The Documentary

Background to the conflict Propaganda and truth: the media in Kosovo Genocide: what's in a word? Blair's moral crusade Opposition to the conflict


The Kosovo conflict has been described by some as a 'media-driven' war. Stories about ethnic cleansing, genocide and atrocities have often set the scene for NATO's bombardment. LM Online analyses the role played by the media, and offers insights into the propaganda and truth behind Kosovo.

  1. 'NATO's propaganda war', by Philip Hammond
  2. Norman Solomon: 'American journalists have no reason to be smug'
  3. Tim Gopsill: 'Spinning the war'
  4. Other views

1. Philip Hammond on how the media has told only one side of the story

'A good day', said NATO on 14 May, when it killed at least 87 ethnic Albanian refugees in the village of Korisa, and injured a hundred more. What would constitute a 'bad day' for NATO? The bullish response was part of an increasingly strident propaganda campaign in which each new bloody 'accident' is offset by repeated atrocity stories about the Serbs and pictures of the plight of refugees.

'We do not target civilians', says NATO spokesman Jamie Shea. Yet it stretches credibility to describe all NATO attacks on civilians as 'accidents'. The bombs that hit Nis marketplace on 3 May, for example, were cluster bombs designed to kill and maim people with shrapnel, although the stated target was an airport runway. Similarly, when NATO hit a bus on 1 May, killing 47 people, was it also an accident that NATO aircraft returned for a second strike, hitting an ambulance and injuring medical staff at the scene? It is certain at least that the attack on the television building in Belgrade was carried out in the full knowledge that civilians were inside. NATO's definition of a 'legitimate military target' is flexible enough to include homes, schools and hospitals.

The catalogue of disastrous 'accidents' presents a challenge for NATO spindoctors. The protocol is to start by blaming the Serbs. When US State Department spokesman James Rubin suggested the refugees at Korisa may have been hit by Serb shells not NATO bombs, he was following a procedure established over civilian bomb damage to Pristina and the bombing of the Djakovica refugee convoy. Both were initially pinned on the Serbs in the hope that the first headlines would make a lasting impression. After promising a 'thorough investigation', NATO then admits some culpability, but continues to hint that the enemy is really to blame. In the case of Korisa, this was accomplished by claiming the refugees were being used as 'human shields'. According to Western reporters at the scene there was no military target at Korisa - yet the Serbs apparently knew the village would be bombed on 14 May and therefore hurried to repopulate it just in time.

This 'blame-the-enemy' strategy was taken to absurd lengths by Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon, who suggested the Serbs' aim at Korisa was to cause a public relations disaster for NATO. (Perhaps the cunning Chinese moved their embassy for the same reason?) British politicians have also expressed frustration at bad publicity, adopting a 'shoot-the-messenger' approach. Prime minister Tony Blair described his speech to the Newspaper Society on 10 May as 'not an attack on the media'. Presumably he meant this in the same sense that NATO's round-the-clock bombing campaign is 'not a war'. In fact New Labour have attacked the media from the beginning, portraying John Simpson's reports as Serbian propaganda, and denouncing as 'appeasers' those who question the effectiveness of NATO strategy.

Blair complains that 'refugee fatigue' has set in, and that journalists are being manipulated by the Serbs into concentrating too much on the civilian damage and death caused by NATO action. The opposite is true. Kosovo has sometimes slipped down the news agenda, but reports from the refugee centres have featured almost daily in the news. And although there have been some high-profile NATO errors, other attacks on civilian targets have attracted less attention. The TV station in Novi Sad bombed on 3 May barely merited a mention, and the hospital hit on 20 May did not make a single front page. The style of reporting on ethnic Albanian refugees has been highly emotive, in contrast to the implacable lack of interest in Serbs fleeing NATO bombs. One BBC correspondent found he was 'running out of words to describe how these people have suffered, except to say that it's cruel, brutal, inhumane and criminal'. He went on to say: 'it's high time it stopped.' Like Blair, some reporters evidently know that such coverage can be effective pro-NATO propaganda.

In his Newspaper Society speech, Blair also linked reporting on refugees to coverage of atrocity stories. 'When you've reported one mass rape, the next one's not so newsworthy', he commented sarcastically, 'see one mass grave, you've seen the lot'. In fact there has been a constant stream of atrocity stories, often based on the flimsiest of evidence. The source for these stories is sometimes NATO politicians with an obvious interest in manipulating the news, many of whose claims - that Pristina stadium was being used as a concentration camp, for example - have been false.

The other source is refugees themselves, although they have sometimes proved unreliable witnesses. Even when told they had been bombed by NATO, survivors of the attack on the Djakovica convoy blamed the Serbs. From the viewpoint of ethnic Albanians who welcome NATO action, such statements are understandable. But it is less obvious why Western reporters should be determined to accept them. Channel 4 News, for example, reported a large exodus from Prizren on 29 April, the day after the town had been heavily bombed by NATO. Yet this was not even mentioned as a possible reason for the flight of refugees. Instead, one man was interviewed who thought he had heard 'a different kind of explosion in the early hours' and suspected it was 'Serbian police shelling a house near him'.

The atrocity stories are taken on trust for two reasons. First, NATO politicians have successfully demonised the Serbs, who are now portrayed as the new Nazis, perpetrating genocide and capable of anything. Although they are under bombardment from up to 700 NATO sorties a day, we are asked to believe that Serbian soldiers are simultaneously fighting the Kosovo Liberation Army, attacking Albania, preparing to overthrow the Montenegrin government, burning villages, deporting hundreds of thousands of people, keeping thousands more as human shields, forcing ethnic Albanian men to don orange uniforms and dig graves, digging the bodies up again and moving them, herding boys around as mobile blood banks, and raping thousands of women. As if they were not busy enough, we are now told they spend their time thinking up ways to embarrass NATO.

Secondly, the Bosnian war is cited as a precedent which lends credibility to current claims. The BBC's Matt Frei, for example, said 'there can now be no doubt that Serbian security forces have been and may still be involved in the systematic rape of Kosovar women. We don't know the exact numbers, but if the Bosnian war, where the same thing happened, is anything to go by, the victims could be in their thousands'. The claim that more than 50 000 Muslim women were raped by Serbs in Bosnia is regularly bandied about. Yet a 1993 United Nations commission scaled down to 2400 victims - including Serbs and Croats - based on 119 documented cases. Frei also wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of suspicions that 'there may be scores, perhaps hundreds, of rape camps inside Kosovo, just as there were in Bosnia'. Strange, then, that no one ever found a single 'rape camp' in Bosnia, and that a member of a European Community team sent to find such camps in 1992 resigned because the delegation interviewed only four victims before making its report that 20 000 women had been raped.

Bosnia is also mentioned to support claims that the Serbs are exhuming mass graves and moving the bodies to sites bombed by NATO or areas once occupied by the KLA. This unlikely story is a chilling development in the propaganda war, especially when coupled with the allegation about 'human shields'. As NATO's ever-intensifying and often inaccurate bombing continues, we can expect the casualties it causes will all be blamed on the Serbs. Next time, it will be the experience of Kosovo which is cited as the 'proof' to support claims of enemy atrocities.

Philip Hammond is senior lecturer in media at South Bank University and worked as a consultant on BBC2's Counterblast: Against the War (4 May). His articles on the propaganda war, written for the Times, the Independent and Broadcast, are available at Email:

2. American journalists have no reason to be smug

Norman Solomon, author of The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media, says that truth is the first casualty of war

Ever since the start of NATO 's bombing blitz, the regime in Belgrade has maintained total control of Serbia's press - and American journalists have scornfully reported on the propaganda role of Yugoslavian news media. But no one should be smug about freedom of the press in the United States.

At first glance, US news organisations may seem to be independent and critical. This is a popular self-image. In a typical comment last Tuesday night on public television's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, media correspondent Terence Smith spoke of 'the frequently adversarial relationship between the Pentagon and the press'.

Rather than engage in self-examination, most reporters have preferred to go along to get along with the Pentagon - serving a function more akin to stenography than journalism. Despite all the pretences, the sparring and griping is part of a game in which correspondents seem eager to show that they're on Uncle Sam's side, no matter what. Routinely, tactical differences are writ large while fundamental issues go unaddressed.

When the 'free press' marches off to war, the reflexive deference to officials sources - with their nonstop briefings, interviews and behind-the-scenes backgrounders - produces an overwhelming flood of propaganda. One result is that buzz phrases like 'air campaign', 'strike against Yugoslavia' and 'collateral damage' generate a continual fog.

As the second week of NATO bombing came to a close, the daily Independent in London published an analysis by scholar Philip Hammond that assessed British media coverage - and made observations that also apply to US media. Major news outlets, he wrote, 'have generally been careful to keep the debate within parameters of acceptable discussion, while politicians have stepped up the demonisation of the Serbs to try to drown out dissenting voices'.

There are informal but well-understood limits to media discourse. 'The rules appear to be that one can criticise NATO for not intervening early enough, not hitting hard enough, or not sending ground troops', Hammond added. 'Pointing out that the NATO intervention has precipitated a far worse crisis than the one it was supposedly designed to solve or that dropping bombs kills people are borderline cases, best accompanied by stout support for "our boys". What one must not do is question the motives for NATO going to war.'

In late March, during the first week of bombing, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual report, 'Attacks on the Press'. The committee disclosed that 'for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey held more journalists in prison than any other country'. Among the 27 Turkish journalists behind bars as 1999 began, 'most are victims of the government's continued criminalisation of reporting on the 14-year-old conflict with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey's southeast'.

The government of Turkey - lauded by Washington as an important member of NATO - has engaged in torture and murder for many years. Of course, rationalisations for such actions are always available, whether in Ankara or Belgrade.

As it happens, the most righteous charges levelled by President Clinton against the Yugoslavian government about its treatment of ethnic Albanians could just as accurately be aimed at the Turkish government for its treatment of Kurds.

To depart from their own propaganda functions, major US media outlets could insist on pursuing tough questions. Such as: If humanitarian concerns are high on Washington's agenda, why drop bombs on Yugoslavia and give aid to Turkey?

Slobodan Milosevic is guilty of monstrous crimes against human beings. And what about top officials whose orders have sent missiles into cities and towns of Yugoslavia, day after day?

'Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed', journalist IF Stone observed long ago. His judgement may seem harsh - but it continues to be verified in the real world.

This month, it would be an act of heresy in the mainstream media of the United States or Yugoslavia to suggest that Slobodan Milosevic and Bill Clinton share a zest for generating propaganda to justify involvement in killing for political ends. Whatever their differences, both speak a common language of world-class bullies, fond of proclaiming high regard for humanity as blood drips from their hands.

For the American media consumer, NATO's military prowess is apt to be impressive, almost mesmerising. We've seen such awesome firepower many times before. Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr recalls about the U.S. military: 'Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.'

The same can be said of propaganda machinery, whether it's fuelled by overt censorship or tacit self-censorship.

This article was originally published by the Creator's Syndicate in May

For details about Norman Solomon's book, visit the Common Courage Press website.

3. Spinning the war

Tim Gopsill, editor of the NUJ magazine The Journalist, considers the success of the public relations war

What was NATO's response when caught out lying over the bombing of the refugee convoy on the road from Djakovica to Prizren? Was Jamie Shea, the organisation's press officer, reminded to follow the first rule of good public relations in a tight spot and tell the truth, quickly? No. The reaction was to call on the services of Alastair Campbell, chief spindoctor of New Labour, to apply more varnish to the cracks. Since then NATO has again and again been caught out, yet the conduct of the PR war has for the British government been a huge success. According to the polls, roughly two thirds of the population are prepared to support the supposed war aims, even without knowing what they are.

The New Labour PR machine believes it can get away with just about anything. If they can sell Thatcherite dreams like privatisation without significant dissent, they are confident of selling an insane imperialist adventure like the destruction of Yugoslavia, provided they get the marketing right. The conventional explanation is the compliance of the mass media, but there is more to it than that. The secret factor is the compliance of the institutions of labour, which have all but caved in after years of attack.

Of the new generation of self-proclaimed 'humanitarian warmongers' it is the liberal broadsheets that have attracted most amazement, but more instructive is the case of Tribune, the Labour weekly that puts 'Voice of the left' under its masthead and reflects the fluctuations in barometric pressure on the left of the parliamentary party. Tribune launched its pro-war campaign with an article by former Labour leader Michael Foot, headlined 'Confront enemy action', which argued that to 'reject resort to military force is to guarantee victory for the war criminals', and charged those doing so with 'direct responsibility for ethnic cleansing'.

Michael Foot is known to be heavily partisan in Balkan conflicts, but his article (2 April) was simply a restatement of the compromised position of the Labour leadership in defence and security matters. When the Falklands armada set out in 1982 they called the Commons to a special Saturday sitting for Michael Foot to deliver an impassioned oath of loyalty on behalf of Her Majesty's loyal opposition. Labour has, after all, been a committed party to the Atlantic alliance since it started in 1945, and Clement Attlee secretly armed Britain with atom bombs. But now the party and the unions are cowed, not by discipline, but by the image merchants.

Not one trade union has taken a position against the bombing. There is substantial dissent within all their ranks, but from the TUC downward the line is 'no comment'. The NUJ has condemned the killing of journalists in Belgrade in the bombings of the RTS TV studios and the Chinese embassy, but no others have done even that; the broadcasting union BECTU, for instance, has refused to comment on the slaughter of TV employees at RTS, and has ordered that BECTU banners should not be taken on anti-war marches. The NUT has nothing to say about the killing of teachers; nor has UNISON on that of health or local government workers. The unions were told that to step out of line would prejudice the party's chances in the May local and regional elections. After those, the rationale became the need for unity in the run-up to the Euro election in June. Nonsense, of course, but never put to the test. When the spinners say the image would be bad, then to resist is to be labelled an appeaser of fascism and lined up with the

Worst still, you don't get on the telly. The suppression of dissent is extraordinary. The BBC is being bombarded with calls and letters from irate citizens; the deputy editor of Newsnight replied indignantly to one: 'we have had Tony Benn on twice. I also heard Alice Mahon (on Radio 5 Live).' But, as the complainer pointed out, no opponent has debated with a minister, and ministers, generals and pro-NATO correspondents and experts are on the air the whole time. As NUJ general secretary John Foster said: 'It makes you wonder what the democratic values we are supposed to represent in this conflict are worth.'

Those values are supposed to embrace a free press, are they not? Yet the mainstream media have silenced opposition within the Former Republic of Yugoslavia as well. Their voices are not heard - though they are readily accessible through the internet. (And what a comment this war has been on all the claims for the subversive nature of the internet; the Balkan web traffic is dense, but how much has surfaced?) It has often been pointed out that the distinction between Western liberal media and those in totalitarian states is that, in the latter, nobody believes what they read and hear, while in the West they (apparently) do. In Belgrade, RTS has been derided as blatant propaganda for years. Among the people thronging to defend the Danube bridges from the bombers were many who, during the protests against Slobodan Milosevic four years ago, blew whistles, banged dustbin lids and generally made a din to drown out the pro-government RTS news. The NATO blitz on RTS was not intended so much to silence its propagand

By the start of May, journalists were starting to say how boring the war had become. There is desultory attendance at the daily briefings, and independent reporting is virtually at a standstill. Kosovo's borders with Albania and Macedonia are crawling with media crews, all obediently waiting for more refugees; wonderful, wasn't it, how they were all there, waiting, in late March, when nothing had been done to accommodate the refugees? Pictures first, tents come later.

One defence correspondent told me that one reason the Americans are reticent to go to war on the ground is because they would lose control of the spin. Once the press starts roving round Kosovo with invading troops they would start filing stories and pictures, not just of 'Allied' casualties but of atrocities committed by them. It happened in Vietnam and it wrecked the media consensus.

Tony Blair's spinners, confident of their power over the supine media, haven't twigged that yet. They're winning too easily.

This article was originally published in the June issue of LM

4. Other views

'Speech to the Newspaper Society's Annual Lunch'
by Tony Blair

'If reporters are only allowed to see what the Serbs want, and if their reports are censored, then it is very hard, if not impossible, to be genuinely authoritative. If a bomb goes astray and hits a residential area or the Chinese embassy is mistakenly attacked, then I'm not going to pretend that is not news. It is. But if these are the only scenes reporters are allowed to see and this becomes the only news they report, then it is far from being the whole picture.' Read Tony Blair's twisted take on 'media bias'. More...

'Flattening a few broadcasters'
by Mark Lawson at the Guardian

'At dinners of the television industry, during the final speeches of the evening one remark always restores the audience's attention: to remind those present that the TV station is the first building stormed in any civil war. This is virtually guaranteed applause, making the guests feel that they belong not merely to a profession but also to a moral cause....It will, though, be a brave after-dinner speaker who points out at some future such gathering that, when the allied coalition got really desperate over Kosovo, they chose to obliterate the headquarters of Serbian TV.' More...

next page: Genocide: what's in a word?