Autumn 2001

ISSN 1473-219X





Mark 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 below.

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: 115).

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 Sarajevo' (90).

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, goals (293).

Gebert 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 challenge the forces that produce it' (Chilton, 1988: 44)


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