In the lead-up to NATO’s Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999, U.S. media coverage took a propagandistic tone—blaming a long-standing, multifaceted conflict almost entirely on the Serbs, or even solely on one man, Slobodan Milosevic. At the time, FAIR pointed to the region’s complex history of ethnic confrontation, including the chronic turmoil of the 1980s, when it was the Albanian majority, then enjoying broad political autonomy, that was accused of discrimination and abuses aimed at driving out the Slavic minority (Extra!, 5-6/99).
Much of the media portrayed the Kosovo conflict as little more than a racial pogrom orchestrated by the Serbs for the simple purpose of satisfying their own consuming hatreds. The fact that Serbian atrocities were taking place in the context of a full-scale armed Albanian guerrilla insurgency was often strangely missing.
Now an almost identical ethnic clash has erupted in neighboring Macedonia, but the press’s coverage is almost a reverse image of its Kosovo reporting. In each case, reporters and pundits have deferred to U.S. officials’ view of the situation: While the war in Kosovo was blamed on the Serbian authorities rather than the Albanian guerrillas, blame for today’s clashes in Macedonia is placed mostly on the shoulders of the Albanian insurgents rather than the pro-NATO government.
In October 1997, when the Kosovo Liberation Army first began shooting at Serbian police and civilian officials, New York Times editorialists (10/23/97) blamed the Serbs. They wrote that the disturbances proved “the adage that those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent ones inevitable.” Since 1989, the editorial explained, Albanians had been peacefully campaigning for a restoration of Kosovo’s political autonomy, but “recently some Albanians, frustrated that politics is getting them nowhere, have turned to attacks” on the Serbian government.
The editorial condemned the Serbs’ response as “indiscriminate repression”— though by that point, very early in the conflict, Serbia’s heavy-handed police maneuvers had caused few civilian deaths—and called on Washington to “increase the pressure on Belgrade” to carry out reforms and allow international monitors. No pressure or demands on the Albanian militants were urged.
Contrast that with a recent Times editorial (3/13/01) on the sudden wave of Albanian guerrilla attacks in Macedonia. Far from accusing the Macedonian government of provoking Albanians’ anger, the editorialists declared that
the West must make clear to this militant [Albanian] fringe that they will not be allowed to set off another Balkan war. . . . Macedonia itself must summon the political and military strength needed to blunt this challenge. . . . Responsible Albanian political leaders in Kosovo must now be equally forthright in isolating the armed militants. . . . If they cannot do so effectively, NATO may have to increase its military pressure on the guerrillas.
Yet just like the Kosovars, the Albanians of Macedonia have been subject to heavy state repression in the recent fighting. According to Human Rights Watch, government forces have engaged in “wanton destruction and looting of villages” populated by Albanians. Moreover, the fighting follows a decade of Albanian disillusionment with what they see as fruitless political dialogue amid constant Slavic police brutality. Although Kosovo’s nationalist clashes were, until recently, more frequent than Macedonia’s human rights organizations in Macedonia have documented a long and persistent record of ethnic abuses that have been all but ignored in the U.S. (Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 3/21/01; Fair.org, 4/13/01).
Reporters writing about the current rebellion have largely tiptoed around the subject of Macedonian human rights abuses. In a piece about the mobilization for war among ethnic Albanian expatriates in the U.S., the New York Times‘ Chris Hedges (3/19/01) tersely noted that Albanians in Macedonia “complain of discrimination and harassment from Macedonia’s Slav majority.”
Yet during the Kosovo war, Hedges spoke passionately about pre-war abuses in Serb-ruled Kosovo; calling it “a phenomenally repressive and brutal government,” and argued that “the Serbs forfeited their right to rule Kosovo by that kind of behavior” (NPR‘s Talk of the Nation, 6/7/99).
What explains the media’s reluctance to condemn abuses in Macedonia as forcefully as they did the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo? As usual, reporters and editors seem to be taking their cues from U.S. policymakers. In the Kosovo conflict, secretary of state Madeleine Albright and her aides were determined to “unite the Europeans behind air strikes by clearly defining the aggressor and the victim” (James Rubin, Financial Times, 9/30/00).
By contrast, Macedonia is viewed by U.S. policymakers across the political spectrum as a loyal regional partner of NATO and a bulwark against instability. Far from hoping to launch “humanitarian-“- airstrikes against the country, U.S. and European officials have acted to shore up the shaky Macedonian government.
But journalists should not let the calculations of policy planners influence their coverage of human rights issues in the Balkans. Violence on both sides must be reported, and the grievances of each side examined. Just as the media were irresponsible in framing the Kosovo war as a simple story of Serbian violence against Albanians, they should not play down the very real abuses committed against Albanians by the pre-NATO government of Macedonia.