Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina,
Luton: University of Luton Press (1999), ISBN 1 86020 552 6, £16.50.
Philip Hammond & Edward S Herman, Degraded Capability: The Media
and the Kosovo Crisis, London, Sterling Virginia: Pluto Press (2000),
ISBN 0-7453-1631-X, $19.95.
Can the media influence and shape public opinion? To what extent can they
be held responsible for instigating conflict? Can language be considered
as a factor in the causes of conflict? What is the role of journalists
in covering armed conflicts? Is there such a thing as objective journalism?
If not, what is the alternative?
This is only part of the array of questions which have long been an issue
of debate among practising journalists, politicians, and media researchers
of different scholarly orientation. These questions, along with other
important issues, are raised in the books Forging War: The Media in
Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina by Mark Thompson and Degraded
Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, edited by Philip Hammond
and Edward S. Herman. Both publications deal with the media coverage of
events in the former Yugoslavia in the past decade. Mark Thompson, a journalist
and a writer, who was also a witness of the tragic events in the 1990s
(working for the UN and OSCE in Croatia from 1994 to 1999), presents a
thorough chronological analysis of media reporting in Serbia, Croatia
and Bosnia and Hercegovina in that period. The volume edited by Hammond
and Herman, a collection of articles written by the world's leading authorities
on the subject, investigates different aspects of the coverage of the
Western media of Nato's Kosovo war and puts it in a broader perspective
by comparing it with war reporting in general. The blurbs for both these
books announce that they expose manipulation of the media with the aim
of obtaining public support for waging war. Since the books examine the
reporting of the same events by two different media, one often associated
with truthfulness and reliability, and the other infamous (justifiably)
for propaganda, but nevertheless ended up with the same outcome, it seems
worthwhile to compare the two publications in the same review, hoping
that in the process will offer a deeper and more comprehensive insight
into the nature of war reporting.
Forging War is primarily a history of the media in former Yugoslavia
in the past decade; however, it is indirectly a history of the war. Chapters
1, 2, 4, 6, and 8, which appeared in the first edition of the book, provide
a wide-ranging account of the media coverage in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia
and Hercegovina up to 1994. The second, revised, edition, adds chapters
3, 5, 7 and 9, examining the nature of media reporting in the ensuing
five years. This decision has certain deficiencies, and the author himself
points to them, but, on the other hand, emphasises that such an approach
renders it possible to preserve the differences in perspectives between
then and now. This adds a special value to the book, turning it into an
unpleasant reminder for many journalists and politicians, for it brings
to memory many telling details, as well as judgements which subsequently
proved to be wrong. Another quality enhancing its worth as a testimony
to the murky past of Yugoslav journalism, and distinguishing it from similar
publication, is the space given to the personal 'voices' of journalists
from all parts of former Yugoslavia, who worked both for pro-government
and opposition media. Their reminiscences, for the most part noted down
until 1994, reveal how events were perceived at that time, and provide
a deep insight into what was going on behind the scene. A skilful combination
of these ethnographic accounts and an analysis based on a fascinating
number of sources sharpens the overall picture. However, the complexity
of the enterprise and the dual task of presenting both the history of
the conflict and its reporting have taken their toll; the book contains
certain inaccuracies caused by the partial, or, on a few occasions, insufficient,
knowledge of facts. Some of the most conspicuous of these are detailed
Overall, the chief topic addressed in the book is the role of the media
in the Yugoslav conflict. In Thompson's view, it would be incorrect to
claim that the media made the wars happen or were responsible for them.
In the book, however, he demonstrates how the media assisted the destruction
of former Yugoslavia, by creating and fostering conditions which paved
the way for war. His main focus is directed on 'the relationship between
media and government in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, both before and during
the war; and the connection between this nexus and the news content of
the media' (5). Overall, these governments enjoyed the unconditional support
of the respective mainstream media; however, this support was not secured
overnight. It resulted from systematic efforts of the ruling elite in
all three republics to control the state media by selecting a reliable
'cadre', intimidating and dismissing the disobedient, and introducing
very restrictive legislation to silence opposing voices or limit their
audibility. One by one, more or less willingly, the media surrendered.
As a result, some of them disappeared (Yutel the only pan-Yugoslav
broadcasting TV station), or completely changed the manner of reporting
('Politika', 'Borba', RTS in Serbia, 'Vjesnik' and HTV in Croatia, and
'Oslobodjenje' in Bosnia). Only a handful of independent-minded media
companies remained on the scene, with a very limited influence. This process
was most extreme in Serbia, only slightly less so in Croatia, while Bosnia
was the last to succumb to this process. Once control was established,
the governments had free rein to manipulate the content of the news with
the aim of legitimising their own actions.
Many authors who investigated the Yugoslav crisis and the war frequently
tried to explain the phenomenon of journalistic turncoating' a
sudden rejection of professional standards to embrace nationalist ideology.
Thompson is right in his claim that the process does not emerge suddenly.
Thus, he delves deeply into the past to try to find an explanation and
establish the missing link. The book begins with an extensive survey of
the nature of media reporting in Tito's Yugoslavia and the legislation
regulating it. Although the media scene in Yugoslavia differed considerably
from that in countries of the former eastern block, and the mass media
enjoyed relative freedom, they were nevertheless controlled 'indirectly
if not directly, by the League of Communists of Yugoslavia through the
League's branches in the six republics and two autonomous provinces' (7).
Journalists were seen as 'the rightful custodians of public knowledge,
rather than facilitators of public debate' (14).
Thompson quotes a Croatian writer who succinctly sums up public sentiment
concerning the role of the media: 'Television is a medium in the service
of the state and is, therefore, under strict censorship' (15). The fact
that, in 1989, when the popularity of the League of the Communists had
sharply dropped, 80% of journalists were party members, attests that such
a role was accepted by them. Public processes that 'can undermine the
constitutional-legislative order of the country' were regulated by law.
Thus, for instance, President Tito was protected by law from criticism.
Thompson points out that this gave rise to self-censorship and unwritten
conventions which governed reporting in that period. What is missing from
this account, and could have been included in the book, in order to aid
better understanding of some subsequent developments, is the explanation
of what it amounted to in practice. The issue in question is the policy
of silence certain events, awkward for the ruling elite, were simply
not touched upon by the press, or, at best, were dealt with in very cryptic,
ambiguous terms, so that the readers (those who dared to display interest
in such matters) remained uncertain as to what had really happened. Taboo
topics ranged from very serious political issues, such as the deposition
of some prominent politicians, Albanian demonstrations in Kosovo in 1968
and in 1981 (the former was not mentioned at all), to such trivial matters
as the sudden withdrawal of President Tito's wife from public life at
the end of the 1970s, to mention three most telling examples. Apart from
the obvious outcome, such as providing a model to journalists of how to
deal with matters deemed perilous for national sovereignty, and the widespread
acceptance of such a policy as something normal, it also had far reaching
consequences in terms of the creation of an atmosphere ideal for fostering
suspicion and the mystification of certain events, and the manipulation
of the controlled ignorance of the public with the aim of arousing hostile
feelings towards other nations. 'A truth that comes too late is equivalent
to a lie; like justice, truth delayed is truth denied' (Bolinger, 1980:
In his discussion of the roots of the conflict, Thompson rightfully contends
that in many publications dealing with the break-up of Yugoslavia, ancient
ethnic hatred is mistakenly accepted as the cause of antagonisms. He rather
maintains that that hatred was implanted and cultivated (297) and that
this was achieved with the crucial assistance of the media. For him, 'these
wars were begun by Serbia in alliance with Serbs forces in Croatian and
then in Bosnia, acting under political constraint but with a single military
objective: irreversible territorial control on the basis of the alleged
supreme right to national self-determination'(51). In his view, the Serbian
media bear the brunt of the responsibility, for they started the campaign
of mobilising the people for the national cause. Thompson describes how
the whole campaign that commenced in Kosovo in 1986/7 by forging a language
and style which whipped up Serbian nationalism, subsequently came to be
emulated in other centres. The issue of language will be touched upon
later, but at this point I would like to draw attention to some inaccuracies
which mar the general high quality of the book. Concerning the roots of
the Serbian-Albanian animosity in Kosovo, Thompson mentions in passing
the constitutional changes of the late 1960s and 1970s which granted greater
autonomy to the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and triggered off 'resentment
and fear' among the Serbs, who saw the Federal Constitution of 1974 as
'the summit of injustice and betrayal' because 'it reduced Serbia's control'.
It would take too much space to continue a discussion of what this constitution
introduced. For the purpose of this review I would like to draw attention
to three facts which are frequently disregarded in discussions of the
1974 constitutional changes. The first is that the Constitution gave the
provinces veto power over the great majority of the republic's decisions.
That in turn gave rise to the emergence of three separate and different
law systems. Finally, provincial representatives took part in the governance
of Serbia proper, while republican representatives did not take part in
the governance of the provinces. The 1974 Constitution and the question
of memoranda of the Serbian Academy of Sciences has been documented in
two exhaustive, balanced and scholarly scrupulous accounts (Budding, 1998:
125-132 & 181-207; Budding, 2000).
Thompson gives considerable space to the language used by the media and
ingenious techniques employed by them to delude the public. The author
has not devoted a special chapter to this problem; he has dealt with the
manner and style of reporting of each particular news agency, daily, weekly,
and television channel. His treatment of this issue suffers from the same
flaw, as many books of this kind written by non-linguists outlined
descriptions abound in effective examples bordering between the outrageous
and the ludicrous. Also, an overall summary with clearly defined linguistic
categories is missing. It would only be fair to add that it would be too
much to ask from an author who is not a linguist by vocation to employ
rigorous linguistic tools in his analysis; this is rather a reminder that
an exhaustive and serious book dealing with this matter is still missing.
In Thompson's view, Serbia created a media model which was then emulated
by the media in other centres. Is the author justified in using the word
'create' meaning 'produce or make something new'? The answer to
this question could be considered conditionally positive only with regard
to the territory of former Yugoslavia, and, although this claim can be
found in many studies of the media in the former Yugoslavia, the majority
rely on personal assessments rather than rigorous empirical analysis.
In general terms, however, this claim cannot be held as valid. The discursive
pattern comprising stereotyping, names with negative connotations, selection
and suppression of facts, often with palliative terms, reports of cruelty,
slogans, one-sided reporting (small victories are exaggerated, large defects
glossed over), negative characterisation of the enemy, and the so-called
'bandwagon effect' (every patriot joins up) is a framework within which
it is possible to classify the majority of examples in the book. Yet,
this categorisation is borrowed from the analysis of the methods and ingredients
of British propaganda in World War One (Brekle, 1989: 81), which indicates
that the Serbian media made use of the devices which had proved to be
efficient long ago. However, they are to be given credit for the 'creative'
use of this repertoire and bringing certain categories such as
semantic shifts to perfection (the masterpiece of which is the
claim that 'The Muslim authorities are holding Sarajevo under siege from
within, and the Serbs continue to defend their centuries-old hills around
Discussing how such a martial idiom came into being, Thompson makes a
very important observation which deserves emphasis. He highlights that
such a language was developed by politicians and adopted by the media
(87); it was the governing elite that set the tone and constructed the
image of the enemy. Serbia (by far) had the largest number of them
Slovenes, Croats, Muslims and Albanians, the international community,
and last, but not the least, internal enemies.
In providing a framework for such manner of reporting and, ultimately,
how the sudden change in reporting was possible, Thompson quotes a passage
from the Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert:
|When you translate
from the language of communism into the language of democracy, you
need to change both the vocabulary and the grammar. However, if your
want to translate from the language of communism into the language
of nationalism, all you need to change is the vocabulary. The grammar
remains the same. The type of mental structures that the new system
builds up are based of the foundations that existed under communism.
It is us versus them, it is inclusion versus exclusion, and violence
as a legitimate way of achieving previously ideological, and now national,
is quite right in his claim that the transformation from the language
of communism into the language of nationalism was possible because the
grammar remained the same. He only fails to take into account one significant
point: 'Them vs Us', 'Inclusion vs Exclusion' can be found in the language
of many democracies, including those which, according to the widespread
public view, rightfully deserve this prestigious epithet. Literature about
this abounds: Said 1981; Herman, Chomsky 1988; Chomsky 1999; van Dijk,
1987, 1988; Fowler 1991; Lakoff 1992; Hodge, Kress 1993; Roho 1995. This
list is far from exhaustive and, unfortunately, is never likely to be
completed. It is possible to say that such a grammar characterises all
discourses of 'oneness', ideological exclusiveness, which does not tolerate
an alternative view. As such, it is alien to true democracies, and in
that sense Gebert is right. However, the occurrence of such a discourse
in the mainstream media in democratic countries is not rare (Blommaert
& Verschuren, 1998).
Thompson also raises the important issue of objectivity and the role of
journalists. At the very beginning of the book, he notes what his colleagues,
Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Martin Bell of BBC, had to say on this
matter. According to Amanpour, 'objectivity, the great journalistic buzz-word,
means giving all sides a fair hearing not treating all sides the
same particularly when all sides are not the same. When you're
neutral in a situation like Bosnia, you are an accomplice an accomplice
to genocide.' Bell proclaimed 'I am not sure about objectivity any more.
What I believe now is what I prefer to call the journalism of attachment'
(3). Although Thompson does not make any explicit comment regarding this
matter, the reader is led to assume that he shares these views. When discussing
the reporting of the daily Borba and Yutel television channel (the last
truly pan-Yugoslav medium which, at a time when the mainstream media in
all republic centres were taking sides with their respective governments,
made great efforts to report objectively in their terms) he states that
'the policy of presenting both parties as equal obscured the character
and aims of Serbia's aggression' (31), and 'positively aided the party
which presented the conflict to the watching world as family business,
an internal affair, at worst a civil war between extremists' (39). These
assessments probably belong to the category of 'preserved perspective',
since for a long time Serbia's role as the architect of the conflict has
been widely accepted by the entire world. In that, the contribution of
advocates of 'the journalism of attachment' was not insignificant.
One of the few weaknesses of this study is the occasional tendency to
accept the assessment of others uncritically. An instance of this is a
comment on the first large-scale demonstrations against President Milosevic
and Television Belgrade in 1991. Thompson claims: 'Anecdotal evidence
suggests that the official version of the 9 March demonstration was not
very influential... Public opinion was much less suggestible when the
targets of propaganda were Serbians...' (69). It is not explained what
this 'anecdotal evidence' is and where it is to be found. If a testimony
of a participant in these, and many other demonstrations, is to bear some
credibility, it ought to be said that public opinion was very suggestible
even when the targets of the propaganda were their compatriots. The results
were evident both on private and professional planes: it introduced dissent
into many families, turning parents against their children, ended many
friendships and caused a number of job losses.
Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, Pluto Press,
London, edited by Phillip Hammond and Edward S Herman, with a foreword
by Harold Pinter, is a collection of articles critically examining the
coverage of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. It consists of three
parts: the first discusses the background of the Western interference
in former Yugoslavia which ended with bombing (articles by Johnstone,
Chandler, Skoco and Woodger, and Gowen) the second examines key issues
concerning media coverage during the Kosovo campaign (Keeble, Hume, Skoco
and Woodger, and Gocic), while the third looks at the way the conflict
was reported in a number of countries around the world (Ackerman and Naureckas,
Herman and Peterson, Hammond, Pilger, Johnstone, Deichmann, Trandhein
Rn, Raptis, Hammond, Nizamova and Savelieva, Thomas and Varadarajan).
In the discussion of the roots of the conflict, it is highlighted that
the Yugoslav crisis was 'dauntingly complex, morally ambiguous and factually
hard to follow, ridden with historic complexities, genuine fears and deceptions
on all sides' (14). Instead of pinning the blame for the conflict on 'long-standing
ethnic differences' or territorial ambitions of Slobodan Milosevic, or
the mixture of the two, it is suggested that it was fuelled through international
intervention which 'undermined the federal institutions that held Yugoslavia
together and then prevented compromise solutions, between and within republics'
(20). Chandler argues that the Western media only exposed Serbian nationalism
as such, while the nationalisms of other republics, equally potent and
dangerous, were framed as human rights issues. He also criticises the
mainstream media for failing to analyse the West's role in encouraging
the secession of Slovenia and Croatia, and the US support to the Croats
on their attack on the Serbs in Krajina in August 1995. Other contributions
call attention to some important events and issues which have received
either insufficient treatment in the media, or have been completely ignored,
and suggest that they should be re-examined (the role of the ICTY
Chapter 3, then the true nature of the Rambouillet conference Chapter
4, and the Racak massacre).
The detailed analyses of the reporting in the USA, Britain, Germany, France
and Norway disclose that the mainstream media of the leading Nato powers
sided with their governments and helped stoke war fever. The analysis
has also revealed how reporters internalised 'acceptance of Nato's aims,
language, and frames of reference' of 'humanitarian war' (20). To convince
the general public of the necessity of such an intervention, the media
helped Nato build an agenda for war by oversimplifying and distorting
history, and by demonising the enemy, epitomised in Slobodan Milosevic
and the Serbs. In that, they focused intently on the killing and exodus
of the Kosovo Albanians, filling the pages of newspapers with detailed
atrocity stories and employing highly charged terms (the list of which
bears close resemblance to the terms sampled by Thompson from the Yugoslav
media). Not on a few occasions, they even broadcast stories which turned
out to be false. In contrast to this, Nato bombing was treated matter-of-factly.
Journalists readily accepted the role allotted to them by the military
and their governments, and displayed minimal interest in 'collateral damage',
bombing of the Serbian infrastructure, marketplaces, use of cluster bombs
and depleted uranium weaponry, or bombing 'Milosevic's lie machine', Serbian
Television (which is strangely absent from Thompson's book, although he
discusses the broadcasting of the RTS during the war). The role of journalists
is also touched upon; it is purported that it should amount to 'presenting
the world in all its complexity, giving the public as much information
as possible in order to facilitate a democratic debate' (97).
Several consequences of this manner of reporting are mentioned in the
book, the first being far-reaching and far-ranging in its influence: the
media of the Nato powers reached across the globe seeking to influence
people outside their borders. More attention, however, is devoted to the
phenomenon called 'CNN effect,' that ' news organisation have become an
independent source of conflict generation, pressing political leaders
to do what they would otherwise not' (207). In the opinion of many of
the contributors, the mainstream media rarely press themes that the dominant
political and economic leaders of their respective countries do not favour.
They argue that the main problem is that, instead of providing objective
information, the media promoted war, featured 'evil' enemy actions, and
pressed for violent action.
These powerful testimonies to the tragic events in the past decade outline
an acute critique of media reporting. Although greatly differing in viewpoints
and assessments, and diverging in some crucial points, they offer powerful
insights into the ways in which the elite exploited pre-existing discourses
of war to gather public support for their own war efforts. As such, they
contribute a great deal to making the broad public aware of the consequences
of such a manner of reporting. To quote Paul Chilton, 'in understanding
the manipulation of the media we change nothing. But becoming conscious
of it we may be able to demystify it, cease to regard it as normal, and
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