Confused Images: How the Media Fueled the Balkans War
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Vlado Staka, a young reporter for the Sarajevo daily, Oslobodenje, sat in a dimly-lit cafe back in May 1994 telling a foreign journalist about the most horrifying assignment of his career.
Just three months earlier, on February 5, a lone Bosnian Serb mortar shell slammed into the outdoor market in downtown Sarajevo, killing 68 and wounding over 200. Staka told of hearing the cries of the wounded pleading for help, of seeing a headless body draining blood onto the snow, and of discovering body parts scattered throughout the market.
As Staka finished his story, one could hear bursts of automatic weapons fire and the muted thunder of Howitzer shells outside-the sounds of an on-going Serbian siege.
Staka turned to the American journalist and asked if he might pose a few questions of his own:
Why had the international press corps hesitated for so long to clarify who the aggressors were in the Balkans? Why had they fallen back on a seemingly neutral, "all sides are to blame" reporting agenda that may have defused public opinion? And why hadn't Americans, supposed champions of democracy, acted sooner?
The questions posed by Staka, who traces his own ethnic heritage to Serbia, were often heard by foreign journalists covering this conflict. Indeed, many Balkans-watchers believed battles were being fought on two fronts: one in the trenches, for territorial gains; the other for western public opinion.
The battle for public opinion focuses on the images and news stories emanating out of the ruins of the Balkans war. By selectively omitting or defusing information, particularly in the early stages, foreign journalists have been accused of clouding key issues of this conflict, limiting the scope of debate.
Indeed, the international press corps has been accused of signaling to the western public the futility of foreign intervention, playing into the hands of the main aggressors.
While all sides have committed atrocities in this conflict, both CIA reports and human rights documentation places the vast majority of the blame on the Serbs.
Among questions commonly posed by critics of media performance in the Balkans:
· Would the power of NATO have been unleashed sooner if the press had done a better job of portraying Serb aggression back in 1991-92?
· Could greater violence have been avoided if journalists had looked beyond Serb propaganda that portrayed the conflict as an ethnic conflict or a civil war?
· With the polar opposites of the Cold War gone-the U.S. on one side, the Soviet Union on the other-could the media have played a stronger role in goading governments into action?
Carol Williams, eastern European bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, noted in an interview: "From the beginning, this has been an orchestrated, well-planned campaign of aggression, and the Serbs were willing to tell bald-faced lies to carry it out."
Yet, Williams, like many other journalists, faced a harsh reality: "Stories that might have prepared people and educated them about this conflict early on, did not get the space" says Williams. "If the world had gotten the picture earlier that what happened in Croatia was a one-sided war of aggression, action might have been take to prevent the spread to Bosnia."
What follows is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how agendas about Bosnia and Croatia were developed in U.S. newsrooms. The analysis centers on three issues-media terminology, confused images, and uncertain U.S. foreign policy-all of which contributed to obscuring the horrible realities of the Balkans war: the systematic rape and torture, the massacres, and forced relocation of hundreds of thousands.
Early image of refugees: a tough sell
From a reporters' point of view, the plight of refugees streaming out of the Croatian city of Vukovar in November 1991, and later from Prijedor and Banja Luka in Bosnia, was difficult to sell to editors back in the United States. These were refugees from the heart of Europe, a hour's flight from Rome. They did not have the sunken cheeks and haunted stare of the displaced in Rwanda or Somalia. At refugee camps along the sparkling Adriatic Sea, reporters wondered aloud how they could convince their employers that a terrible forced migration-later to be known as "ethnic cleansing"-was gathering momentum.
At one camp, a group of refugees from Foca, Bosnia, gathered around a transistor radio, listening to news of the Serbian advance in their homeland. Among the refugees was a computer specialist, a gray-haired man in his mid-50s. "The Serbs came like bandits with guns and took our neighbors away," he says. "They arrested the leaders in our town first-the politicians who opposed them, the scholars, the top professionals." As he spoke, a diamond twinkled from the gold wedding band on his finger. A schoolteacher described the flight from Serbian occupation. "When I escaped with my wife and children, I had to leave our Volvo a the foot of the mountain pass. I threw the keys down a ravine and slashed the tires so the Serbs couldn't use it."
These war victims hardly fit the stereotype of refugees fleeing in terror. Yet these were among the images journalists saw when gathering information during the early days of the Serbian campaign for ethnic purity.
When Bosnian Serb forces, along with the Yugoslav People's Army, began shelling Sarajevo in April 1992, media representations of this siege transfixed the world. But according to a U.S. embassy report from that August, "Outside of Sarajevo, and mostly out of sight of the world press, something far more sinister and far more deadly had begun."
The embassy report contained an eyewitness account from a 38-year-old woman from the Bosnian border town of Brcko. "On May 2, (1992), my next door neighbor arrested me," she told investigators. "Thirty-three of us from the neighborhood were kept in the attic of the Hotel Bosna. After seven days, we were herded into trucks and taken to the Luka Camp near Brcko." The woman offered horrid details: "They would force two prisoners to fight each other. The one who didn't hit hard enough was killed...I saw at least ten people being killed every day." The woman was released, along with 19 others, in exchange for the body of a slain Serbian military leader.
Journalists who covered the plight of refugees often heard similar accounts. Yet these powerful images generally came second-hand to the information brokers, and third-hand to the news-consuming public, defusing the reality of the situation: civilians held in bondage and tormented by their captors. Memorable images, such as those provided by a British television crew of emancipated prisoners at a Bosnian concentration camp run by Serbs, may have been too few in the early years.
Paul Whyte, photo director for USA Today noted: "The faces in the refugee camps I visited in Croatia looked just like folks back home. Yet, all had suffered horrible losses." But the depth of this suffering was almost impossible to capture on film. "That was the single greatest challenge photojournalists faced-how to realistically portray the human condition of these war casualties to the world."
Whyte illustrated his point by displaying dozens of photographs taken at a Croatian refugee center. Children in the camp were photographed chasing a kitten and frolicking on a makeshift playground. To an outsider, the photo documentary portrayed "life as usual."
In a study of the war's exiles, Maja Povrzanovic, a researcher from Croatia, maintains that the appearance of normality is vital for those who have suffered great trauma - everyday routines become a soothing sign of stability and strength. Journalists often found war victims planting flower gardens in refugee camps and holding Saturday night dances. While these images provided valuable insight into the human will to survive, they did little to convince Americans that strong action was needed.
Blurring of terminology
Roy Gutman, a Newsday reporter who won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for exposing Serb concentration camps, recalled first hearing the euphemism "ethnic cleansing" during interviews with Serbian officials in 1992 and from officials at the U.S. State Department.
"What they [the Serbs] really were talking about was terror, murder, rape, and torture. What does that have to do with 'ethnic cleansing'?" Gutman said in an interview. "That was the wrong label and the American government and other international agencies bought into it."
In his 1993 book, Witness to Genocide, Gutman notes: "Using their best public relations techniques, top [Bush administration] aides expressed the notion that the war in Bosnia was a civil war in which all sides were to blame and that all sides were crazy." That rationale clearly played into the hands of the Serbs.
After receiving the Pulitzer, Gutman said in an interview, "It has been one of the great disappointments of my life that the American government has failed to react to the truth of what I, and other journalists, have documented. The notion of genocide seems to have made little impact."
As Gutman's documentation of the horrors accumulated, he began using Nazi-era imagery to describe the action of the Serbs. At first, the use of terms such as "genocide" and "concentration camp" drew fire from Jewish groups, from Serbs, and from other journalists. By the fall of 1992, Gutman's reports suggested the historical comparisons to be accurate.
Conversely, the U.S. media's assertion that the conflict had its roots in ancient ethnic hatreds was also an historical overstatement, blurring the lines of responsibility. Over the centuries, numerous battles were waged in an area designated as the fault line between Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Yet prior to 1918, there had been a remarkable symbiosis between the Serbs and Croats.
Clearly, this was not a war between western and eastern values, although at times, the media portrayed it as such. The conflict centered on territory, power, resources, and enforced ethnic homogeneity.
In studies of the roots of the Balkans conflict, Mary Kay Olsen and Eleanor Despalatovic argue that this was not a war fought over ancient tribal hatreds. Rather it was sparked by hard-line communists attempting to hold on to power and privilege gained in the former Yugoslavia. The attacks were led by a powerful Yugoslav army suddenly left without a state, falling into the hands of paramilitary and ultra-nationalist leaders.
Perhaps some of the journalists covering the break-up of Yugoslavia would have fared better in their quest for accuracy if they'd had a more informed historical perspective. Too many reporters parachuted in looking for a quick "front-line fix."
Government policy and media coverage
Early on, the United States government decided not to throw its weight behind efforts to prevent greater violence in the Balkans. A collapsing Bush presidency might have led to the devil-may-care attitude. To Roy Gutman, "the most charitable explanation might be that events in the heady days of the collapse of communism had outpaced the ability of the U.S. government to formulate policy."
During June 1991, Secretary of State James Baker flew to Belgrade to clarify U.S. policy. Baker said the West supported a united Yugoslavia and urged Croatia and neighboring Slovenia to remain in line. Critics of this American plea for unity believe that Baker signaled a green light for the Yugoslav Army to roll tanks against the lightly armed Croatian territorial defense without fear of international reprisal.
The message was clear: America did not have a strategic interest in this war, or as many Croatians and Bosnians sarcastically put it, "We have no oil fields here." The American conscience was not pricked by watching hapless refugees suffer in a "civil war" or ancient blood feud. The media, particularly in the early stages, did little to clarify or correct the myths, rumors, and inaccuracies that laced news accounts and dulled the American public's instinct to champion these fledgling democracies.
Communications research suggests that media messages support the existing views of government and opinion leaders. R.N. Entman argues that journalists routinely turn to official sources for cues about which events are important and how to interpret those events. W. L. Bennett's posits that news professionals "index" a range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials, reflecting the views expressed in mainstream government debate. During the initial 36 months of the Balkans war, few official voices spoke on behalf of intervention.
On March 9, 1995, The New York Times ran a story vindicating journalists who shunned the "all sides are to blame" stance in their reporting. It told of a leaked CIA report that blamed the Serbs for 90 percent of the war crimes. Reporter Roger Cohen told Times readers that the CIA report, "makes nonsense of the view that the Bosnian conflict is a civil war for which guilt should be divided between Serbs, Croats and Muslims rather than a case of Serbian aggression."
Throughout 1995 world opinion turned against the Serbs, and prospects for peace improved. After multinational forces defended safe areas against the Bosnian Serb army, the Serbs confronted their international isolation and military vulnerability, and accepted a peace agreement.
As 1996 begins, a multinational peacekeeping force arrives in Bosnia, and the world watches with a clearer view of the Balkans.
Sherry Ricchiardi is Professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism in Indianapolis. She has covered the conflict in the Balkans for several American newspapers. The following is a version of a paper presented in October at the U-M conference, "Making War and Peace in the Balkans: The Role of Media."
R.M. Entman and B.I. Page. 1994. "The News Before the Storm: The Iraq War Debate and the Limits to Media Independence," in W.L. Bennett and D.L. Paletz, editors, Taken by Storm: The News Media, Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.