, then the sooner Croatia is exposed and punished in the same way, the better.” (London Times, 7/12/92)

An August 14 Washington Post report acknowledged the distortion in the media: “The fighting in Bosnia is often portrayed in black-and-white terms: valiant Croats and Muslims versus the Serbs. But the situation is infinitely more complex…. Each community has multiple forces that may act out of central control. They form overt or tacit alliances that change from region to region and day to day, and sometimes fight other forces of the same communal group.” Recognizing this complexity, however, is generally dismissed as cowardly dithering and appeasement, “an escape hatch through which outside powers flee their responsibilities,” as the New Republic put it (8/17/92).

Dissenting Opinions

When Nightline aired a debate on U.S. intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina (6/10/92), they invited two guests: the republic’s Muslim Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic, a vocal proponent of U.S. military strikes against Serbian forces–and syndicated columnist Anthony Lewis, a vocal proponent of U.S. military strikes against Serbian forces.

Discussion about intervention is not always so skewed. The intense pressure for “action” has brought out cautionary voices about the potential costs (to Americans) of military involvement. As in the run-up to the bombardment of Iraq, these often come from military analysts. For example, an August 4 panel on MacNeil/Lehrer featured Canadian Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the head of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo, along with three retired officers. (MacKenzie, who is interviewed frequently, has presented a more realistic analysis of the civil war than most media sources, speaking with authority on the chaos in Sarajevo and the shared responsibility for its continuing tragedy.)

While its own military campaign and “ethnic cleansing” operations receive scant coverage, Croatia does come in for occasional chastisement as a “Butcher’s Apprentice” (New York Times editorial, 7/8/92) for its thinly veiled territorial ambitions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman’s authoritarian rule has garnered some attention, as has his minimization of the Nazi genocide of Jews (although more important to him, and relevant to the current situation, is his belittling of the World War II genocide against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina). But these reports are rarely placed in a useful context, other than a smug shrug at Balkan backwardness. (“Croationism: The Latest Balkan Ugliness” was the ugly title of a New Republic piece on Tudjman’s historical revisionism–11/25/91.)

Images of Atrocities

Coverage of Yugoslavia “has been driven by pictures of violence,” an anonymous senior network producer told the New York Times (6/10/92). “Everybody seems to want to go for the blood…. It’s back to, ‘Cut me a minute of bang-bang.’ But nobody wants to go into the issues behind the bangs.” In turn, images of atrocities have driven U.S. and international policy toward the conflict.

The most spectacular example was the May 27 Sarajevo breadline massacre, which occurred shortly before the European Community was to consider sanctions against Serbia. The gruesome pictures of blood-drenched pavement and severed limbs were broadcast around the world, and the press–despite lack of evidence–concluded that this was a deliberate Serbian mortar attack: “cease-fire, Serbian-style” (U.S. News & World Report, 6/8/92), “shattering hopes that Serbian aggression had been curbed by the threat of international sanctions.” (L.A. Times, 5/28) Within several days, the Bush administration, citing the attack, championed the passage of severe UN sanctions against Serbia.

Only three months later was it revealed in a front-page story in the London Independent (8/22/92) that

United Nations officials and Western military officers believe some of the worst recent killings in Sarajevo, including the massacre of at least 16 people in a bread queue, were the work of the city’s mainly Muslim defenders–not Serb besiegers–as a propaganda ploy to win world sympathy and trigger military intervention.

This sensational revelation–that the press had been spectacularly duped–was carried by a number of U.S. news agencies (AP, Reuters, CNN, ABC), though not as prominently as the initial incident. Among those ignoring the story was the New York Times , which had given front-page coverage to what it treated as deliberate Serbian attacks–both the breadline massacre and another incident believed to have been similarly staged, the August 4 attack on a funeral for “Croatian orphan” Vedrana Glavas (in fact Serbian, and not an orphan).

The breadline massacre was not the first time that the New York Times, whose coverage had been among the most one-sided, has reported fiction as fact. Sometimes the paper ignores its own reports, as in a June 27 headline, “Serbs Shatter Airport Truce,” over an article that notes in paragraph 7 that Bosnian government forces “admitted” to breaking the cease-fire.

“Issues Behind the Bangs”

The lack of context becomes increasingly dangerous as the U.S. slides toward possible intervention. ABC‘s Peter Jennings candidly told the New York Times about Yugoslavia (6/10/92), “You can’t get the public to understand if the journalists don’t understand.”

But is reporters’ ignorance the sole problem? The media may be reluctant to ask questions about U.S. responsibility that go beyond the myth that the Bush administration has “done nothing” vis-a-vis Yugoslavia. Despite the warnings of UN envoy Cyrus Vance and many others, the U.S. led the way this spring in premature recognition of Bosnian independence, directly contributing to the outbreak of war (as BBC correspondent Misha Glenny predicted in the Jan. 30 New York Review of Books).

The media spotlight on the brutality of the Serbian military campaign in Bosnia and the plight of Bosnian Muslim and Catholic (Croat) civilians may help bring humanitarian relief, improved prison conditions, and redoubled international peace efforts. But if it does not also illuminate the conduct of Muslim and Croat forces and the suffering of Bosnian Orthodox (Serb) civilians, the strength of the “moral imperative” is diminished.

And the selective outrage has dangerous implications. As Gen. MacKenzie pointed out on MacNeil/Lehrer (8/4/92), saber-rattling “really blows the negotiations”–as one side awaits, and tries to induce, outside involvement. We can only hope that the media begin to address the “issues behind the bangs” before we find ourselves sifting through the rubble of Balkan Storm.