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November 1997

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[MEDITERRANEAN QUARTERLY - A Journal of Global Issues Volume 8 Number 4 Fall 1997]

Real Balkan Politics with False TV Pictures by Thomas Deichmann

August 1992 was one of the turning points in the Western approach to the conflict in Bosnia. Media coverage gained an unprecedented influence on decision-making processes at all levels. Reports about horrifying conditions in camps run by the Bosnian Serbs galvanized world opinion. The visit to the Omarska and Trnopolje camps by a team from England's Independent Television News (ITN) on 5 August gave rise to the image of the Serbs as the new Nazis. The film of an emaciated Muslim behind barbed wire, shot in Trnopolje camp by ITN and printed on the cover of Time magazine on 17 August, became the defining symbol of the brutality of the war and was seen as proof of the existence of Nazi-like concentration camps run by Bosnian Serbs. The question immediately posed was whether the United States should stay out of the Balkans or whether, and how, it should get involved.

Early in that crucial month, the U.S. State Department adopted a position that made it difficult to argue any longer that the war in the Balkans was a solely European matter. This situation was symptomatic of a far-reaching and alarming development in the arena of politics and the media ö a situation in which media reports exercised considerable foreign policy influence. In this unique situation two trends converged, and their interaction had a dramatic impact.

On the one side there was the general crisis of Western international diplomacy resulting from the end of the Cold War. The U.S. establishment in particular was confronted with the fact that its dominant role, based on the institutional and political arrangements established after the Second World War, was called into question. Even before the celebrations of the Western triumph over the Soviet Union had ended, problems opened up by the new era were openly discussed. Charles William Maynes addressed the problem of how the United States could develop new direction, clarity, and purpose in its foreign policy and rally domestic support in Foreign Policy in spring 1990. The Bosnian war started in a period in which there were more uncertainties and competing ideas about the future of the U.S. role in international relations than there were clear and consensual values.

On the other side, a growing number of academics and journalists felt more and more dissatisfied with the lack of clarity and the indecisiveness of their own governments. Despite talk of a peaceful new world order, the world seemed to drift into increasing chaos and disarray. Journalists sensed the lack of orientation of Western leaders and a vacuum in international diplomacy, and many felt the need to intervene in this process. The idea that, after the end of the Cold War, journalists had a stronger obligation to put pressure on their governments to take political decisions, to step in and build a better world, found its clearest expression in discussions of the Balkan war. Western politics was criticised as being too passive and slow.

In the introduction to a book on media coverage of the Balkan crisis, the editors stated:

The conflicts in Bosnia focused frustration at the limits of international diplomatic action. Although the media rarely affected decisions, it sometimes placed those in the policy field under great pressure. In the absence of a clear and strong international, particularly Western, policy that there had been over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, policy was characterised by indecision and a lack of cohesion.

Some journalists explicitly redefined their jobs to morally and politically legitimate their position that only more Western military intervention could solve the Balkan crisis. To a certain extent, they tried to fill the moral and political vacuum in international diplomacy.

In this unique situation, media reports could gain unprecedented importance in the political decision-making process. I do not argue here that journalists took over politics and decided its direction but that the influence of certain media reporting cannot be ignored. The combination of a leadership crisis and a new approach by some media explains why the coverage of Bosnian camps in August 1992 had such an impact.

Camp Stories of August 1992

The media coverage about Bosnian camps in summer 1992 gained immense attention in the context of the rapid escalation of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav republic whose independence was recognised on 6 April 1992. The frustration about what was called a "humanitarian nightmare" led to immense moral pressure on Western governments to look after the newly independent country.

The demand for military action against the Bosnian Serbs became more insistent as Muslim and Croatian refugees who had fled from the war zones in Bosnia gave the first evidence of atrocities and the existence of detention camps. Some Balkan correspondents, in filing their reports, looked for the most dramatic story and the strongest moral argument for military intervention. From July 1992 onward, comparisons of the civil war in Bosnia with the Nazi past became the key message of these reports. Separate articles by Maggie O'Kane and Ed Vulliamy in the Guardian, by Roy Gutman in Newsday, and, most importantly, by ITN reporters, Penny Marshall and Ian Williams led to the conclusion that genocide was being carried out against the Muslim population in Bosnia.

Radovan Karadzic, who attended an international conference in London at the end of July 1992, was confronted live on television by the then diplomatic editor of Channel Four, Nik Gowing, about media stories on alleged concentration camps. Karadzic denied the existence of camps of that nature and agreed to grant a team of journalists free access to visit what camps did exist. Shortly after this invitation, Marshall, Williams, and Vulliamy arrived in Belgrade. At the beginning of August, they flew to Pale where they had a short meeting with Karadzic, who made arrangements by telephone for their unimpeded access to the camps in Omarska and Trnopolje. On 2 August, Roy Gutman published his well-known "death camp" article about Omarska. The expectations in the ITN editors' offices in London were immense.

The visit to the camp in Omarska, located in the area of a large mining complex, was a depressing experience for the reporters, and also a disappointment. Marshall and Williams were vexed because, despite Karadzic's promises, they were not allowed to enter all the buildings. After an unsuccessful dispute with the Serbian commanders they made up their minds to depart for the last station of their trip, Trnopolje, located only a few miles away from Omarska and directly adjacent to the small town of Kozarac, which in May 1992 had been taken by Serbian units. Many Muslim inhabitants had been killed, many more driven out of Kozarac. They were seeking refuge in the school building, in its neighboring community centre, and in the open area behind both buildings in Trnopolje - sites transformed overnight into a camp for Muslims without homes.

In Trnopolje the reporters used their last chance to shoot the pictures that would have a tremendous impact. The best known and most influential picture, which became the very symbol of the Bosnian war, was that of an emaciated man standing under the blazing sun in a group of Muslims, bare chested behind a barbed wire fence.

The World's Interpretation

The impact of this image on world opinion was tremendous because of the symbolic link with the Nazi concentration camps. Marshall and Williams were the first to supply the suitable illustration of comparisons with the Nazi past. The image of Fikret Alic behind barbed wire was reproduced world-wide in virtually every significant medium. It has become a document of contemporary history, a supposed proof of the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia, fifty years after the end of the Third Reich.

Marshall and Williams did not call Trnopolje a concentration camp. Both have expressed reservations about the way the images have been interpreted. Ian Williams told of his concerns over the reaction to the pictures in an interview with England's Press Gazette only a month after his visit to Trnopolje: "In a sense it's almost the power of the images going two steps ahead of the proof that went with them".

Ed Vulliamy's first article on Trnoplje was published in the Guardian on 7 August 1992, the morning after the ITN pictures had been broadcast for the first time. Vulliamy had not seen the edited ITN broadcast when he wrote. His article did not mention the barbed wire fence at all, and Vulliamy stated that Trnopolje should not be called a concentration camp. Vulliamy

presented a balanced view of the situation in Trnopolje, quoting Muslim refugees who reported that no force had been used against them, that the place offered them a certain security, and that they did not know where else to go.

But whatever the British reporters said at the time, the image of Alic behind barbed wire told its own story and was interpreted worldwide in the same way. "The Proof" was the headline in big letters above the picture that covered the entire front page of England's Daily Mail of 7 August, two days after Marshall's camp visit. "Belsen '92" was how the British Daily Mirror captioned the photograph the same day. A similar response came from outside Great Britain. ABC News in the United States introduced its news item about the Bosnian camps on 6 August with the comment, "Faces and bodies that hint at atrocities of the past. But this is not history, this is Bosnia. Pictures from the camps: A glimpse into genocide."

There were only a few critical comments on the sensational disclosures of the British reporters. Phil Davison, a highly respected foreign correspondent who covered the war from both sides for the British daily Independent, explained:

Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly we had death camps, we had concentration camp stories, we had direct comparisons with the Second World War. I felt at that stage, there was an exaggeration. There were certainly prisoner of war camps, and they were bad, as we later found out. Again, without trying to justify too much, you also have to remember that (along with) these prisoner of war camps, which exist on both sides but were certainly worse on the Serbian side, there was a blockade on Serbia, there was little food around, everybody was hungry.

Only a few journalists were as careful as Davison. Instead, most of them wrote of Serbian concentration camps from then on. U.S. politicians reacted in a similar way. Tom Lantos, a Democratic congressman on the House Foreign Relations Committee, explained in an interview for Channel Four on August 6, after having seen the famous pictures:

I very much hope so that those horrendous pictures, which are reminiscent of the concentration camps that the Nazis had during World War II, minus the gas chambers, will stir public opinion both in Europe and the United States...Mr. Bush and his administration have to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking some action...We are at a moment in history when we are sorting out the Chamberlains and the Churchills of 1992, and so far there are very few Churchills on the European or on the American side...The civilised world stood by during the early 1940s because it claimed, not quite honestly, that it didn't know what was going on. Well we now know what is going on. It is on our television screen every night.

The Political Response and Its Consequences

The broadcast of ITN's images led to a rapid response from international politicians at different levels. In an article titled "How Media Misinformation Led to Bosnian Intervention," George Kenney, who resigned as the Yugoslav desk officer from the U.S. State Department in August 1992, gave his personal account of how the interpretation of ITN's pictures of the Trnopolje camp helped Washington onto a war footing. Kenney explained:

The first turning point, that led straightaway to the introduction of Western troops, coincided with ITN's broadcast of images of what was widely assumed to be a concentration camp, at the Bosnian Serb-run Trnopolje refugee collection centre in August 1992.

Kenny explained further that a wave of sanctions against the Bosnian Serbs from international organisations, up to the threat of military blows, was the result of ITN's coverage. Roused by the barbed wire picture, British Prime Minister John Major summoned his closest colleagues back from their holiday leave for an emergency meeting. On 18 August 1992, the British government decided to make eighteen hundred British soldiers available for peacemaking in the conflict region. On 14 August, the French had offered to send twenty-two hundred troops.

In the United States, presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, took the initiative in their electoral campaign, making constant references to the ITN pictures and requesting military action against the Serbs. In Brussels, NATO staff advisors met on 6 August for an emergency meeting to speed up the planning of a military intervention in the Balkans. On 13 August, the UN Security Council passed Resolutions 770 and 771, which authorised the international use of force in Bosnia and promised to punish war criminals.

The ITN's image of the barbed wire was to become a great influence on the work of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague some time later. As the basis for the tribunal's subsequent investigation into alleged war crimes, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was instructed by Security Council Resolution 780 on 6 October 1992 to establish a commission of experts to provide him with conclusions regarding evidence of violations of humanitarian laws committed in the former Yugoslavia. The commission's work started a month later under Frits Karlshoven's directorship and was completed by his successor, Cherif Bassiouni, with a final report in summer 1994. The commission made its own investigation onsite but had, above all, evaluated investigation results of state and other organisations as well as media reports. The Bassiouni report became the basis of the tribunal investigators' own investigations. The barbed wire fence in Trnopolje is mentioned in several places in their document. As a source for the report, Ed Vulliamy's book Seasons in Hell, which was published 1994, is referenced several times. The barbed wire that Vulliamy had not considered worth mentioning in his first article had now become the focus for attention.

In the first trial of the War Crimes Tribunal, against the Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic, the barbed wire fence and the famous ITN shot played a prominent part. Tadic was accused of having participated in numerous murders and rapes as a leading functionary in Trnopolje camp by witness "L", who was later revealed as Dragan Opacic and found guilty of having made false statements against Tadic under pressure from the police in Sarajevo.

On 15 August 1996, Opacic made a drawing in the court chamber of The Hague to show how the barbed wire fence allegedly fenced in the entire camp area. During the cross examination, he stressed his "yes" to the question of attorney Steven Kay as to whether the barbed wire fence enclosed the entire camp. ITN rushes were presented to the court as strong evidence for the prosecution.

Other prosecution witnesses had already spoken of the barbed wire fence. Vulliamy himself was invited to the witness box by the prosecution as an expert. On 6 and 7 June 1996, he described the journey of the British team and the situation in Trnopolje, which he described as a refugee and transition camp. His arguments were accompanied for long sequences by the presentation of the ITN video tapes.

The saddest role of the ITN barbed wire image was disclosed by Mischa Wladimiroff, the former defence lawyer of Tadic. He explained that he interviewed Dragan Opacic one day after his conviction as a liar on 25 October 1996 and talked with him about his motivation and the background of his false testimony. Opacic said that he had continuously been presented video tapes of Trnopolje during his police custody in Sarajevo, including pictures from ITN with the barbed wire fence.

The Media Filling a Gap

The ITN report is a striking and warning example of the impact that media reports can have on international diplomacy and military planning. Penny Marshall's barbed wire picture was certainly not the one and only reason for a new dynamism in the initiatives of Western governments, but it triggered an avalanche that took others with it.

To what extent and why the ITN pictures had an impact on decision makers in Western governments has been debated by academics, politicians, and journalists. Even some who would argue that governments in general are resilient in the face of intense media pressure and do not alter policy to meet public demands - a view that I share - have admitted that the ITN broadcast was an exceptional instance in which policy indeed was changed as a result of media reports.

The editors of Bosnia by Television concluded, with reference to research done by Nik Gowing, that "the most significant example of this was the ITN reporting on Bosnian Serb concentration camps in the summer of 1992."

They further explained that the "absence of a clear and comprehensive strategy with regard to the Yugoslav War of Dissolution left a gap which was filled by the media." Gowing summarised the results of his own research:

Who can forget the horrors of the Bosnian Serb detention camps at Omarska and Trnopolje revealed by ITN two years ago?·The camp story came out of the blue, and it rattled governments. The Acting Foreign Minister Lynda Chalker in our studio that night was not only moved; she was politically flustered by it. President Bush was in the White House briefing-room within an hour to condemn the camps and to promise America "will not rest until the international community has gained access to all detention camps." This was policy panic.

The ITN broadcast of 6 August 1992 was without any doubt exceptional. George Kenney's account of the impact of the ITN images on the U.S. establishment gives a powerful insider's view of the lack of orientation and strategy inside the U.S. government in summer 1992. Kenney wrote about State Department public affairs officials being "in a nuclear panic" in early August. Kenney remembered that on Thursday, 6 August, President Bush made a statement urging the UN to authorise the use of "all necessary measures" to ensure aid deliveries. Kenney continued:

At almost exactly the moment of President Bush's call to arms, ITN's pictures first aired...The notion that "we had got to do something" echoed down State's corridors. At the start of the week possible critical policy shifts were dimly perceived and highly tentative, but by week's end ITN's graphic portrayal of what was interpreted as a "Balkan Holocaust" probably ensured that those shifts became irreversible. Those shifts remain fundamental to policy to this day.

There were a few journalists and officials who, right from the start, warned about negative consequences resulting form the dynamic created by ITN reports. Sir John Thomson, head of a Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe investigation committee at the time, warned of premature conclusions when he said that if "some camps were just opened, I have the impression some of the prisoners, would not get very far - there would be nearby graves."

Nik Gowing also explained that the ITN broadcast was not seen by everybody as having a positive result for the Bosnian Muslims. He referred to humanitarian organisations who stated that the pressure of ITN's reports actually furthered Serb ends, because refugees were moved out of camps and out of Bosnia. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) observed that, because of the international excitement caused by the ITN reports, any chance of attaining a solution enabling the Muslims to stay in the region had been lost. "We got people out of hell, but without the international pressure to get people out we could have kept open the possibility of keeping them (the Bosnian Muslims) in the area," one ICRC official told Gowing.

The Misleading ITN Image

On what kind of evidence was the consensus established in summer 1992 actually based? ITN always presented itself as being proud of what its news reports had achieved. For their reports from the Bosnian camps the ITN team received prestigious awards from Bafta, the Royal Television Society, the Film and TV Festival of New York, Broadcast magazine, and the Scoop and News Festival. But the ITN coverage was not as accurate as ITN always suggested.

The problem simply is that the central image of the barbed wire in Trnopolje was misleading. The fact is that Fikret Alic and the other Bosnian Muslims in the famous picture were not encircled by a barbed wire fence. There was no barbed wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp. The barbed wire was around a small compound next to the camp. It had been erected before the war to protect agricultural products and machinery from thieves. Penny Marshall and her team got their famous pictures by filming the camp and the Bosnia Muslims from inside this compound, taking pictures through the compound fence. The Bosnian Muslims were actually standing outside the area encircled by barbed wire. Not only do unedited ITN rushes, which I have seen, show the true composition of the famous shot, the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and the ICRC confirm that there was no barbed wire around the camp. ITN in the meantime also has admitted that there was no barbed wire around Trnopolje camp.

The way the ITN news reports were constructed also raises further questions regarding the quality of ITN's award-winning picture of August 1992. ITN's news bulletins invited comparisons with the Nazi past. There is clear and mounting evidence that the ITN reports from Trnopolje were edited and presented in a highly selective fashion. Tapes from a local TV crew, which accompanied and filmed the ITN journalists during their visit to Trnopolje, present an illuminating account of what occurred there. The Bosnian Serb TV crew's film shows that Marshall did not just walk up to the barbed wire and meet emaciated Fikret Alic. Instead she had spoken to several other Muslims through the fence before he appeared - to a Muslim named Mehmet, among others. He explained to Marshall that he and the others slept "inside" and that he felt "very safe" in the camp. He described Trnopolje as a "refugee camp, not a prison." None of these statements were broadcast by ITN.


This case study of the famous ITN image raises several questions - questions important, first of all, for the media profession. The crucial piece of evidence allegedly supporting the assumption that a genocide, indeed a new Holocaust, was underway in Bosnia and the Nazi-style concentration camps were maintained there was misleading. Maybe even more important, the immediate outcome of the developments in summer 1992 was that journalists felt that they had an unprecedented influence on politics and firmly believed they had done a good moral job.

It is clear that something other than objective reporting was at work in the journalists' crusade against the "Serbian aggressors". Many reporters became lost in a simplistic attempt to cover a rather complex civil war situation. Veteran BBC war reporter Martin Bell criticised the media's approach in his account of reporting in Bosnia, In Harm's Way. Concerning the "siege" of Sarajevo, he stated:

One thing these stories all had in common was that they tended to reinforce the stereotype of good Muslims and bad Serbs. The ethnic and religious mix was actually more complicated than that·But the prevailing image, repeated daily in TV news reports including my own, was of Muslims attacked by Serbs·Some reporters' sympathies were co-opted so openly that they started to refer to the Serbs, in the language of the Bosnian presidency, as "aggressor forces". The Serbs' case, even if they had one, went unheard.

But why did journalists do that? Bell's example of Sarajevo, the ITN coverage of Bosnian camps, and other, similar media stories as well as the hostile reactions by some journalists to my investigations about ITN's misleading barbed wire image refer to a trend in which journalists adopt a moral mission. In a time of uncertainty and lack of orientation, journalists were looking for new moral absolutes and arguments they could use to put their own governments under pressure.

In an interview, Peter Handke, the famous German-language author, was asked why he believed he had become the target of a witch hunt by leading European intellectuals and newspapers after he had published a travelogue of the former Yugoslavia that questioned the way the Serbian people have been demonised in discussion of the Balkan war. The Austrian author replied:

I don't like to theorise or politicise, but Serbia was probably what corresponded to the inner emptiness of many people, who otherwise no longer have any commitment, any passion or, above all, any vision. The artificially created aggressor Serbia and the tunnel vision it produced then came along and filled the emptiness.

Journalists filled what Handke described as their emptiness by imposing a simple moral framework on the civil war. This was achieved mainly by reporting from the point of view of Muslim victims. Journalists judged who was god and evil, and some presented themselves as caring crusaders.

The media coverage of the war in Bosnia should be seen as an alarming example of the direction in which a morally attached journalism can lead. A growing number of war reporters today share the view that journalists cannot be neutral but have a duty to side with the angels. In England, Martin Bell himself has argued against the tradition of "detached and dispassionate, clinically neutral·bystander journalism" in conflict situations. Although Bell has never been a supporter of what could be called a "good lie", in proposing a "journalism of attachment" he has given a positive label to those reporters who are prepared to take liberties with facts.

The media coverage of the Bosnian war demonstrates the danger of a trend in which emotions overwhelm hard evidence. The attempt to understand a specific dynamic in a war zone is substituted by a moral mission, which is less interested in politics and armies than in people. Andrej Gustincic of Reuters has revealed the limitations of adopting what is considered to be the victim's point of view:

The political context just seems so irrelevant when you're out in the field·because you're watching human beings. Whether you want to or not, you become what is called a colour writer, because you become involved in events, you care about the people, you're scared a lot of the time. You don't think about the political context, or your political views become really simple.

The danger that Gustincic's comment alludes to is that journalists with some kind of attachment in a conflict will end up seeing and reporting what they want to see, rather than all that is really there. This finally raises questions addressed to Western political decision makers and policy analysts. Western initiatives following the media coverage of August 1992 have to be reassessed, because they were triggered to a large extent by the misleading ITN image instead of being based on insights into the situation and a rational strategy that follow from them. The implications and consequences of this trend must be examined in further detail.

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