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UK press coverage

May 1997

Apr 97 May 97 Jun 97




[Journalist - May/June 1997]

'This picture does not tell the truth'

FIKRET ALIC behind the wire - or was he? Living Marxism claimed he was outside it

The most famous picture of the Bosnian war is at the centre of an extraordinary legal row in which ITN is trying to silence a small left-wing monthly magazine.

The picture is a still from ITN footage of Trnopolje Camp, where on August 5 1992 an ITN crew with reporter Penny Marshall and Guardian reporter Ed Vulliamy found a crowd of ill-treated Muslims, apparently imprisoned by the Bosnian Serbs.

The image of the emaciated Fikret Alic, with his prominent ribs, combined with the barbed wire he and others are peering through, touched nerves around the world and has been said to have stiffened western policy against the Serbs. It won numerous awards.

Certainly the frame was taken up by the newspapers, with the Mirror captioning it BELSEN 92 on the front page. Descriptions of Trnopolje as a concentration camp were widely accepted.

But in February Living Marxism magazine, published by the Revolutionary Communist Party, ran an eight-page article by a German freelance Thomas Deichmann, headed "The picture that fooled the world".

It claimed that the Trnopolje was not a prison camp but a collection centre for Muslim refugees fleeing Serbian ethnic cleansing in their towns and villages, with Red Cross participation - and, most controversially, the footage was edited to make it appear that the men were being imprisoned when they were not.

Thomas Deichmann wrote that they were not behind barbed wire, but that the camera crew had themselves gone inside an enclosure in the camp area, which housed an electricity generator and was surrounded by barbed wire, and filmed the men from inside it.

Before LM was published, ITN's lawyers wrote demanding that the issue be pulped, and threatening libel action. The magazine went ahead, and the action is now underway.

In a statement, ITN said it "rejects completely the outrageous and untrue allegations purportedly made by Thomas Deichmann...The reports were prepared and presented with the utmost professionalism and integrity, as would be expected from ITN.

"ITN stands by its reporting of the finding of the detention camps, which were not referred to as Nazi-style concentration camps."

In the Observer on February 3, Ed Vulliamy had a full page to attack the article, which he called "poison". He wrote that it was an "honest image" and affirmed that his reporting was "always objective."

LM editor Mick Hume responded that Ed Vulliamy had himself been open to taking sides in the war, and had given evidence against Serbian war criminals at the Tribunal in The Hague.

As claims and counter-claims spread, LM organised a rally in London at which Thomas Deichmann showed a poor quality 15-minute section of the original ITN footage; he has not said how he got hold of it. This did show the camera crew walking into the enclosure. Thomas Deichmann also made great play of the fact that posts holding the barbed wire are on the camera's side - the natural place for posts being inside a fence.

LM earned itself a reputation during the Bosnian war of challenging the perception of Serb aggression and Muslim victimisation. It organised an exhibition of photographs from Belgrade showing Muslim atrocities in grisly detail.

But the ITN writ has effectively silenced the debate raised by the article. The LM rally was comprehensively rubbished in a two-page feature in the Guardian, and Private Eye ran a piece with a similar approach, but LM journalists claim that ITN's "gagging writ" has prevented open consideration of the issue.

In a letter to the Guardian, veteran correspondent Philip Knightley, author of The First Casualty, an authoritative analysis of war reporting, wrote: "Whatever his motives, Thomas Deichmann's article raise interesting questions.

"Fikret Alic and his companions were not confined by the barbed wire fence but by armed Serb guards. The symbolic picture was not quite accurate (and) became even less accurate taken out of context by the tabloids.

"These are important points for debate but unfortunately debate has been stifled by ITN's decision to reach for its lawyers."

NUJ Deputy General Secretary, Jake Ecclestone, commented: "I don't know the truth of the allegation, but I do think journalists might be humble enough to admit they might be wrong, and discuss it sensibly rather than hysterically."

LM journalists disrupted the Royal Television Society Awards ceremony at London's Hilton Hotel in February to present a fake "Golden Gag" award to ITN chiefs at their table.

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