Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Dissection of "News"

*My comments are in the body of the article, in red, parenthesis and italics.

May/June 1994

Scouts Without Compasses
An NPR Reporter on the "Disinformation Trap"
in Former Yugoslavia

By Sylvia Poggioli

Covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia has often forced reporters to act as scouts without compasses in a completely unknown terrain. Reporters have had to wade through the complex cultural, historical and political geography of these conflicts. And very few had the necessary instruments. With the end of the Cold War, a whole set of principles of analysis had become useless, and reporters had to confront new problems that most of them had never explored before, such as ethnic self-assertion, tribalism, religious conflicts and the rights and limits to self-determination.

The Cold War had accustomed generations of reporters to analyze world events almost exclusively in terms of the bipolar confrontation, where good and evil were easily defined and identified. (Which tells you just how limited the ‘all knowing’ media is!) This mindset often proved unsuitable in trying to make sense of the disorder created by the collapse of Communism. (Well duh! Perhaps the fact that these ‘journalists’ were so trained to see the world in terms of black and white with no shades of gray could possibly be part of the problem.) And it was an easy prey for the highly sophisticated propaganda machines that have characterized the conflicts in former Yugoslavia.

The wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia have not been played out only in the battlefield. They have also been wars of faxes and computer messages. Starting with the 10-day war in Slovenia in June-July 1991, one of the most difficult tasks for reporters has been to protect themselves from the propaganda offensive. The Slovenes never missed an opportunity to depict the conflict in the bloodiest terms possible in order to win international support for their cause as a "westward-leaning democracy" against the "brutal Communist aggressor." Those labels stuck and were reinforced as the war moved into Croatia. (Which goes to show the immense degree of mental laziness.)

The Croats soon learned from the Slovenes' use of propaganda. The Croatian news agency HINA and Croatian radio and TV unremittingly bombarded the outside world with minute details of the clashes, most of which were impossible to check. The best-known examples of vast exaggeration were reports of the massive damage inflicted on Dubrovnik, the magnificent medieval fortress city on the Adriatic. For months, Croatian media reported that the monuments in the old quarter had been devastated by Yugoslav Army shells and mortars. Western journalists who visited the walled city after the campaign ended reported seeing only superficial damage. (And, to this day, in many condemnatory pieces about the Serbs, especially from jerks like Margolis and Tony Lewis, the ‘destruction of Dubrovnik’ is always mentioned as a proof of Serbian mindless brutality.)

Another striking example of manipulation of facts was the case of a massacre in Gospic, Croatia, in 1991. Film footage showing the mutilated bodies of two young men was aired on Croatian and German TV, which identified the victims as Croats slaughtered by Serbs. The bodies were later recognized by relatives as being those of Serbs. The German network later apologized for the false report. (Perhaps the German network apologized; Christiane Amanpour certainly never has. Quite the contrary, Amanpour’s trademark propaganda pieces almost invariably show pictures of massacred Serbs and she conveniently labels them ‘Muslims’ or ‘Croats’ depending whose money she’s taking that day. A whore remains a whore.)

The Croats went even further than the Slovenes in the information war. Not only did the Croatian government hire the public relations firm Rudder-Finn to get its message out, but Croatia mobilized expatriate communities in the United States, Canada and Australia to put pressure on the media in their home countries. Letter-writing campaigns by members of both Croatian and Serbian communities in the U.S. criticizing news coverage have been a constant of the Yugoslav wars. The aim appeared to be to discredit the correspondent in the field, and many reporters told me they were having more and more difficulty in convincing their editors that what they had seen first hand was the real story, not what was contained in the U.S.-originated faxes. (Again, another NPR/CNN excuse bolthole. The fact that the Croats/ Muslims had drastically outspent [and were allowed to outspend; early on Serbs were frozen out of the media markets], seems to mean nothing.)

These have not been wars where the warring factions organize trips and escort journalists to the front-line, or where journalists can depend on independent pool reports. Press conferences by military leaders, other than by U.N. officials, have been rare. Journalists in the war zones have been on their own. The risks have been enormous (more than 30 journalists have been killed since the conflicts began), all the more so in a political culture where militiamen of all the warring sides are convinced journalists are spying for the enemy. (Another ‘Well duh!’ Could it possibly be that, at least in regards to the Serbs, there was some justification in seeing the ‘journalists’ as agents of the Croat/Muslim axis? Just as it seemed incomprehensible to the media here that during the attack of Serbia media of the powers that were doing the bombing may be persona non grata?)

A Croatian militiaman guarding a prison camp in Southern Bosnia summed up this attitude when he menacingly told an Associated Press reporter who was trying to get into the camp last year, "Reporters are like soldiers--the less they know, the longer they live."

The Serbs' deep-rooted conviction that throughout history they have been the victims of foreign powers has put them at a disadvantage in the propaganda war. (Yeah, these dumb Serbs don’t understand that reality is of little note when media generated virtual reality is sufficient for the ignorant to decide life and death issues. Barbarians!) Little or no effort has been made by the Belgrade government to try to win over the hearts and minds of the West through its media. And the Milosevic-controlled Serbian TV -- the major source of information -- has provided Serbs exclusively with the Serbian nationalist version of the conflicts. (Again, more propaganda masquerading as truth. Why should Belgrade ‘...try to win over the hearts and minds of the West through its media.”? Just exactly what is it that gives America (or the “international community” or “concerned voices” or whoever) the right to demand that its favor be curried?)

This has fomented a profound distrust, bordering on outright hatred, for foreign reporters, who are widely blamed by Serbs for their international isolation. (Gee, I wonder why that would be? Perhaps because it is foreign reporters like Poggioli, like Amanpour, like that Pulitzer prize winning liar, Roy Gutt(less)man, HAVE led to the Serbs’ international isolation through their skewed and corrupt reportages?) And--as in Croatia, where the media is equally under total control of the Tudjman government--distrust of reporters is also rooted in a Communist tradition against freedom of the press.

While there is widespread agreement that the Belgrade government and Serbian fighters have been the major culprits in the conflicts, the Serbs' entrenched attitude toward the outside world may have contributed to their being demonized and perceived by world public opinion as the sole culprits in the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. (Widespread agreement among the same incestuous group of ‘foreign policy specialists’ and ‘foreign reporters’ who poisoned the well of Western opinion from the outset. Yeah, I guess they would all agree for to break ranks would be an admission of error (something journalists and foreign policy wonks never do.))

I went to Sarajevo for the first time in September 1991, six months before the war started, and I was struck by the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of the city. The Writers' Club, an elegant, glass-enclosed restaurant and jazz bar, was filled with intellectuals, film makers and journalists. The skyline of old Sarajevo was famous for the proximity of its Orthodox and Catholic churches, mosques and synagogues. (The only unwritten rule was that no minaret or bell tower could be higher than any of the other houses of worship.) (Just like the old Canon ad with Agassi; “Image is everything.” A perfect description of the Western mind. Reality is upsetting; put up the Potemkin villages and don’t worry, be happy.)

Dealing with Sarajevo's citizens was immediately easy. Nearly everyone I met spoke a foreign language and had traveled widely in Europe. Many were Muslims, because for centuries Muslims lived primarily in the cities, and as representatives of the urban middle class, they naturally became foreign journalists' favorite sources. (Of course, had she bothered to look, there are more people in Beograd who speak foreign languages than Sarajevo. Also, she daintily sidesteps the fact that the “siege” of Sarajevo was always a farce. Again and again and again the media told us that the Serbs ‘surrounded’ Sarajevo or whichever Bosnian town. Let’s see. City dwellers (Muslims) were trapped in cities ‘surrounded’ by Serb farmers. Maybe the Serb farmers should have farmed in the city square? OF COURSE SERBS ‘SURROUNDED’ THE VARIOUS TOWNS AND CITIES. MOST OF THE SERBS WERE FARMERS AND FARMS USUALLY SURROUND TOWNS AND CITIES!)

Months later, traveling through Bosnian villages just before the outbreak of the conflict, I discovered a reality that was perhaps unknown even to many citizens of Sarajevo. The much-touted religious tolerance and intermingling of Serbs, Croats and Muslims symbolic of the Bosnian capital was often rare outside urban areas.

The impression created by secular, multicultural Sarajevo may have helped overshadow some of the main aspects of the war. The conflict has been variously described as a civil war based on ethnic and religious hatred, as an inevitable explosion after decades of Communist suppression of nationalist differences, or as a simple land grab.

But traveling through the countryside another aspect emerged. It is what the former mayor of Belgrade-and Milosevic opponent--Bogdan Bogdanovic describes as a war of the mountain against the city, of rural backwardness against urban co-existence. (Again, of course it is the ‘backward’ Serbs who are to blame. Everyone wants to be the big city, don't they? Maybe the country folk didn’t want to become city folk. Maybe they just wanted to be left alone.) The cornerstone of the Muslim-led government's appeal for a united Bosnia--and the message it has promoted through the media to the outside world--has been shaped by the cosmopolitan reality of Sarajevo and some other cities, but does not always correspond to the pre-war tensions and animosities that had long existed in many other parts of Bosnia. (Another hot, stinking load of bovine by-product. The “...Muslim-led government's appeal for a united Bosnia...” was never anything other than a public relations ploy. The fundamentalist Muslims in charge never had any intention of having a united Bosnia except under Muslim rule.)

If one went to look at the results of the first free elections in Bosnia in the fall of 1990, it was clear that the harmony of Sarajevo was unique: Throughout Bosnia, the ethnic parties prevailed, and voting results mirrored the map of ethnic population distribution.

But, as the major information sources, Muslim intellectuals and their leaders (often providing inflated statistics on mixed marriages) were very successful in exploiting an image of pre-war idyllic co-existence, and the media in turn reduced an extremely complex situation to a war of aggression from the outside. (Again, to ignorant little dummies like her, they neglected to mention their role in WWII as the willing executioners of their Nazi masters. I can understand the perpetrators and their get to be uneasy in acknowledging their heinous deeds but without this little piece of knowledge the picture is distorted. It’s analogous to a rapist telling an interviewer he would have no difficulties living in the same house with his victim. If the interviewer doesn’t realize she is talking to a rapist she wouldn’t understand the adamant refusal of the victim and the victim then seems petty and uncooperative.)

It was the sudden and dramatic siege of Sarajevo, which began on April 6, 1992, that drew the international media to the Bosnian capital. And the focus on the continuous bombing and shelling of the city reinforced misperceptions of the war. For months, very little or no attention was paid to what was happening in other parts of Bosnia. A Bosnian Serb official in Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, told me that the shelling of Sarajevo had often been intensified on purpose, as part of a specific strategy to distract media attention from the Serbs' military campaigns elsewhere.

It was not until August 1992, when the first refugees from northern Bosnia arrived in Croatia, that the world learned of concentration camps and of vicious campaigns of "ethnic cleansing." The refugees told stories of harassment, fighting, atrocities and expulsions by Serbs that had begun many months before. And it was not until the Muslims and Croats - erstwhile allies -- began massacring each other in the spring of 1993 that journalists were forced to deal with the "other war" and discovered that reciprocal "ethnic cleansing" had been going on for months in central and southwestern Bosnia. (Which is, again, what people who understood what was happening on the ground had been saying but had been consistently ignored and marginalized.)

In June 1993, two American reporters who had been covering the region for some time were discussing the disastrous role the international community had played in this tragedy. "But it has been journalism's finest hour," one of the reporters then said.

I beg to differ. There have been innumerable instances where those of us who have covered these conflicts have fallen into the disinformation trap. One of the most insidious was the numbers game--number of dead, number of refugees, and especially number of rape victims.

At the end of 1992, the Muslim-led Bosnian government said that up to 50,000 Muslim women had been raped by Serbs in Bosnia. A report by a special European Community commission, which did not include direct interviews with victims, placed the number at 20,000. On January 21, 1993, Amnesty International issued a report based on interviews with victims conducted over months by the organization itself, by women's and human rights groups working in the region and by journalists in the field.

While it stated that Muslim women had been the chief victims, it said all three warring sides in Bosnia had committed rapes and abuses against women. The report added that the issue of rape has been widely used as a propaganda weapon, with all sides minimizing or denying abuses committed by their own forces and maximizing those of their opponents.

In Geneva, Amnesty International's legal officer, Nick Howen, said in a news conference there was no evidence to back up the figure of 20,000 Muslim rape victims cited by the European Community report. And in Zagreb, American relief workers I spoke to dismissed that same estimate as highly exaggerated. But still today, the number of 50,000 (and higher) has stuck and the prevailing perception is that only Muslim women have been the victims and Serbian fighters the only perpetrators. (Even though Poggioli admits here that the ‘rape camp’ and ‘program of systematic rape’ were all media distortions, to this day they are still used as another brick to hurl against the Serbs. And, unsurprisingly, provide fodder for the ICTY. EVEN THOUGH THE UN ITSELF HAS THOROUGHLY INVESTIGATED THE 'RAPE CAMP' ACCUSATIONS TO BE WITHOUT MERIT!)

What has been almost completely ignored is that the numbers game has a long tradition in the Balkans. Even today, there are no reliable figures indicating exactly how many people died in the civil war during World War II or how many Serbs were killed at the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac in Croatia. (Serbs claim as many as a million, Croats say as few as 100,000.) Nationalist leaders have traditionally manipulated numbers like these as a means to foment ethnic tensions and hatred as well as to cleanse the historical record. (Poggioli neglects to make the Kurt Waldheim connection here; after all, good old Kurt issued the death orders for thousands of Serbs and Jews in Jugoslavia. She also leaves this as ‘a numbers game’ never addressing the issue of the Croats' adherence to Nazi principles and that the Serb dead died as allies of the US and the west.)

As the conflicts have worsened and international organizations have become more and more divided and impotent, I have felt that as journalists covering former Yugoslavia (at times the only outsiders to be present in a particular area), we have found ourselves bearing an enormous responsibility. Policy in Western capitals--or lack of it--has increasingly been based on news reports, and many times the media have been better at pulling emotional strings than at analyzing facts. (I made this point in a ‘letter to the editor’ [unpublished] that I wrote about a year before this article came out. I was laughed at and told that it was insane to suggest policy was being based on media reports.)

The use of good-guy and bad-guy stereotypes often obscured the complex origins of the conflict. And little emphasis was given to some crucial factors, such as the well-documented pre-war agreement between the Croatian and Serbian leaders, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, to carve up Bosnia between them; Milosevic's long-standing consent to Slovenian independence, and Trudjman's publicly asserted opposition to the creation of a Muslim state in the center of Europe. I cannot help but think that one reason why the media spotlight on former Yugoslavia dimmed in the late spring of 1993 was that the collapse of the so-called Muslim-Croat alliance in Bosnia made it abundantly clear that there were no innocents in this war.

In his book The Rebirth of History, Misha Glenny had predicted that the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War would render obsolete an Old World Order system of analysis. He said it would profoundly change the profession of journalism, which now requires a rediscovery of history, geography and a rethinking of global relationships. Yugoslavia was the first serious test of this need of a new approach. No, I don't think it was journalism's finest hour. But it has taught us the clear lesson that journalists as scouts now need new compasses if they are to be a reliable link between facts on the ground and public opinion.
Sylvia Poggioli is a National Public Radio foreign
correspondent, based in Prague. In 1993, she received
the George Foster Peabody Award for coverage of the
war in Bosnia. This article is reprinted with
permission from the Fall/93 issue of Nieman Reports.
Editor's Note: Extra! rarely reprints articles from
other sources. But we thought this article, from the
journal of Harvard's Nieman Foundation, contains
valuable insights on coverage of former Yugoslavia by
a reporter on the scene.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They ignore the WW2 atrocities of the Vatican's Franciscan Utashe, which were the grisliest of anything I've found in researching WW2, with these bastards gouging out peoples' eyes and tongues WHILE STILL ALIVE.

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