An NPR Reporter on the "Disinformation Trap" in Former Yugoslavia
By Sylvia Poggioli
Covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia has often forced reporters to act as scouts without compasses in a completely unknown terrain. Reporters have had to wade through the complex cultural, historical and political geography of these conflicts. And very few had the necessary instruments. With the end of the Cold War, a whole set of principles of analysis had become useless, and reporters had to confront new problems that most of them had never explored before, such as ethnic self-assertion, tribalism, religious conflicts and the rights and limits to self-determination.
The wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia have not been played out only in the battlefield. They have also been wars of faxes and computer messages. Starting with the 10-day war in Slovenia in June-July 1991, one of the most difficult tasks for reporters has been to protect themselves from the propaganda offensive. The Slovenes never missed an opportunity to depict the conflict in the bloodiest terms possible in order to win international support for their cause as a "westward-leaning democracy" against the "brutal Communist aggressor." Those labels stuck and were reinforced as the war moved into Croatia.
The Croats soon learned from the Slovenes' use of propaganda. The Croatian news agency HINA and Croatian radio and TV unremittingly bombarded the outside world with minute details of the clashes, most of which were impossible to check. The best-known examples of vast exaggeration were reports of the massive damage inflicted on Dubrovnik, the magnificent medieval fortress city on the Adriatic. For months, Croatian media reported that the monuments in the old quarter had been devastated by Yugoslav Army shells and mortars. Western journalists who visited the walled city after the campaign ended reported seeing only superficial damage.
Another striking example of manipulation of facts was the case of a massacre in Gospic, Croatia, in 1991. Film footage showing the mutilated bodies of two young men was aired on Croatian and German TV, which identified the victims as Croats slaughtered by Serbs. The bodies were later recognized by relatives as being those of Serbs. The German network later apologized for the false report.
The Croats went even further than the Slovenes in the information war. Not only did the Croatian government hire the public relations firm Rudder-Finn to get its message out, but Croatia mobilized expatriate communities in the United States, Canada and Australia to put pressure on the media in their home countries.
Letter-writing campaigns by members of both Croatian and Serbian communities in the U.S. criticizing news coverage have been a constant of the Yugoslav wars. The aim appeared to be to discredit the correspondent in the field, and many reporters told me they were having more and more difficulty in convincing their editors that what they had seen first hand was the real story, not what was contained in the U.S.-originated faxes.
These have not been wars where the warring factions organize trips and escort journalists to the front-line, or where journalists can depend on independent pool reports. Press conferences by military leaders, other than by U.N. officials, have been rare. Journalists in the war zones have been on their own. The risks have been enormous (more than 30 journalists have been killed since the conflicts began), all the more so in a political culture where militiamen of all the warring sides are convinced journalists are spying for the enemy.
A Croatian militiaman guarding a prison camp in Southern Bosnia summed up this attitude when he menacingly told an Associated Press reporter who was trying to get into the camp last year, "Reporters are like soldiers--the less they know, the longer they live."
The Serbs' deep-rooted conviction that throughout history they have been the victims of foreign powers has put them at a disadvantage in the propaganda war. Little or no effort has been made by the Belgrade government to try to win over the hearts and minds of the West through its media. This has fomented a profound distrust, bordering on outright hatred, for foreign reporters, who are widely blamed by Serbs for their international isolation.
I went to Sarajevo for the first time in September 1991, six months before the war started, and I was struck by the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of the city. The Writers' Club, an elegant, glass-enclosed restaurant and jazz bar, was filled with intellectuals, film makers and journalists. The skyline of old Sarajevo was famous for the proximity of its Orthodox and Catholic churches, mosques and synagogues. (The only unwritten rule was that no minaret or bell tower could be higher than any of the other houses of worship.)
Dealing with Sarajevo's citizens was immediately easy. Nearly everyone I met spoke a foreign language and had traveled widely in Europe. Many were Muslims, because for centuries Muslims lived primarily in the cities, and as representatives of the urban middle class, they naturally became foreign journalists' favorite sources.
Months later, traveling through Bosnian villages just before the outbreak of the conflict, I discovered a reality that was perhaps unknown even to many citizens of Sarajevo. The much-touted religious tolerance and intermingling of Serbs, Croats and Muslims symbolic of the Bosnian capital was often rare outside urban areas.
The impression created by secular, multicultural Sarajevo may have helped overshadow some of the main aspects of the war. The conflict has been variously described as a civil war based on ethnic and religious hatred, as an inevitable explosion after decades of Communist suppression of nationalist differences, or as a simple land grab.
But traveling through the countryside another aspect emerged. It is what the former mayor of Belgrade--and Milosevic opponent--Bogdan Bogdanovic describes as a war of the mountain against the city, of rural backwardness against urban co-existence. The cornerstone of the Muslim-led government's appeal for a united Bosnia--and the message it has promoted through the media to the outside world--has been shaped by the cosmopolitan reality of Sarajevo and some other cities, but does not always correspond to the pre-war tensions and animosities that had long existed in many other parts of Bosnia.
If one went to look at the results of the first free elections in Bosnia in the fall of 1990, it was clear that the harmony of Sarajevo was unique: Throughout Bosnia, the ethnic parties prevailed, and voting results mirrored the map of ethnic population distribution.
But, as the major information sources, Muslim intellectuals and their leaders (often providing inflated statistics on mixed marriages) were very successful in exploiting an image of pre-war idyllic co-existence, and the media in turn reduced an extremely complex situation to a war of aggression from the outside.
It was not until August 1992, when the first refugees from northern Bosnia arrived in Croatia, that the world learned of concentration camps and of vicious campaigns of "ethnic cleansing." The refugees told stories of harassment, fighting, atrocities and expulsions by Serbs that had begun many months before. And it was not until the Muslims and Croats--erstwhile allies--began massacring each other in the spring of 1993 that journalists were forced to deal with the "other war" and discovered that reciprocal "ethnic cleansing" had been going on for months in central and southwestern Bosnia.
In June 1993, two American reporters who had been covering the region for some time were discussing the disastrous role the international community had played in this tragedy. "But it has been journalism's finest hour," one of the reporters then said.
I beg to differ. There have been innumerable instances where those of us who have covered these conflicts have fallen into the disinformation trap. One of the most insidious was the numbers game--number of dead, number of refugees, and especially number of rape victims.
At the end of 1992, the Muslim-led Bosnian government said that up to 50,000 Muslim women had been raped by Serbs in Bosnia. A report by a special European Community commission, which did not include direct interviews with victims, placed the number at 2,000.
On January 21, 1993, Amnesty International issued a report based on interviews with victims conducted over months by the organization itself, by women's and human rights groups working in the region and by journalists in the field. It said all three warring sides in Bosnia had committed rapes and abuses against women. The report added that the issue of rape has been widely used as a propaganda weapon, with all sides minimizing or denying abuses committed by their own forces and maximizing those of their opponents.
In Geneva, Amnesty International's legal officer, Nick Howen, said in a news conference there was no evidence to back up the figure of 2,000 Muslim rape victims cited by the European Community report. And in Zagreb, American relief workers I spoke to dismissed that same estimate as highly exaggerated. But still today, the number of 50,000 (and higher) has stuck and the prevailing perception is that only Muslim women have been the victims and Serbian fighters the only perpetrators.
What has been almost completely ignored is that the numbers game has a long tradition in the Balkans. Even today, there are no reliable figures indicating exactly how many people died in the civil war during World War II or how many Serbs were killed at the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac in Croatia. (Serbs claim as many as a million, Croats say as few as 100,000.) Nationalist leaders have traditionally manipulated numbers like these as a means to foment ethnic tensions and hatred as well as to cleanse the historical record.
As the conflicts have worsened and international organizations have become more and more divided and impotent, I have felt that as journalists covering former Yugoslavia (at times the only outsiders to be present in a particular area), we have found ourselves bearing an enormous responsibility. Policy in Western capitals--or lack of it--has increasingly been based on news reports, and many times the media have been better at pulling emotional strings than at analyzing facts.
The use of good-guy and bad-guy stereotypes often obscured the complex origins of the conflict. In his book The Rebirth of History, Misha Glenny had predicted that the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War would render obsolete an Old World Order system of analysis. He said it would profoundly change the profession of journalism, which now requires a rediscovery of history, geography and a rethinking of global relationships. Yugoslavia was the first serious test of this need of a new approach.
No, I don't think it was journalism's finest hour. But it has taught us the clear lesson that journalists as scouts now need new compasses if they are to be a reliable link between facts on the ground and public opinion.
Sylvia Poggioli is a National Public Radio foreign correspondent, based in Prague. In 1993, she received the George Foster Peabody Award for coverage of the war in Bosnia.