17. U. S. Media Promotes Biased Coverage of Bosnia

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Sources: CAQ, Title: “Misinformation: TV Coverage of a Bosnian Camp,” Date: Fall 1998, No. 65, Author: Thomas Deichmann; CAQ, Title: “Seeing Yugoslavia Through A Dark Glass,” Date: Fall 1998, No. 65, Author: Diana Johnstone

SSU Censored Researchers: Victoria Calkins and Sam Rogers
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Phil Beard

In August 1992, media coverage of the civil war in Yugoslavia gained unprecedented influence on military decision-making processes in the West. Reports of horrifying conditions in camps run by the Bosnian Serbs galvanized world opinion. A visit to the camps of Omarska and Trnopolje by a British team from Independent Television (ITN) on August 5, 1992, gave rise to the image of the Serbs as the new Nazis of the Balkans. A widely published photo taken by ITN pictured an emaciated Muslim behind barbed wire with comrades imprisoned behind him. This famous photo became the symbolic link between the Bosnian Serbs and the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. International politicians sent troops into Bosnia. A wave of sanctions against Bosnian Serbs were established. In the United States, presidential candidate Bill Clinton took the initiative in his campaign, making references to the ITN pictures as he requested military action against the Serbs. The world became convinced that Bosnia was full of “bad Serbs” persecuting “good Muslims.”

ITN’s photo was not, however, as accurate as it seemed. The men in the photo were not standing behind barbed wire. In fact the Hague Tribunal confirmed that there was no barbed wire surrounding the Belsen ‘92 at Trnopolje. ITN’s photo was taken looking outward from a small fenced enclosure inside the camp, not from outside looking in as the photo implies. The emaciated Muslim shown with his shirt off was in fact a very ill man selected to be featured in the photo. The other men in the photo look healthier and are clothed. Trnopolje was not a concentration camp, it was a refugee and transit center. Many Muslims traveled there for protection and could leave whenever they wished.

While the coverage of this image was not directly responsible for international diplomacy and military planning, it was the trigger that brought on an avalanche of actions. This was aided by Croatian secessionists and Bosnian Muslims who hired Ruder Finn (an American public relations firm) to advance their cause by targeting key publics in the United States who would respond appropriately to their demonization of the Serbs. Ruder Finn focused their public relation releases to target women and the Jewish community in the United States. The Western press was soon filled with stories of rape camps, death camps, and horrendous attacks by Bosnian Serbs with little or no verification of particular events, and little coverage of the Bosnian Serb side of the war. As the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina got underway in mid-1992, American journalists who repeated unconfirmed stories of Serbian atrocities could count on getting published. On the other hand, there was no market for stories by a journalist who discovered that Serbian “rape camps” did not exist (German TV reporter Martin Lettmayer). Nor was there a market for reporters who wrote stories about Muslim or Croat crimes against Serbs (Belgian journalist Georges Berghezan). It became increasingly impossible to challenge the dominant interpretation in the major media. Western editors seemed to prefer to keep the story simple: one villain and as much blood as possible.

Foreign news has always been easier to distort. TV crews sent into strange places, about which they know nothing, send back images of violence that give millions of viewers the impression that “everyone knows what is happening,” and an aggressor is easily identified as the evil villain in need of the discipline of outside moral authorities.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR DIANA JOHNSTONE: “The truth about Yugoslavia may well be the most important censored, self-censored, distorted, and misunderstood story, not only of 1998, but of the whole decade. A drastic critical reevaluation is urgently necessary to prevent even greater disasters in the foreseeable future—notably in Kosovo. There, the one-sided anti-Serb bias has given both Albanian and Serb residents the impression that NATO is ready to support armed ethnic Albanian secessionists.

“Not only mainstream media, but even alternative outlets have turned down stories that fail to fit established stereotypes. However, even when journalists produce balanced reports, the effect is often offset by extremely biased editorials, car-toons, and commentaries, not to mention statements by Western government officials deliberately exploiting a troubled situation in order to justify a new expanded mission for NATO.

“By the end of 1998, it was clear that the conflict in Kosovo was merging dangerously with the debate over NATO’s new strategy, with both scheduled to dominate the news in the spring of 1999, when NATO’s 50th anniversary meeting appeared destined to coincide with the spring offensive of the armed ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

“There is no quick fix for understanding this story. A vast amount of information is available, but it takes time, experience and above all judgment to sort out truth from falsehood, and to evaluate the meaning of events. An excellent current source of information about Kosovo is the Web site of the Decani monastery:http://www.decani.yunet.com.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR THOMAS DEICHMANN: “Since the publication of my article there have been few discussions in the media about it. Many editors ignored the story. Supportive comments often were overwhelmed by smear articles coming mostly from the London Observer and Guardian that questioned my professional and personal integrity. Despite the slurs, no evidence disputing my story has been presented.

“ITN chose to use the repressive British libel laws to keep my story under wraps in the U.K. The writ threatens the very existence of LM magazine which published my piece. This action is a serious threat to the freedom of the press. Since the writ was served, the plaintiffs have done little to get the case to court. The many delays suggest that ITN is reluctant to do so. LM has already spent around £50.000, and is anxious to start the proceedings so all matters can be up for public discussion.

“During the Bosnian war, some reporters started following a morally-driven agenda. My article invited a discussion about how this dangerous trend has started. From the response to my piece however, it is obvious that I questioned an established orthodoxy which is not allowed to be challenged.

“BBC world affairs editor John Simpson alluded to this in his recently published book Strange Places, Questionable People. With reference to my story and the anti-Serb media coverage of intolerant liberals and right-wingers, he recalled Salman Rushdie’s remark that religious people have ‘a God-shaped hole in their lives.’ Simpson concluded that ‘one of the strangest coalitions of modern times seems to have a crusade-shaped hole in their lives, and Bosnia was cut and shaped to fit it.’

“You can find all information about my story and the libel case, and about ways to support LM at:http://www.informinc.co.uk/ITN-vs-LM/. You can contact LM at: lm@informinc.co.uk, Tel: (44) 171269-9231, Fax: (44) 171-2699235. A German website with the article can be found at: http://www.novo-magazin.de/. If you want to get further involved in the issue you can reach me at: Thomas. Deichmann@t-online.de.”