Sep 1 2000

Propaganda or Patriotism?

The media, the military and the ICTY

On June 2, the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) announced that its 11-month assessment found no reason to open a criminal investigation of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Five days later, Amnesty International released a report, “‘Collateral Damage’ or Unlawful Killings?,” finding that NATO had committed “serious violations of the laws of war.” One of these violations, the April 23 bombing of the Serbian State Television and Radio (RTS) building, was found to meet the legal definition of a war crime.

To “avoid any impression that [the Tribunal] was whitewashing” allegations of misconduct by one of the court’s major funders (Associated Press, 6/14/00), ICTY Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte took the unusual step on June 13 of making public the ICTY’s internal report on NATO’s conduct during the Kosovo War. Unfortunately, the ICTY report, which contends that NATO acted lawfully although “mistakes were made,” does nothing to dispel the impression of whitewashing. On the contrary, it reveals a disturbing willingness to accept NATO leaders’ assertions of their own innocence as exculpatory evidence. Most dangerously, the ICTY’s endorsement of NATO’s rationale for bombing RTS blurs the line between civilian media and military targets.

Both the Amnesty and ICTY reports have received scant media coverage. Ironically, the media’s increasing closeness to the military—well demonstrated by its “patriotic” bias during the Kosovo war—seems to have led them into tacit acceptance of NATO’s efforts to redefine journalists as legitimate targets.

NATO war crimes? Big deal.

The Washington Post’s coverage of Amnesty’s report consisted of a 309-word AP story on page A26 (6/7/00), and a mention in a related column by Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt (6/19/00). Hiatt referred to Amnesty’s report only in passing, in the context of an attack on “self-satisfied human rights lobbyists.” The New York Times ran its own story on page A7 (6/8/00), but never followed up on the issue. Several smaller newspapers ran either a short “World Briefing” paragraph on the Amnesty report, a single AP article or the Times article with no follow-up. Two op-eds on the topic also appeared (Boston Globe, 6/20/00; San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/16/00). That was the extent of the attention that the story got from major newspapers and magazines.

Television coverage was even more meager. ABC World News Tonight devoted all of two sentences to Amnesty’s findings (6/7/00); neither NBC‘s nor CBS‘s nightly news shows addressed the subject at all (Extra! Update, 6/13/00). Perhaps the only mainstream show to devote an episode to Amnesty’s findings was The Edge With Paula Zahn (Fox News Channel, 6/16/00)–although it did so without a guest from Amnesty to discuss them.

Perhaps the media’s lackadaisical response to Amnesty’s accusations shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering their muted reaction to the attack on RTS when it occurred. According to Amnesty, the RTS building was occupied by at least 120 civilians at the time of the NATO bombing, most of them working technicians or other production staffers. At least 16 people were killed and 16 others wounded.

Yet a search of magazines and major newspapers in the Nexis database found only four editorials about RTS in the month following the attack, all in regional papers (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/27/99 and 4/28/99; St. Petersburg Times, 5/1/99; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5/3/99).

Foreign journalists, including reporters from major Western outlets, were well-acquainted with RTS, having frequented the station throughout the war in order to use its satellite linkup. The questions of who NATO warned of the attack and when are disputed, but it is clear that NATO gave some Western news outlets advance notice. CNN, for one, admits that it received word “several days” before the attack to evacuate its personnel (Democracy Now!, 3/24/00).

Yet CNN did not air any reports before the bombing disclosing that the network had official warning of an upcoming attack, even though the likelihood of a NATO strike on RTS was being debated by the press at the time. Neither does the network appear to have taken steps to alert fellow journalists at RTS that they were in danger.

The American media’s unwillingness to defend the rights of “enemy” journalists was also reflected by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) exclusion of the 16 RTS employees from their much-cited annual list of reporters attacked or killed for their work. Although the CPJ condemned the RTS bombing when it occurred, the group claims that RTS forfeited its status as a journalistic entity by fomenting ethnic hatred in previous Balkan wars. (See sidebar.)

To date, no mainstream report found in the Nexis database has focused specifically on the ICTY’s absolution of NATO for the RTS bombing, and what significance it may have for the working press.

Making media into military targets

Both Amnesty and the ICTY agree that the key question in determining the legality of NATO’s attack is whether the RTS building met the definition of a military target set out in Article 52(2) of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which states that legitimate targets “are limited to those objects which…make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization…offers a definite military advantage.”

In the case of RTS, the question hinges on whether the station was targeted simply for its role as a propaganda outlet, or, as NATO has sometimes claimed, because it was an integral part of the FRY’s military communications network. Amnesty states unequivocally that attacking a civilian media outlet because of biased programming “stretches the meaning of ‘effective military action’ and ‘definite military advantage’ beyond the acceptable bounds of interpretation.” Similarly, the ICTY states that “the media is not a legitimate military objective” even if it produces propaganda “to foster support for the war effort.”

The ICTY report, however, goes on to qualify its defense of the press, remarking that media may be a legitimate target “if the media is the nerve system that keeps a war-monger in power and thus perpetuates the war effort.” Journalists, take heed: Propaganda that “fosters support for the war effort” is protected under the Geneva Conventions, but propaganda that “perpetuates the war effort” makes you fair game for military attack.

The ICTY’s language about the media as “nerve system” seems to have been lifted from an April 23 NATO press briefing cited in the ICTY’s report: “‘[We need to] directly strike at the very central nerve system of Milosevic’s regime.'” The ICTY report states that NATO’s attack on RTS was legal because the station was not simply a civilian media outlet, but an “integral” part of a network which was “essential to Milosevic’s ability to direct and control the repressive activities of his army.” In explaining how it reached this judgment, the Tribunal cites only one source–NATO press releases.

NATO’s explanations for the bombing have shifted over time, however, and the Tribunal simply discounted the more incriminating rationales. Early NATO statements focused on the need to “degrade” the Milosevic regime’s “ability to transmit their version of the news” (NATO press briefing, 4/23/00). The Associated Press’s initial report on the attack (4/23/00) noted that “NATO has long said Serbian television was a legitimate target because it was spreading ‘propaganda’ about the allied air campaign.” On the day of the bombing, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart reiterated that the station was targeted because it was a propaganda tool, and British Foreign Secretary Robert Cook explained the strike as part of NATO’s campaign to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s “poisonous propaganda” (Agence France Presse, 4/23/00).

However, when Amnesty requested a formal explanation of the attack, NATO sent the group a letter with an altogether different rationale, claiming that RTS was bombed not to stifle propaganda, but because its facilities were “being used as radio relay stations and transmitters to support the activities of the FRY military.” But NATO changed its tune again in a later meeting with Amnesty, “clarifying” that the letter’s “reference to relay stations and transmitters was to other attacks on the RTS infrastructure and not this particular attack on the RTS headquarters.” According to Amnesty’s report, the NATO officials at the meeting “insisted” that the attack was carried out not because RTS was itself a military object, but “because RTS was a propaganda organ and propaganda is direct support for military action.”

Clearly misrepresenting the facts, the ICTY cited NATO’s letter to Amnesty as proof that the bombing was legal because NATO’s goal of silencing RTS propaganda “was an incidental (albeit complementary) aim” of its main goal of “disabling the Serbian military command and control system.” Nowhere does the ICTY report acknowledge the key point of Amnesty’s findings, namely, that NATO officials themselves later admitted–in fact, “insisted”–that this was untrue. Since the ICTY holds that the RTS bombing was legal only “insofar as the attack was aimed at disrupting the [military] communications network,” excluding this crucial evidence was the only way the Tribunal could avoid having to indict alliance officials for a war crime.

Keeping “war-mongers” in power

Why did the ICTY twist the facts to avoid indicting NATO? Shortly after the Kosovo war, NATO spokesperson Jamie Shea was asked whether NATO leaders could ever be indicted by the ICTY. Shea’s reply, which went largely unreported in the U.S. press, suggests a financial explanation: “Without NATO there would be no tribunal because NATO countries are in the forefront of those who have established the Tribunal, who fund this Tribunal and who support its activities on a daily basis” (Inter Press Service, 7/1/99). Research by Canadian attorney Christopher Black (, 11/21/99) confirms that the U.S. and other governments have provided direct funding to the ICTY, even though the court’s charter prohibits it from accepting monies not dispersed by the regular budget of the U.N. “In the last year for which public figures are available,” reports Black, “the United States provided $700,000 in cash and $2,300,000 worth of equipment.”

More difficult to explain is why American media have self-destructively turned a blind eye to NATO’s efforts to turn the ICTY into a kangaroo court and rewrite the laws of war to make journalists legitimate targets. The press’s longstanding ties to the military are part of the answer. Asked about his use of the term “we” to describe U.S. attacks on Belgrade’s civilian infrastructure, CBS’s Dan Rather explained at a National Press Club appearance (6/25/99): “When U.S. pilots in U.S. aircraft turn off the lights, for me, it’s ‘we.’ And about that I have no apology.” Elaborating further on his approach to war reporting, Rather said, “I’m an American, and I’m an American reporter. And yes, when there’s combat involving Americans, you can criticize me if you must, damn me if you must, but I’m always pulling for us to win.”

Such rationalization of jingoistic war reporting is not uncommon, but as the case of RTS demonstrates, sacrificing journalistic integrity to “patriotism” not only enables governments to commit crimes with impunity, it endangers journalists themselves. If the press allows itself to be woven into government “nerve systems,” reporters will become, from the point of view of power, as expendable as any other soldiers.