Reporting Kosovo: Journalism vs. Propaganda

 by Phillip Hammond

 Throughout Nato’s war against Yugoslavia, no opportunity was
 missed to contrast the propaganda emanating from Yugoslavia’s
 state-controlled media with the truthful, reliable free press of the
 West. The contrast was used by Nato as a reason to kill civilians,
 when it bombed the Belgrade RTS television building in April; and by
 journalists as a way to brush aside criticism of British media
 coverage and Nato news-management.

 As a demonstration of the vibrant diversity of Britain’s unshackled
 media, take the stories written as reporters entered Kosovo
 alongside British paratroopers on 12 June, carried in the following
 day’s Sunday editions. This is what James Dalrymple wrote in the
 Independent on Sunday, describing the town of Kacanik:

      It looked peaceful and intact – except for the silence….There
      were no curtains, no ornaments, no door handles, no light
      fittings. Every item of value had been removed by the almost
      exclusively middle-class Serbian population and carried away
      in any vehicle they could beg, borrow or steal.

      Each small community held a mystery. Who had lived here?
      Serbs or Albanians? What had happened to them? The only
      witnesses seemed to be the packs of emaciated dogs.

 Leave aside the fact that, if he didn’t know who lived where, it would
 be impossible to tell who had taken the door handles. And leave
 aside the question of how Dalrymple knows middle-class Serbs ‘beg,
 borrow or steal’ motor vehicles. Instead, compare his report with that
 of David Harrison, writing in the Sunday Telegraph:

      It was the silence that gave away the horror. At first sight the
      beautiful little town of Kacanik looked peaceful and
      intact….There were no curtains or ornaments. Even the door
      handles and light fittings had been removed. This was not
      random looting or small-scale pillage. Kacanik had been
      deliberately stripped of everything that could possibly be taken
      away by the remaining Serbian population and carried off in
      every vehicle they could beg, borrow or steal…

      In most cases it was impossible to know if Serbs or Albanians
      lived there. The only witnesses seemed to be the roaming
      packs of pet dogs which had somehow survived in the wild for
      weeks, now emaciated and savage.

 Though uncannily similar, there is one interesting difference. Where
 Dalrymple’s report gives the impression that houses have been
 stripped by their departing Serbian occupants, Harrison apparently
 knows the missing curtains had been looted, and that the looting
 could not have been ‘random’. Quite how this insight was gained
 remains unclear, particularly if dogs were the ‘only witnesses’.

 For Harrison the sound of silence evoked ‘horror’. Others too had
 sensitive hearing. ‘This is a land swept clear of people and the
 silence is haunting’, wrote Ross Benson in the Mail on Sunday:

      Not a child cries, not a mother calls out. Washing flutters
      neglected on the clothes-lines. And the houses stand
      empty…‘It’s eerie, isn’t it?’ said Lieutenant Nick Hook…

 Benson’s poignant, evocative, first-hand account was equalled only
 by Ian Edmondson of the News of the World, who wrote that:

           …at the town of Kacanik, the convoy entered a land
           swept clear of people. The silence was haunting. Not a
           child cried, not a mother called out. Washing fluttered
           neglected on the clothes lines. ‘It’s eerie, isn’t it?’ said
           Lieutenant Nick Hook…

 These reporters’ apparent disregard for both journalistic standards
 and their usual cut-throat commercial rivalry presumably results
 from the fact that they were under the control of a Nato-run pool
 system as they entered Kosovo. Yet the existence of such a system
 was mentioned only once by one TV news bulletin (Channel Four
 News 11 June), in contrast to the way every single dispatch from
 correspondents in Belgrade carried the warning that it had been
 ‘monitored by the Serb authorities’. The press did not mention the
 restrictions reporters were under at all. Instead, near-identical
 stories were presented as the unique eye-witness testimony of
 individual journalists.

 The uniformity of the articles quoted above is simply the most glaring
 example of media coverage which, throughout the war, was highly
 conformist. The case of Kacanik is a particularly interesting one in
 this respect. Within 24-hours of these articles appearing, Kacanik
 had become the setting for an international media circus, as
 reporters jostled to get to the site of ‘the first major discovery’, a
 mass grave which might contain ‘vital evidence of war crimes’ (ITN
 14 June). Reports from the site raised more questions than they
 answered. The Independent (15 June) reported that two bodies were
 buried under only a few inches of soil because the Serbs ‘almost
 certainly ran out of time’. Yet they apparently did have time to place
 numbered wooden markers on the graves, to bury at least some of
 the bodies in coffins, and to dig empty graves ‘for victims yet to
 come’ (ITN 13 June). These peculiarities, and the fact the bodies
 were in a graveyard, were explained as the result of Serbs trying to
 ‘cosmetically rearrange the site’ to conceal the evidence of their
 crime (Newsnight 14 June). Estimates of the number of dead at
 Kacanik ranged from 81 to 172, but there was unanimity that the
 graves contained civilians massacred by the Serbs.

 The BBC’s Newsnight (14 June) uncovered evidence which threw
 doubt on the claim that Kacanik’s graves contained civilian victims of
 atrocities: a letter, purportedly written by a Serbian soldier,
 recounting a battle near the town, in which 100 Kosovo Liberation
 Army guerrillas had been killed. But the letter, shown to the BBC by
 a KLA officer, was presented instead as damning confirmation of
 Serbian war crimes against civilians. Newsnight’s reporter, Paul
 Wood, mentioned that the letter ‘talks about a battle’, but then
 immediately countered this: ‘The KLA say there was no such
 engagement and that this text can be about only one thing: the
 murder of civilians’. The KLA officer who had produced the letter
 then explained, in broken English, what it supposedly revealed about
 Serb depravity:

      He feeled funny when he killed children, when he shot a
      Albanian with a 30mm calibre Praga. He write in the letter how
      is fun when he saw the Albanian chest was open from the
      calibre. You can believe it. The civilisation people, nation, can
      believe it, that exist human being who write and think like he
      does in this letter.

 In fact the letter said no such thing. Not all the text was clearly
 visible on screen, but the passages dealing with the battle were: they
 ended with the line ‘enough about me’, and the letter’s author then
 went on to ask after friends. Nowhere did he mention killing children
 or any other civilians. He wrote that one of the dead had been shot
 with the 30mm Praga, but in a tone of shock rather than ‘fun’:
 ‘imagine a 30mm shell passing through your chest’ (zamisli granata
 od 30mm da ti prodje kroz grudi). The letter did not resolve all the
 questions about the burial site at Kacanik, since it described how a
 bulldozer was used to dig a grave for the 100 ethnic Albanians killed
 in the battle. But it certainly did not confirm atrocities against
 civilians. It is easy to see why the KLA officer would have wanted to
 portray Serbs as bestial and evil, but it is less obvious why a BBC
 reporter should accept such a distortion of the evidence.

 Contrast this style of reporting with Paul Watson of the Los Angeles
 Times. The only Western reporter to remain in Kosovo throughout
 the conflict, his articles consistently presented a more complex – and
 more credible – picture of the situation inside the province. Watson’s
 31 May report from Kacanik included an interview with Saip Reka, a
 member of an ethnic Albanian self-defence unit set up by the
 Yugoslav authorities in September 1998, and armed by Serbian
 police so they could help repel KLA attacks. But for British
 journalists, the idea that some ethnic Albanians could be
 pro-Yugoslav just didn’t fit their idea of the war as a morality play in
 which the Serbs were evil, ethnic Albanians their innocent victims,
 and Nato the knight in shining armour. As one BBC reporter put it in
 urging tougher Nato action against Serbs, ‘where is the middle
 ground between good and bad, right and wrong?’ (16 June).

 Facts which didn’t fit this simple-minded picture were frequently
 downplayed, distorted or suppressed. Newsnight (18 June)
 interviewed a Serbian worker at Dobro Selo colliery, where a Serb
 driver had been abducted only four days earlier, and where the KLA
 had already taken over part of the mine complex. Asked about Serbs
 fleeing the area, he began by saying ‘the Albanians are attacking’
 (Albanci napadaju). Yet the BBC’s voiceover translation had him
 explaining that Serbs had taken flight ‘as the Albanians come home’.
 The mass exodus of Serbs was seen as an expression of their ‘ethnic
 hatred’, not as a response to KLA violence and Nato occupation.
 Similarly, while the discovery of a ‘torture chamber’ at a police
 headquarters in Pristina made headline news, the discovery of a
 torture chamber in Prizren the following day was treated very
 differently. Standing in the empty Pristina police building, reporters
 speculated wildly about what atrocities might have been committed
 there before the Serbs left. But the Prizren torture chamber left
 nothing to the imagination: KLA soldiers were literally caught in the
 act of beating 15 suspected collaborators, and the body of a
 70-year-old was found handcuffed to a chair. Apparently this was not
 so newsworthy. This time, no British newspaper carried pictures of
 the site; the Independent, Express and Sun ignored the story
 altogether; the Telegraph, Times and Mail buried it on inside pages;
 and the Mirror confined it to the last three sentences of an article
 headed: ‘British tanks roll in to halt final Serb rampage’ (19 June).

 Reporters have found it hard to sympathise with the tens of
 thousands of Serb refugees fleeing Kosovo. One BBC reporter
 described them as leaving ‘with their lips sealed, taking with them
 the dark secrets of ethnic hatred’ (16 June). Matt Frei, sent by
 Newsnight to watch the exodus, seemed to relish the opportunity to

      Imagine the Serbs’ reversal of fortune today: the rulers have
      themselves become refugees, shedding tears of departure and
      stashing the loot – two phones in the back of the car. Brutality
      has given way to self-pity. Overnight, the villains think they’ve
      become the victims in this war. (16 June)

 Even as they fled with whatever possessions they could carry, Serb
 civilians were self-pitying ‘villains’ who deserved no compassion. It
 seems entirely obvious that Nato would not be regarded as
 protectors by the people they had been bombing for weeks, yet the
 Serbs’ distrust of Nato seemed to perplex many Western reporters.
 ‘But why don’t ordinary Serbs trust Nato?’ the BBC’s Kate Adie
 asked one Yugoslav soldier, before her interview was cut short by
 incoming gunfire. She concluded that the problem was not the bullets
 whistling past the camera, but that ‘fear is infectious’ (17 June).
 Another BBC correspondent observed simply that ‘they didn’t want
 to wait to welcome Nato to Kosovo’ (11 June). As attitudes hardened
 even further, the Serb refugee columns were said to conceal war
 criminals, while even civilians had to share the collective guilt after
 tolerating ‘genocide’.

 Journalists have seized on every grisly discovery in Kosovo with a
 certain relief. As Newsnight’s Paul Wood proclaimed: ‘for the
 Western allies, the steadily accumulating evidence of atrocities will
 be confirmation that this was a just war’ (14 June). Yet even if all the
 atrocity stories were true and the official British estimate of 10,000
 dead was accurate, this would not justify Nato’s war, since all the
 allegations of atrocities relate to the period when Nato was already
 bombing. To present them as a retrospective justification relies not
 just on questionable evidence, but on the implausible premise that
 Serb attacks were not motivated by anything other than a fiendish
 master plan for genocide. Attacks on Serbs, if they are reported at
 all, are mitigated by being described as ‘revenge attacks’. Would it
 not be just as reasonable to regard violence against ethnic Albanians
 by Yugoslav forces as a reaction to both KLA insurgency and Nato
 bombing? Similarly, the return of ethnic Albanian refugees to Kosovo
 was hailed as vindication of Nato’s cause. The BBC’s reporter
 explained: ‘This is why Nato went to war: so the refugees could come
 back to Kosovo’ (16 June). Channel Four’s Alex Thompson enthused
 about ‘the success of the US policy’: ‘after all, the President fought
 this war so that these people could go home in peace’ (22 June).
 Somehow reporters have forgotten the chronology of events: there
 was no refugee crisis or ‘humanitarian disaster’ until Nato started

 One of a handful of exceptions to the general trend, Robert Fisk,
 divided his fellow reporters into ‘sheep’ and ‘frothers’. In fact many
 journalists managed to be both at once, combining slavish
 subservience to Nato spin with self-righteous moralism. In this, they
 took their cue from the British Prime Minister, who talked
 incessantly of a ‘just war’ between ‘civilisation and barbarity’. The
 historian of war reporting Phillip Knightley has noted how this crude
 Good versus Evil framework turned warmongers into peacemakers
 in Kosovo:

      In Kosovo the media tend to believe everything the military
      tells them because the military has stolen the moral high
      ground by claiming it is anti-war. It bombs in the name of
      peace, to save or liberate, so those who object are the
      war-mongers, appeasers, Nazis. (Independent on Sunday 27

 The photograph chosen by almost every newspaper to accompany
 the story of Kacanik was of a young female soldier sorrowfully
 contemplating the graves. Earlier in the war, Nato’s role was
 illustrated with pictures of soldiers playing with refugee children and
 bottle-feeding babies. While contrived to tug our emotions, such
 pictures also carry another message: the most powerful military
 force on earth is really just a bunch of pretty girls and caring guys.

 As the bombs and missiles rained down we were informed by Nato
 leaders that this was ‘not a war’, and when it ended every newspaper
 found the same word to describe the occupation of part of a
 sovereign country by foreign troops: ‘liberation’. This was a fitting
 climax to a media crusade which had frequently turned reality on its
 head in an utter dereliction of what journalism is supposed to be. It
 would seem that one casualty of the Kosovo war was British
 journalism, although some sources maintain it was already long dead.
 In its place we have propaganda.