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Roy Gutman's story

In April, Roy Gutman of US Newsday won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the war in Bosnia. In the May issue of Living Marxism, Joan Phillips questioned the basis of Gutman's award-winning stories about Serbian 'death camps' (see 'Who's making the news in Bosnia?'). Here we print Roy Gutman's reply.

I read Joan Phillips' critique of my Bosnia reportage with interest. Just as reporters claim to be watchdogs, we must submit to the scrutiny of others. But a critique must observe the standard of objectivity it sets for the target of examination. And absent in Phillips' extended discussion of my methodology and impact of my stories on public perceptions is any discussion about the core facts. What really happened at Omarska and Brcko camps? Who told the truth: the witnesses I quoted or the military authorities in Banja Luka who were responsible for the operation of the camps? The truth matters.

First to methodology. Phillips describes mine as relying on hearsay and double-hearsay. My very first article on Omarska, on July 19, was indeed based on a secondhand account and was so presented. The military in Banja Luka refused to take me to Omarska, on the transparent excuse they, the armed authorities, could not guarantee my safety. They refused also to admit the International Red Cross until well after my articles were published. Now there can only be one reason to run an account based on hearsay: to warn that something terrible seemed to be going on. No one, starting with the US government, took the warning seriously. I will defend the story as the right thing to do in the circumstances in which I could not gain access to the site. I am grateful you gave it the attention no one else did.

So I returned to the region in the hopes of locating survivors who could say what was going on behind the closed gates. After two of the most frustrating weeks imaginable, I found two in Zagreb, then the biggest gathering area for Bosnian refugees. Theirs were firsthand accounts, not hearsay. Now, why go to print based on only two witnesses? I was convinced that the lives of thousands of people were at stake and we should take the journalistic risk on their behalf. Were the witnesses telling the truth? At least 350 reporters headed into Bosnia in the weeks following my 'Death camps' report in Newsday on August 2. Few matched my account. Only after my story were ITN and the Guardian allowed to visit Omarska. The photos were dramatic, the settings ominous, but that was the wrong place to get the definitive story - for the simple reason the authorities clearly were intimidating the prisoners. And it turns out they also had mounted a quick and massive cover-up.

In retrospect, I am surprised that my press colleagues did not take the trouble to dig out the story but watched passively as governments, led by US and Britain, did their best to knock down my reports. For example, Lawrence Eagleburger, then acting secretary of state, said on August 18 that the US government had found no evidence of systematic killing at the camps, only of 'unpleasant conditions'.

This prompted me to re-report the Omarska story from scratch. The article ran at great length October 18 and was based on interviews with about 20 survivors of Omarska. Their accounts were mutually corroborative, whereas the story told by the Serb authorities quickly fell apart. From the accounts of witnesses, I estimated that at least 1000 prisoners were killed at Omarska alone. The prisoners and the Red Cross told me about the cover-up. The Serb authorities closed Omarska within a day or so of my story, moved nine-tenths of the prisoners elsewhere, brought in bunk beds and bedding and set up a Potemkin village story for visiting reporters, including ITN. They also concocted a tale of events at Omarska. Serb officials claimed that two people died at Omarska, both of natural causes. Yet when questioned in depth, they acknowledged to me that well over a dozen top officials and leading citizens of the nearby city of Prijedor, including Lord Mayor Muhamed Cehajic, 'disappeared' and perhaps 'died in the process of disappearing' while at Omarska.

If the facts were not there, rest assured that my story would have been knocked down long ago. The contrary is the case. Under pressure from within the state department, the US government began interviewing victims at Karlovac. They now conclude that at least 5000 people were killed at Omarska. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Commission, has also reported the daily murder of dozens at Omarska, but I do not know if he reached a numerical estimate.

You need not take my word for it. Research it yourself. The first 68 released detainees, including many from Omarska, came to Britain in September. Alone among major Western governments, your government did not debrief them or file a report to the UN commission examining war crimes. The British press failed to pursue the story on its doorstep. You should not perpetuate the cover-up.

Let me return to the question of methodology. The Banja Luka military headquarters never issued a detailed rebuttal of my stories but in January distributed a release which attacked me ad hominem, alleging that I am a CIA spy, that I hired and paid mercenaries, and accepted information about rapes and concentration camps from Robert Loftus. The account was signed but did not identify the author. He is the head of army propaganda. Though he knows me personally, he made no effort to contact me. His only explanation when I phoned Banja Luka was to say he had written it under instruction from his superiors. His attack was published throughout the Serbian press, carried on Belgrade television, and is now being distributed by the Serbian government. It is, as Phillips notes, outlandish and with no evidence.

I have no problem with her using that attack as the starting point for an investigation. But please reflect. I have reported on a phenomenon that is best summed up in one word: genocide. Shouldn't you also subject the source of the assault on my reporting to a critical examination? As you know, your article about me in May was picked up and treated in the Serbian press as a confirmation of the allegations.

Put yourself in my shoes. I asked to see Loftus' diaries, as Phillips did, to determine how they were being used; but the Banja Luka command refused access. I denied the allegations in writing, but the Banja Luka authorities would not issue my denial in a manner similar to the article about me and the Serb press will not publish my letter. I seem to have no recourse. I sent a follow-up letter reminding the Serb newspapers that by law, I have a right of reply. I hired a lawyer to seek an injunction. The court denied venue on the grounds that I am a non-resident. Five months later, my letter remains unpublished.

I believe my coverage was scrupulous in its methodology, accurate in its conclusions, and will stand up to scrutiny. Can that be said of the actions and statements of the Bosnian Serb or Serbian authorities?

With regard to the Serdari massacre, I readily accepted the invitation of the military spokesman in Banja Luka to visit the site, but local officials in Kotor Varos, instead of taking me directly there, held me up for three hours without explanation. I arrived in the village in the company of the coroner. It was baffling that the corpses had been removed. The coroner had to take the word of local militia who was killed, how and where. The exception was two corpses charred from a fire in the house. That fire was burning 12 hours after the raid, with a garden hose at full pressure within easy reach. Then there was the mysterious radio conversation that the army said it had taped and suddenly produced for my benefit in which the Muslim and Croat units repeatedly announced to each other the number killed. I proposed to write a story from the visit, but my editors objected that it would raise questions but answer none. So I continued searching. And the story later fell in place. In Zenica at the Muslim-run centre for investigation of war crimes, officials introduced me to a Muslim who had fled to Travnik, who took part in the raid. He told me, by the way, that the attacking force, mainly Muslims, had no radio.

Roy W Gutman Newsday European Bureau Bonn, Germany

A bitter Pilger

As an admirer of Living Marxism, I believe you ask not to be taken seriously when you run a piece such as 'Left, right, left, right' and which reflects much of the June issue. To suggest that Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and many other socialists, including myself - socialists with a proven record of independence - now belong to some monolithic bloc known as the 'old left' and subscribe to a 'new consensus behind [Western] intervention' is downright stupid and depressingly so. And you must know it is.

For example, you lump Ken Livingstone and me together on the issue of Yugoslavia. Ken Livingstone wants serious military intervention in Bosnia, including bombing. I am totally opposed to that, just as I am opposed to the Vance-Owen plan. By describing a fake 'consensus', you deny a range of radical thought and argument distinguished by striking differences of analysis and opinion. Above all, you deny the indisputable existence of a genuine political and moral dilemma on Yugoslavia. Ask any socialist, whose views you respect, and almost certainly the dilemma will become apparent - even among those who do not care to admit it.

It is Western intervention that denies the multi-ethnic Bosnians the right to defend themselves. The embargo works, in practice, only against the Bosnians; and you clearly support this. Using the inane argument that puts the 'old left' behind Margaret Thatcher, you, alas, are in the queue behind the British government, Denis Healey, Edward Heath and Bill Clinton, as well as others on the neanderthal right, who would applaud your denial of one of the most basic of human rights: the right of ordinary people to protect and defend themselves.

In the past Living Marxism has been astute in pointing out irony. It has become a distinguishing mark. It will be a shame if you lose this when the irony is too close to home.

John Pilger London W1

Ragga v Suede

Even if the vehement homophobia of ragga stars is a reaction to white society ('Ragga and the silent race war', June), this is of no comfort, or even consequence, to a young gay man who has to grow up in the hostile environment of ignorant and bigoted peers who are encouraged and legitimised in their homophobia by, among others, ragga stars.

Whilst homophobia does fester in the political establishment, epitomised in Section 28, the Labour and Liberal parties' political correctness ensures that overt homophobia is discouraged and creates an atmosphere whereby homophobia is assumed wrong.

Ragga makes homophobia acceptable, even fashionable. Alternatively, bands such as Suede, although hyped by the journalists of the music press in order to sell papers, have managed to ensure that freedom of sexuality has a refuge from the reactionaries. Suede's popularity, no matter if it is due to hype and image, means that young people are confronted by a band that says any sexuality is good sexuality, helping homosexuals to confront a new generation of bigots.

To claim that 'black men from the ghetto' are 'some of the least powerful people in society' when they have access to millions via the charts and 'youth' television, is to deny that music has any influence or meaning beyond light entertainment. If that were the case, no one would have noticed the lyrics in the first place.

John Williams Bristol

Let's not have sloppy journalism in the Living section of the magazine. The article on Suede ('White Suede blues', June) was poor reporting.

Its message tied in with the 'Ragga and the silent race war' article in the same issue, which rightly exposed the sensationalisation of ragga. To consider Suede's media success as part of this racist hysteria is simply incorrect, and the anti-American sentiment expressed in Select magazine that you quoted should not be read as anti-black.

The Select article was a reactionary backlash against white grunge music, regrettably calling for a return to fey parochial English pop, announcing their intention to 'save the Union Jack from the Nazis'. Ironically, the magazine has long heralded the elusive 'summer of ragga', and acknowledged the racist nature of the victimisation of Shabba Ranks.

Laying into Suede and Select is easy, so why bother to twist things to make your arguments fit? Personally, I have no aversion to even a faint echo of the genius of early Bowie (whatever his politics) back in the charts, and I stand guilty of the no doubt culturally decadent crime of harking back to the musical good ol' days.

BM Thompson Birmingham

Ban (almost) nothing

It does seem as though nearly everyone on the left is calling for some kind of censorship these days. I don't agree with them but I can certainly see the reasoning behind their actions: a ragga record with lyrics insulting to gay people potentially has a very dangerous effect on young people's perception of homosexuality. I certainly wouldn't buy it even if it wasn't crap anyway.

And something needs to be done about pornography which really is degrading. Anti-porn legislation doesn't ultimately affect availability, although it would help clear it out of shops that people frequent every day. Ultimately pornography will only be overcome by individuals choosing to reject it. But on a large scale is this realistic? The left really does need to say what it thinks about such issues especially when a minority faction of 'anti-censorship feminists' is presenting women in pornography as the paragon of 'the strong woman'.

I applaud your anti-censorship stand but am interested to know just how far you will let your faith in popular democracy go: will you tolerate 0898 child abuse numbers? Will you allow the mass of public opinion to re-introduce capital punishment?

Simon Kyte Windsor

You assert that there is patently no connection between violence in the media and behaviour at large ('Ban nothing', May). To my mind you are wrong, there must be a connection because the TV in particular is a very powerful medium.

It is important to remember that copying is one of the most significant human attributes - eg, the fashions exhibited by all the sub-groups in society, from dark suits and ties to jeans and white socks. An average teenager in America will have seen something like 200 000 fights and 50 000 murders on TV. I find it hard to believe that this exceedingly violent society owes nothing to its TV.

Ian Ellis Menstrie

The art of living

Why is it that people castigate art for having no connection with everyday life? M Hughes (letters, June) believes that art can only survive by 'reaffirming its commitment to life and to lived experience'.

Capitalist production processes are often extremely abstract. Such soul-destroying processes are used to exploit people in factories - picking faulty products off production lines, for example. Isn't this 'lived experience'? Abstract processes can be seen around us every day. I have no wish to defend all abstract art, but art does occur in a social context, whether it is abstract or representational. Abstract art is another reflection of the age in which we live.

I can't agree with the statement that abstract art 'cannot contain within itself the image of its inspiration'. If this were true, my own, often very abstract colour photographs (derived from 'lived experience') wouldn't exist. But then they're photographs and photography's not art, is it?

Andrew Payne Bedford

Stop Larkin about

I feel that Alistair Ward ('A very English poet', June) would fare much better if he were to take advice from Kenan Malik's critical review of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism: 'he [Said] tries to force authors as different as Austen and Conrad, Defoe and Dickens into a single framework with a single view of the "other", and thereby loses the particularity of each.'

Apart from Malik's plea for contextualisation, Ward repeats the very errors that Malik warns against. In the 'good old days' of the postwar liberal consensus was every English writer a racist in private and a liberal pluralist in public? Are all to be tarred with the same brush in huge (illegitimate) historical sweeps?

Ward writes: 'Larkin stands in the tradition of quintessentially English poets running from Wordsworth, through Tennyson and Hardy to Auden and Housman and such contemporary figures as Roger McGough.' Evidently! Well once, to be 'quintessentially English' was to be revolutionary. Wordsworth's sentiments on the French Revolution: 'Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven.'

Ward claims that Larkin was inferior to, separate from and disliked the interwar 'modernist' intelligentsia and its incipient elitism. Ward then goes on to place Larkin with the 'modernist' roll call of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and DH Lawrence.

I've never read Larkin, nor do I intend to. But I know a dodgy analysis when I read one.

Robert Fletcher Essex

Timex scabs?

I had the privilege to join with people from all around the UK on 17 May at Timex in Dundee to support the 343 sacked workers. My feelings of elation at being part of such a successful picket and demonstration were tempered by the ill-feeling given out to the 'scabs' going into Timex Dundee.

Let me qualify this quickly. I accept that anyone who has the choice to work on in the face of cuts and changes in conditions rather than standing in solidarity with their fellow workers, fully deserves to be called a 'scab'.

However, what of those scores of unemployed who are given the choice to take a 'scab' job or face a cut or even total withdrawal of their income support? Under Tory social security legislation, this is legal and I wonder how many of those people being bussed into Timex every day have been faced with that stark choice.

The reality of unemployed people being a pool of labour organised by the state through the benefits system to defeat class struggles in the workplace, has implications beyond the Timex dispute which pickets and demonstrators are not addressing by calling other workers 'scabs' indiscriminately.

It is time we recognised everyone not as workers and unemployed, but as potential workers, as it is clear the bosses do, and try to bring every worker into the workers' movement to defeat the inhumanity of the capitalist class and their Tory errand boys. If we do not, we allow the bosses to divide and defeat us.

Practically, this would mean offering a basic rate for every person forced to take 'scab' work or face a cut in benefi ts. Given that the AEU leaders are more interested in getting their feet under the table of the bosses at Timex, rather than getting the mud of the picket line on them, it is clear that such action would have to be organised at grassroots level, by subscription and donation.

In the 1990s the workers' movement must not only talk about solidarity, it must provide a framework to bring us all together for this to happen.

Paul Gostelow Glasgow

Incorrect PC

Marc Deith (letters, June)--let me make one thing clear. Political correctness (PC) is not the way to 'genuine democracy'.

Simply challenging the way people speak (as Deith would want) hardly challenges oppression. In fact it's bordering on 'let's be nice to black people'. PC actually divides and weakens the very people who can bring about a 'genuine democracy', namely the working class.

Once PC gives oppressed people special names (black people should now be called 'people of colour'), where does it end? Now everyone lays claim to differing histories and identities. This celebration of difference disarms the working class by division (which is good for the establishment), and never politically challenges the system.

Steve Hodson West London
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993



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