CONTROVERSY OVER A PHOTO CREATED A JOURNALISTIC CONTRETEMPS ON THE CONTINENT.
by Eric Alterman
On August 5, 992 Penny Marshall and cameraman Jeremy Irvin of ITN, Ian Williams of Britainâs Channel 4 and Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian talked their way into Bosnian Serbian concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje. What they filmed and wrote created an international firestorm. Earlier that week, Newsdayâs Roy Gutman had reported the existence of the Omarska camp but had not been allowed into it. In Omarska, the journalists were soon hustled out by the campâs authorities after catching only a glimpse of a group of skeletal figures in a canteen. In Trnopolje, however, they were eyewitnesses to the workings of what appeared to be a gentler camp in full operation. The visit produced what would become perhaps the single representational image of the cruelty of Serbian "ethnic cleansing" - an emaciated prisoner named Fikret Alic reaching through barbed wire to shake hands. As Vulliamy later wrote, "With his rib-cage behind the barbed wire of Trnopolje, Fikret Alic had become the symbolic figure of the war, on every magazine cover and television screen in the world."
The journalists were careful to report what they saw and note what they had not seen as well. While they did describe harsh conditions and forcible detention, they did not compare Trnopolje to a Nazi death camp. They did not even use the words "concentration camp." Vulliamy quoted Muslim refugees who said that they had not been the victims of force themselves. Marshallâs reports showed the Serbian guards feeding Muslim prisoners and a small Muslim child who had come to the camp voluntarily. These descriptions were exaggerated in subsequent stories by other newspapers, based on the original reporting. (One British tabloid headlined the famous photo "Belsen Î92.") Vulliamy later wrote that during the course of the fifty-four TV and radio interviews he gave immediately following his Guardian article, "to my annoyance, I was obliged to spend more time emphasising that Omarska was not Belsen or Auschwitz than detailing the abomination of what we had found." Still, the reports were justly celebrated for their coverage. Marshall and Williams won a British Association of Film and Television Award (BAFTA) and the Royal Television Society Award; Vulliamy was voted Granada Foreign Correspondent of the Year, won the Amnesty International Award for Journalism in the Interest of Human Rights and the James Cameron Award (the European Pulitzer) and was named International Reporter of the Year, a distinction he repeated this year.
Enter Thomas Deichmann, a self-described freelance journalist. Deichmann says he was asked to present the Hague War Crimes tribunal with a report on German media coverage of Dusko Tadic, the Bosnian Serb convicted of crimes against humanity, in whose defence Deichmann would testify. He was watching television tapes of the Trnopolje camp one night, he says, when his wife pointed out that the fence enclosing Alic was nailed from the inside, which he found curious. So he made a trip to Bosnia to have a look around. There, he tracked down a Serbian guard at the camp who insisted that he had been there to "protect the Muslims from Serbian extremists who wanted to take revenge." Trnopolje was not "a prison, and certainly not a Îconcentration camp,â" Deichmann concluded, "but a collection centre for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished." In fact the refugees themselves had created the place, he said, "spontaneously." Moreover, there was no barbed wire fence around Alic, he insisted. "The barbed wire in the picture is not around the Bosnian Muslims; it is around the cameraman and the journalists. It formed part of a broken-down barbed wire fence encircling a small compound that was next to Trnopolje camp."
Deichmann was so excited by his scoop that he did not bother to call any of the journalists whose deception, he says, "fooled the world." Nor did he seek out any of the Bosnian Muslims who had lived through the Trnopolje experience. Instead, he rushed his story into print in Novo, a small-circulation Trotskyist publication in Germany. The article was then republished in the February 1997 issue of Living Marxism, a rather glossy publication of the pro-Serb Revolutionary Communist Party in England. The article was picked up and syndicated by the British Press Association and reported uncritically by The Independent on Sunday. From there it made its way across the Continent, and suddenly the LM attack on the three journalists became an international cause Célèbre. The BBC invited the journalists to debate Deichmann on television and asked for a copy of the ITN outtakes. According to LMâs proud boasts, its article was reported and debated in Germany in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Sttddeutsche Zeitung, Der Tagesspiegel, Freitag, Die Welt, Berliner Morgenpost, Die Tagesseitung, Liepriger Volkaseitung and Konkret; in Italy in Il Corriere della Sera, LâUnità and Il Sole; in Switzerland in Weltwoche; and in Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands as well. The result was that, five years after their discovery, the reality of the Serb concentration camps - indeed, the entire question of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia - became contested again.
ITN, though not Vulliamy or The Guardian, immediately filed suit against Two-Ten Communications, the British Press Associationâs subsidiary that syndicated the story, demanding a published retraction, and in the case of LM, asked to have the magazine containing the article pulped. Richard Tait, ITNâs editor in chief, says the decision was taken "reluctantly," but that the articles constituted a "terrible defamation of our integrity, and people are entitled to protect their reputations." Two-Ten quickly apologised and issued a statement calling the LM allegations it had passed on "completely untrue" and the original reports "accurate and impartial almost to a fault." The Independent also followed with a quick retraction, refusing at the last minute to run a pro-LM story by the journalist Philip Knightley, later published in Novo. LM, seeing itself as an aggrieved David up against a bullying Goliath, launched an international campaign denouncing this "unprecedented attack by a media giant on press freedom."
That campaign has two components: first, an argument against the stifling British libel laws, and second, a continued attack on the reputations of the journalists involved, including the demand that their prizes be revoked. In the first matter, LM has had a modicum of success, and perhaps justly. ITN was justified in demanding retractions and in embarrassing the outlets that published Deichmannâs unsubstantiated attacks. But insisting that a tiny, obscure publication be forced to pulp its discredited article does smack of intimidation and censorship, not to mention unsportsmanlike behaviour. (The LM press releases make much of the fact that ITN has hired Biddle and Co. - "John Majorâs law firm" - to pursue its case.) British libel laws leave honest press institutions spending vast sums of money defending stories, to chilling effect. The free speech argument is what led Noam Chomsky to sign a letter in support of LM, where he was joined by a politically contentious mix, including Knightley and the right-wing libertarian Auberon Waugh. Random House editor Harold Evans also criticised the suit on these grounds (though when asked for a statement of support by Living Marxism, he reportedly quipped that he was unaware there was such a thing).
The second component of the magazineâs campaign, however, is the one that has attracted the support of former U.S. State Department official George Kenney. Kenney resigned his post in 1992 to protest U.S. inaction on behalf of the Bosnians. He has since done a 180-degree turnaround and spends his days condemning the people who believed what he did until recently. A self-described "progressive Republican" who voted for Ronald Reagan, Kenney flew to London to speak at a fundraising rally for Living Marxism and then spoke at a meeting on its behalf in Bonn as well. In an article published by LM, he complains that the ITN photo was "ruinous for the Bush administrationâs hands-off policy" in Bosnia, though in fact no action resulted. "Medieval xenophobes reincarnated as high-tech cowboys," he continues, "Western opinion leaders fixated their fear and anger against the unknown. Defying reason and logic, a myth of a Serb perpetrated Holocaust, coupled with the refusal to even acknowledge atrocities against Serbs, became conventional wisdom."
When I called Kenney and said I wanted to give him the chance to explain his position, he replied that my inquiry was "bullshit" and that he "knew exactly" what I was doing. (Kenney said a Washington Post reporter had once done a "hatchet job" on him and had also used the phrase "explain your side of the story," which Kenney seemed to think reportorial code.) Eventually he outlined his belief that not only were ITN and The Guardian guilty of lying but their reporters were engaged in a cover-up. He said he had heard that ITN had been in "financial difficulties and was looking to increase its market share, particularly its international market share." (Richard Tait calls this charge "laughable".). Kenney says he does not know why so decorated and respected a journalist as Ed Vulliamy would get involved in the effort, and admitted that he had not carefully read Vulliamyâs account of the War, Seasons in Hell. In fact, Kenney is thanked in Vulliamyâs acknowledgements for "resigning in disgust at [his] governmentâs whimsical caprice." (I should mention that I, too, am acquainted with Vulliamy, though I do not appear on his acknowledgement page.) What Kenney was interested in talking about seemed less Marshall, ITN, Vulliamy or the disputed photo but what he believed to be the vastly inflated numbers of Bosnians killed in the war according to press reports, and the refusal of the Bosnian government to settle the war when Kenney thinks it should have.
Kenney told me he had obtained a copy of the outtakes of the ITN report and became convinced that these proved LMâs case. He then submitted an article on the subject to Columbia Journalism Review, whose editors decided not to publish it but inform me that a shorter version remains under consideration for the future. Kenney did not say where he obtained the tape, but ITN did turn a copy over to the prosecution at the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. Dusko Tadic was tried (and found guilty) of crimes against humanity, in part for his role in overseeing Trnopolje. The Court had turned the tape over to the defence for discovery purposes, and from there it made its way into the defence witness Thomas Deichmannâs possession. The fact that Deichmann, and now Kenney and perhaps CJR, all reviewed copies of what was a confidential ITN document cannot be seen as encouraging to journalists who are considering cooperating with tribunals of any kind in the future, regardless of the worthiness of the cause.
Deichmannâs tribunal testimony was curious in two respects. First, he was virtually alone in attempting to defend the conditions at the camp - conditions he had never seen. But if the camps werenât so bad, why didnât the Bosnian Serbs make the argument themselves? (Tadicâs defence merely attempted to establish the limits of his knowledge of what took place there.) The Serbs were, as Roy Gutman points out, hardly strangers to spin control, "and were capable of mounting any kind of press campaign they wanted to." Second, Deichmann asserted, "if my report contributed to a fairer trial, I am glad to have been in the witness box. I prefer a legal system with benches for both prosecution and defence lawyers rather than a Stalinist show-trial or a witch-burning." It is not clear just what show trials and witch-burnings he had in mind. (Deichmann recently graced Living Marxism with a spirited defence of Radovan Karadzic.)
Meanwhile, the court at The Hague found Trnopolje had indeed been a "concentration camp." While some Bosnians did survive of their own volition, others were shipped there from even worse camps in the area and forcibly interrogated, tortured and gang-raped. Witnesses told the court that the rapes extended to 12-year-old girls. One 19-year-old girl was raped by seven men, according to a witness, and had suffered terrible pain and haemorrhaging. Some were also murdered. The camp had no running water and only limited lavatories. On or about October 1, 1992, according the Court, people were deported from the camp "upon signing an agreement to relinquish all their material goods. Thus the Trnopolje camp was the culmination of the campaign of ethnic cleansing since those Muslims and Croats who were not killed at Omarska or Keratern camps were, from Trnopolje, deported from Bosnia and Herzegovina." The issue of the barbed-wire fence, while the focus of LMâs campaign, turned out to be a red herring. Fikret Alic, like other men behind the fence, was being forcibly held there. (He had recently come from Keratern camp, where he had witnessed the massacre of 200 prisoners in a single night.) It was not a four-sided barbed-wire fence, though no one ever asserted that it was. The barbed-wire made two sides; the other two sides were a wall and a non-barbed wire fence guarded by heavily armed Serbs, ready to shoot to kill.
As so frequently happens in cases like this, the mere existence of the discussion is in many respects a victory for whatever peculiar brand of revisionism is being touted, however ludicrous its evidentiary basis. As ITNâs Richard Tait laments, "What we have in the press, it seems, is more interest about wild allegations about what was reported in the camp than in the crimes against humanity that we now understand were committed there."