Nato’s Propaganda War
By Philip Hammond
‘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 spin doctors. 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 re-populate 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 Four 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 2,400 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 (4/4/99).