Aug 2 2000

FAIR Letter to CPJ on RTS Bombing

August 2, 2000

Ms. Ann Cooper
Executive Director
Committee to Protect Journalists
330 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY 10001


Dear Ms. Cooper,


As longtime supporters of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ mission of defending press freedom worldwide, we are writing to express our disappointment that CPJ chose to exclude the 16 employees of Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) killed by NATO in April 1999 from its annual list of journalists murdered because of their work.

While CPJ protested the RTS bombing in an April 23, 1999, letter to NATO secretary general Javier Solana, the committee chose not to include the killed RTS workers in its annual list–a list that CPJ has called “the world’s most frequently cited press freedom statistic.”

In “Attacks on the Press 1999,” CPJ explained its decision:

CPJ defends all journalists, regardless of the views they express, and we have an extremely broad definition of who is a journalist. This encompasses both state and private broadcasters. But when a state broadcaster becomes an integral part of an ethnic cleansing campaign, as RTS was during the decade of nationalist wars in the Balkans, it falls outside our extremely broad definition of journalism.

We feel strongly that this decision sets a dangerous precedent. As CPJ notes in the introduction to this year’s list, a journalist takes a risk “when his or her reporting reveals discomfiting truths or atrocities that one armed faction or another will want to hide by silencing the witness.” During the Kosovo conflict, RTS played a crucial role in getting pictures of civilian deaths and bombing damage broadcast to the world. And that was clearly one of NATO’s main considerations in bombing RTS: hiding the evidence by “silencing the witness.”

In a March 24, 2000 letter to Alexander Cockburn and in conversations with FAIR, you and other CPJ staffers have emphasized that the committee does not attempt to make judgments about what is journalism and what is propaganda when it defends threatened media workers. Thus, RTS‘s role as a government mouthpiece is not at issue here.

Rather, you wrote in your letter to Mr. Cockburn that CPJ’s refusal to consider RTS workers as journalists stems from the role RTS played during the Bosnia and Croatia wars in “inciting to violence”: “fanning ethnic hatred during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, repeatedly broadcasting images of massacred Serb civilians, many of them staged or invented, and urging Serbs to seek revenge.” (CPJ acknowledges that RTS broadcasts did not generally play this role during the Kosovo conflict.)

We not only feel that such a standard violates the spirit of CPJ’s mission, but that CPJ makes a false distinction when it implies that, as a media outlet, RTS is somehow unique in condoning or encouraging war crimes committed by its country’s armed forces.  It is in fact typical for media outlets during wartime to focus on reported atrocities against “their side”–often exaggerated or untrue–and to call on their audiences to seek vengeance for these crimes, real or imagined. RTS‘s behavior in this respect is thus deplorable, but all too routine.

Indeed, NATO’s Kosovo War saw prestigious and influential media outlets in the NATO countries engaging in the same kind of crude race-hatred and war-crime agitation that would appear to disqualify a media outlet from the category of journalism, according to CPJ’s stated criteria. For example:

* An April 12 Newsweek article, “Vengeance of a Victim Race,” published as NATO was stepping up its attacks on civilian targets in Belgrade, declared that “the Serbs are Europe’s outsiders, seasoned haters raised on self-pity. Even the ‘democrats’ are questionable characters.… Serbs are expert haters” with “a highly developed sense of victimization.” A “critical element of the Serb psyche” is “the idea of revenge no matter what the cost.” “Now, as the bombs fall, all norms of civilized behavior seem to have disappeared.”

* On April 23, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ influential foreign affairs columnist, made a plea for heavier attacks on Serb civilians:

Let’s at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are “cleansing” Kosovo is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road, and war-related factory has to be targeted.
Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set back your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.

* Bill O’Reilly, the top-rated commentator on the Fox News Channel, said on April 26, 1999:

If NATO is not able to wear down this Milosevic in the next few weeks, I believe that we have to go in there and drop leaflets on Belgrade and other cities and say, “Listen, you guys have got to move because we’re now going to come in and we’re going to just level your country. The whole infrastructure is going.”

Rather than put ground forces at risk where we’re going to see 5,000 Americans dead, I would rather destroy their infrastructure, totally destroy it. Any target is OK. I’d warn the people, just as we did with Japan, that it’s coming, you’ve got to get out of there, OK, but I would level that country so that there would be nothing moving–no cars, no trains, nothing.

During the Kosovo War, many of us were outspoken in condemning this type of war-crime agitation and anti-Serb ethnic hatred in the news media of our own countries. But none of us believes that journalists or news outlets that engage in these activities should lose their status as journalists or their protection by CPJ.

CPJ’s decision to selectively revoke the status of Serbian media workers targeted by NATO can only send the message that “enemy” journalists will henceforth not be defended by one of the world’s foremost press freedom organizations.  This will encourage forces in the countries where journalists are most at risk to invoke their own political standards in deciding which news workers are worthy of protection and which are not.  We ask CPJ to reconsider its decision and to apply a more uniform standard in the future.




Seth Ackerman
Media Analyst, FAIR
(Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)


Noam Chomsky
Institute Professor of Linguistics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Laura Flanders
Host, The Laura Flanders Show


George Gerbner
Dean Emeritus
Annenberg School for Communications
University of Pennsylvania


Amy Goodman
Host, Democracy Now!
Pacifica Network News


Robert Hayden
Director, Center for Russian & East European Studies
University of Pittsburgh


Ed Herman
Professor Emeritus, Wharton School of Business
University of Pennsylvania


Hussein Ibish
Communications Director
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee


Robert McChesney
Institute of Communications Research
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Michael Ratner
Vice-President, Center for Constitutional Rights
& Skelly Wright Fellow, Yale Law School


Siddharth Varadarajan
Deputy Chief of Bureau, Times of India
New Delhi