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The March issue of Living Marxism caused a storm (and sold out), after we published photographs from an exhibition which had been banned from Britain under UN sanctions against Serbia. Joan Phillips, who went to Belgrade and brought back the pictures, reviews the affair in the light of recent reporting of the Yugoslav war. She concludes that the campaign against official lies and media distortion has only just begun

Breaking the selective silence

In March, Living Marxism broke the British government and media blockade that has covered up one side of the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The magazine published a selection of photographs from a Belgrade exhibition showing atrocities committed against Serbs, photographs which had been banned from Britain by the government under United Nations sanctions against Serbia. A larger selection of the photographs was exhibited at The Edge gallery in London, before moving on to Birmingham and other cities in Britain.

Our decision to publish and exhibit the forbidden photographs caused a national controversy. The Department of Trade and Industry, which banned the original Belgrade exhibition from coming to Britain, first issued threats against us and then, when the story was picked up by the press and broadcasting media, tried to smother the issue with silence.

Meanwhile, WH Smith decided to take Living Marxism off its shelves, saying that the photographs were 'gruesome and unacceptable'. The magazine was on sale, but only from under the counter on request.

Infuriated by, or just curious about, the government's use of sanctions to censor the photographs, large numbers of people bought the magazine and went to see the exhibition. 'If the government doesn't want us to see these photographs, I want to know what's going on', was a common response from people who read about the ban in the papers or heard it on the radio. In London, 500 people attended a public meeting about the media, war and censorship.

Living Marxism broke the ban by sponsoring the exhibition and publishing the forbidden photographs because we thought it was important to take a stand against government censorship and expose the hidden side of the Yugoslav war.

When libel writs, controls on the press and official cover-ups are becoming the order of the day, some media commentators agreed that it was about time somebody registered a protest. 'For showing the pictures, ludicrously banned by the government because they are from a Serb exhibition and are deemed to come under the UN-imposed sanctions, Living Marxism should be congratulated', stated the UK Press Gazette:

'It is doubtful if a national newspaper could have run these pictures - the political fallout, given their power to sicken and shock, would have been enormous. But someone needed to and we hope that they have circulated copies to every MP and opinion-former to contribute to a more balanced view of the conflict.' (8 March 1993)

We also felt it was important to break the selective silence about what has been happening to the Serbs in the war in Yugoslavia, a silence which the government ban on the Belgrade exhibition could only reinforce. By publicising the banned photographs, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that people are being told only one side of the story about the war in Yugoslavia.

While the Serbs are constantly accused of committing atrocities, we never hear anything about atrocities committed against the Serbs. Living Marxism has always taken exception to this dishonest campaign by governments and journalists to demonise and scapegoat the Serbs as the sole guilty party in this war. We are in favour of an open discussion about the war in Yugoslavia - and especially about the West's role in the conflict. In order to have that discussion, people need to hear all sides of the story.

Our exposure of official censorship and bias has been a step forward in opening up a discussion of the war. But the activities of governments and journalists over the past month indicate that there is still a lot of work to be done in exposing the West's war lies.

In early March, the British press was full of stories about terrible things the Serbs were supposed to be doing in eastern Bosnia; laying siege to towns like Zepa, Cerska and Srebrenica, and starving, shelling and massacring their Muslim inhabitants.

Newspapers reported that famine was ravaging eastern Bosnia, and that starving Muslims in the Zepa area had started to eat human flesh. The lurid tales of mass starvation and cannibalism were used to justify the USA's decision to step up its involvement in Bosnia. Washington began airdrops to the beleaguered Muslim enclaves of eastern Bosnia, an operation whose farcical character was confirmed when it transpired that more Muslims were killed trying to reach the food than had died of starvation.

Journalists eager to broadcast the cannibalism stories ignored several denials from authoritative sources. Neven Kulenovic, a Muslim diplomat in Zagreb, said the stories were not true. So did General Philippe Morillon, commander of United Nations forces in Bosnia. Morillon said that when Unprofor members visited Zepa in January they found local people living among chickens and cows. He added that the Mulsim government of Alija Izetbegovic was deliberately exaggerating the food shortage in order to persuade the West to do more; but that the mountain villages of eastern Bosnia were used to harsh winters and were usually able to feed themselves.

In a similar vein, when the town of Cerska fell to the Serbs in March, journalists printed stories about hundreds of Muslims being massacred and thousands expelled. There were rumours about awful atrocities in Cerska and mass starvation in nearby Konjevic Polje. Since no outsiders had managed to visit the two towns, it was impossible to confirm whether or not the reports were true. Nevertheless, they continued to be widely aired by the British media.

When an outsider finally did visit the area, the rumours appeared to have been largely unfounded. Again it was General Philippe Morillon, who went to verify the claims of genocide and starvation. After a brief visit, Morillon said he saw nothing to suggest that civilians were killed when the Serbs took Cerska, and that there was no question of hunger being a problem in Konjevic Polje.

The response of the media to Morillon's statement was to rubbish it. Journalists suggested that he could not possibly know what really happened in Cerska because he spent only a limited amount of time there. The fact that he was the only Westerner to have spent any time there did not seem to count for much with the journalists who had written horror stories about the place without having been anywhere near it.

It is probably only a matter of time before General Morillon is despatched back to France. He has already been accused of having been 'duped' by the Serbs and of 'whitewashing' what happened in Cerska. Like the Canadian General Lewis McKenzie, another straight-talking military man in Bosnia who upset a few people because he said what he saw, Morillon is not likely to last his tenure as UN commander in Bosnia.

What was objectionable about the media's coverage of events in eastern Bosnia was not simply the willingness of journalists to publish unsubstantiated atrocity stories as fact. Just as galling is their ability to close their eyes to what is happening to Serbian civilians in Bosnia at the same time as they are writing reams about what is happening to Muslim or Croatian civilians.

While many of the tales told by journalists are of dubious authenticity, there is no doubt that Muslim and Croatian civilians are suffering. But so are Serbian civilians. People on all sides have lost everything: their families, homes, land, possessions, health and dignity. So why do we hear little or nothing about the suffering endured by the Serbs?

When large numbers of Serbian civilians in eastern Herzegovina were expelled from their homes in February we didn't hear a word about it. There are just a few hundred Serbs left in Mostar, where once there were 23 000. Not a single Serbian home is still intact between Metkovic and Konjic in the Neretva valley: they have all been burned.

At the start of February, columns of Serbian civilians were driven out of Mostar, and the refugee convoys shelled and shot at by Croatian forces. Yet in contrast to the endless stories about the plight of Muslim civilians in eastern Bosnia, we were not treated to a single story about the plight of the Serbs in eastern Herzegovina.

Western journalists go to Bosnia to get a story. But they have just one story in mind. The story is simple: the Serbs are the bad guys and the Muslims are the victims. Their governments have all declared the Serbs to be the guilty party in Yugoslavia, and journalists, almost without exception, have swallowed this story without question. That's why they see only what they want to see - Serbian atrocities everywhere and Serbian victims nowhere.

The consequence of the media's selective silence is not simply that the Serbs have been criminalised. Even worse, those who are mainly responsible for the bloodshed in Yugoslavia - not the Serbs, Croats or Muslims, but the Western powers - are depicted as saviours.

From the moment the Western powers got involved in the Yugoslav conflict everything they have done has made things worse. At every stage their diplomatic and political meddling in the internal affairs of the Yugoslav peoples has escalated the conflict. Many have said that the West's recognition first of Croatia and Slovenia and then of Bosnia was premature. But the truth is that there was never a right time for the West to get involved.

The problem is not that the Western powers got their timing wrong, but that they have interfered in Yugoslavia's affairs for their own cynical ends. Germany recognised Croatia not because Helmut Kohl had a deep empathy with the Croatian people, but because the German chancellor was keen to demonstrate to Europe and the world that Germany had arrived as a world power in its own right. America then recognised Bosnia not because George Bush felt sorry for the people of Bosnia, but because he was worried by Germany's power play over Croatia and was keen to demonstrate that America was still the arbiter of world affairs.

Western interference in the former Yugoslavia has become a game of one-upmanship. All the Western nations are using the war to advance their own claims to Great Power status. Serbia has become the whipping boy in this game of tit for tat being played by the Western powers. Each of them is trying to establish its position in the international hierarchy by taking a pot shot at Serbia.

War crimes

This explains why there is such intense competition among the Western powers to come up with yet another initiative against Belgrade. So in March, the Americans threatened to tighten sanctions against Serbia; meanwhile the Germans announced that they would join in the airdrop. Neither the move to make the Serbs suffer more, nor the escalation of the airdrop charade, had anything to do with what was happening in the war in Bosnia. Rather these initiatives were part of the diplomatic jockeying for position that has characterised Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

One of the West's latest brain waves is to stage a war crimes tribunal. It came as no surprise to discover that the people the West thinks should be put in the dock are mainly Serbs. If there was any justice, the leaders of the West would be the ones in the dock for the deaths and suffering they have caused from Iraq and Bosnia to Somalia and Angola.

What is really needed today is a war lies tribunal, that could expose the way in which the Western powers are distorting the truth about Yugoslavia and other international conflicts in order to back up the case for intervention. Every atrocity story adds to the clamour for even more intervention against the Serbs. It's time people started asking a few questions about why the media is telling only one side of the story, and about what the West is up to in the Balkans.

Cutting against the grain: the forbidden exhibition at The Edge gallery, London
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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