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September 1997


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[THE NATION - 22 September 1997]

EXCHANGE - Barbed Wire in Bosnia

Frankfurt

I was glad to read that Eric Alterman understands the repressive nature of British libel laws and therefore does not support ITN's attempt to silence an international discourse about standards ["Bosnian Camps: A Barbed Tale", July 28/August 4). But Alterman still gives the impression that he wants to present those parts of the story that fit his obvious attempt to defend Ed Vulliamy and question my integrity.

Why, for example, does he call the evidence I gave as an expert witness at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague "curious"? I presented a factual report about the quantity of the media coverage. I did not talk about any camps. He criticizes me also for not "bothering to call any of the journalists" before I publish my piece. Last autumn I contacted editors and offered it to them. Peter Munch from Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich also asked me why I had not spoken to Vulliamy. I explained that some years ago, when I wrote a controversial piece about Roy Gutman, I made the mistake of talking to him prior to publication. He then denounced me as a pro-Serb writer. Munch spoke to Vulliamy directly. Vulliamy told him (surprise, surprise) that there was barbed wire around the camp and that I was a liar and probably pro-Serb. If Alterman is serious about this question why did he not contact me?

Does Alterman believe it follows professional standards when journalists film from inside a compound fenced in with barbed wire and by doing so create the impression that the neighbouring area and the filmed people are surrounded by such a fence? There was no barbed wire around Trnopolje camp and around the filmed Muslims. That is clear from the unedited ITN rushes I have. Even ITN lawyers were forced to admit recently that there was no barbed wire surrounding the camp. Vulliamy, in his first article in The Guardian, on August 7, 1992, did not say a word about any barbed wire. Later he talked about "barbed-wire fences" and finally he wrote in The Observer on February 2, 1997, that only "one of four sides" of an area "was made of barbed-wire." Interesting to learn from Alterman that the barbed wire "made two sides" of some areas at Trnopolje.

He calls the issue of the barbed wire a "red herring" and suggests that this detail is not really important. But I did not invent the importance of this ITN image. For almost five years it was the decisive detail of ITN reports and thousands of others. The barbed wire was the reason everybody drew the conclusion that the British team had found Nazi-style concentration camps in Bosnia. Journalists should discuss the subject honestly.

THOMAS DEICHMANN

 

London

Eric Alterman's article gave Nation readers no clue as to why Living Marxism magazine is sticking to its guns in the face of ITN's bullyboy tactics - demanding that we pulp the "offending" issue of LM, trying to silence/bankrupt us through the libel courts, etc.

Alterman's throwaway remark that LM is "pro-Serb" did not help matters. It repeats a cheap smear that has been used by ITN's allies to avoid dealing with the issues raised by Thomas Deichmann's revelations. It is like saying that anybody who criticized the U.S. war in Southeast Asia must have been pro-Pol Pot.

Our small magazine is standing up to a mega-corporation because the central issue at stake is the rewriting of history. For five years, the misleading ITN pictures of emaciated Bosnian Muslims apparently encircled by a barbed-wire fence at Trnopolje camp have been used around the world as proof that the Bosnian Serbs ran Nazi-style concentration camps, or "death camps" as Pulitzer Prize-winner Roy Gutman called them.

The implicit parallels drawn between the Bosnian conflict and the Holocaust are doubly dangerous: They distort the truth about Bosnia by demonizing one side in the civil war, and, more important, they belittle the horror of the Nazi Holocaust by comparing it to a bloody but unexceptional local conflict.

It is surely not "revisionism" for LM to insist that there is a difference between a refugee and transit camp like Trnopolje, however grim, and a real concentration camp like Auschwitz. Those who imply otherwise really do run the risk of rewriting history by trivializing the genocide against the Jews.

It has always been a central concern of LM to expose attempts to rewrite history to relativize the Holocaust. That is one reason we have consistently challenged the casual Holocaust-mongering of those Western liberals who called Saddam Hussein "the new Hitler", who claimed that the Rwandan civil war was "the century's third genocide" and who suggest that the Bosnian Serbs were running "concentration camps."

Unfortunately, it is now impossible to question the liberal consensus on these issues without being branded pro-Serb or accused of revisionism and "Holocaust denial". One hopes that readers of a magazine like The Nation can see beyond the hysterical name-calling and make a critical assessment of the facts.

MICK HUME

Editor, Living Marxism

 

Washington D.C.

Media coverage of the Bosnian civil war recently came under withering criticism from the decorated main anchor for BBC television, Nik Gowing, who described it as a "secret shame" for the journalism community and went on, "I think there is now a cancer which is affecting journalismĀ·it is the unspoken issue of partiality and bias in foreign reporting." Some journalists, like Eric Alterman writing on the ITN/LM controversy, knowingly repeat lies, partly, no doubt, convinced that a "higher truth" must be told but partly also for the thrill of a cheap shot. In the case of Bosnia, those most maligned - the Bosnian Serbs - have no recourse. Journalists on safari bag these trophies with impunity.

When Penny Marshall arrived in Belgrade after her controversial trip, she told Peter Galbraith (U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, then a Senate staffer) and others that she was uncomfortable with ITN's editing of the barbed-wire shots. Rightly so, because it led to continuing confusion. Alterman, for example, insists that those behind the barbed wire were imprisoned, despite his unwillingness to suffer the inconvenience of talking to LM or Deichmann or having to look at the raw ITN film. Sections of that video are on the Internet at www.netfreedom.org so readers can see for themselves. People wandering wherever they like do not seem imprisoned to me.

Contrary to Alterman's assertion, my concern is indeed press freedom: freedom to criticise unethical journalists. And although I "admitted" not reading Vulliamy's book, I had ample reason not to. Over beers Vulliamy told me he wrote the thing in three weeks and that there was nothing new in it. I would stack my knowledge and understanding of the situation against Alterman's any day.

GEORGE KENNEY

 

London

What a relief that there is someone - Eric Alterman - uncomfortable with ITN's legal action against LM and Thomas Deichmann but who realizes that the attempt of these people to deny or dilute the history of Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps is a grotesque poisoning of the truth. (I wholeheartedly support ITN's challenge to this poison, but that's not the point.) Alterman unveils the unpleasant way LM and its allies in the "Republika Srpska" have blurred the line between objecting to ITN's writ and denying the existence of the concentration camps.

They have recruited depressingly eager support for the former cause while deploying it to endorse the latter - which is their real objective. And so the names of their sponsors and champions in the mainstream "salons" (none of whom know much, if anything, about Bosnia) are trumpeted and published - as in the latest issue of LM back-to-back with a fawning "interview" by Deichmann of the man who is really calling the shots in all this: Radovan Karadzic.

They have harnessed this sponsorship by bleating about "gagging" and "free speech" - puerile melodrama. Most of the bien-pensants who have played along with this whitewash are London Dilettantes - a hodgepodge of elements of the hard left and hard right. But do Noam Chomsky and the admirable Harry Evans mind giving their names and such morale-boosting endorsement to a campaign that has for some years now acted as a thinly disguised mouthpiece for a hurricane of racialist violence unleashed by the Serbs? It matters much less what George Kenney thinks, since he has changed his mind on Bosnia so may times it is impossible to predicts what side he will be on next.

I happen to be one of the journalists whose accursed honour it was to find a way into Omarska and Trnopolje that putrid day in August 1992, and who stands accused by these people of frame-up, cover-up and of lying under oath to the war crimes tribunal (where Deichmann and I were both witnesses - he for the defence of Dusan Tadic). I have been inundated with hate mail from the campaign's organizers and supporters, most of which is tedious, except one illuminating letter that describes me as "a liar, vile hypocrite and probably a nasty little Jew."

There is something baffling, diabolical even, about people who can overlook the scale of suffering such as that inflicted on the inmates of Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm - and the ferocity and sadism with which it was inflicted - and even deny these things in pursuit of their myopic agenda. If the Serbs in Bosnia had lost their war, then such behaviour might be, I suppose, just about understandable. But Karadzic, Mladic et al. have their foul "Muslimfrei" statelet, so what more do their supporters want?

ED VULLIAMY

 

ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

Deichmann is a propagandist for mass murderers and an apologist for war criminals. I want nothing to do with him or his allies at LM, whose attempt to hide behind the Holocaust is doubly disgusting. ITN is wrong to take advantage of England's regressive libel laws, but this is a minor error when compared with the whitewashing of Bosnian Serb war crimes and intentional slandering of the reputations of honest and courageous journalists. As for George Kenney, I find his current circumstances rather sad. He seems to have forfeited not only his job but his judgement. I will resist his invitation to add to his already considerable burdens.

ERIC ALTERMAN

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