“Reporters have had to wade through the complex cultural, historical and political geography of these conflicts.”—Poggioli. French U.N. peacekeepers explain ethnic divisions in central Bosnia, 1990. Photo courtesy of Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos.

[This article originally appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of Nieman Reports.]

In mid-August 1992, I traveled to Northern Bosnia with a group of about 15 foreign reporters. We visited an area where there were no United Nations peacekeepers and which had been up to then inaccessible to relief workers and journalists. By late afternoon, we arrived at Bosanska Krupa. Not all of us in the group had wanted to go that far. We had already seen ‘Reporters are like soldiers, the less they know the longer they live.’
—A Croatian militiaman
evidence of massive destruction of Muslim homes, the rubble of many dynamited mosques, and terror-stricken men held in a Serbian-run prison camp and we had spoken to dozens of frightened Muslims who wanted to flee the area. Among us were several freelance photographers and a television reporter who were frustrated that they had not gotten any shots or footage because Serbian militiamen had not allowed them to take pictures. The TV reporter, who had never been in the region before, said to me, “I don’t know about you but I don’t have a story yet.”

Along with the photographers he had been pressing us to go on and on, from checkpoint to checkpoint. It was getting dark, and one of the cardinal rules for reporters in a war zone is not getting stuck at night in a situation they cannot control. We soon realized we had broken the rule when a group of Serbian militiamen wielding Kalashnikovs surrounded us, put a fighter in each of our cars and made us take a narrow donkey path up a steep mountain slope. For the next several hours, the armed Serb in my car sat in the front seat in stony silence, caressing his weapon. He broke the silence only to interrogate us to find out whether we were Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. We were finally released when we got to the main road where local Serbian policemen convinced the militiamen it was not in the best interest of their cause to harm such a large group of foreign reporters.

This was only one of many harrowing experiences I had in former Yugoslavia, but I feel that more than any other it vividly underscored many of the problems confronting journalists reporting on this major post-Cold War crisis.

Covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia has often forced reporters to act as scouts without compasses in a completely unknown terrain. The difficulty in covering the physical land is only one problem. 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. At times it was more important to have knowledge of anthropology than of political science.

When I arrived in Belgrade in October 1988 for my first assignment in Yugoslavia, I brought with me the latest Western publications on Yugoslav political developments. When war broke out two and a half years later I realized those books were outdated and useless and I had to begin a difficult search for old and out of print books on Balkan history, on the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and on the Catholic-Orthodox schism— long forgotten subjects which had suddenly re-emerged as the signposts needed to understand what was happening now.

The Cold War had accustomed generations of reporters to analyze world events almost exclusively in terms of the bipolar confrontation, where good and evil were easily defined and identified. This mindset often proved unsuitable in trying to make sense of the disorder created by the collapse of Communism. And it was an easy prey for the highly sophisticated propaganda machines that have characterized the conflicts in former Yugoslavia.

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 and July of 1991, one of the most difficult tasks for reporters has been to protect themselves from the propaganda offensive.

The Slovenia Information Ministry organized a media center in a modern underground conference hall in Ljubljana. Here troops of young multilingual Slovenes constantly churned out reams of war bulletins. I sat through numerous bunker press conferences held by Defense Minister Janez Jansa while a dozen militiamen pointed Kalashnikovs at the reporters. The reason given was that they believed Serbian “terrorists” had infiltrated the press corps. The effect was to create an atmosphere of extreme tension and alarm. Press conferences were often called as late as 7 p.m. We were supplied with excruciatingly detailed accounts of battles too far away to check personally before deadline. Often we learned the next day that the battles had never taken place.

One morning, neatly printed posters were taped next to hotel elevators listing the various alarms indicating everything from air raids to chemical and nuclear attacks. On another day, violent explosions above our hotel were later explained as antiaircraft artillery fired by the Slovene Territorial Defense against Yugoslav Federal jets which were said to have dropped bombs on the hill overlooking the center of the city. The official version was that television and radio transmitter antennas were located on the hill, but transmissions were never interrupted and reporters who went to look never found evidence that bombs had been dropped there.

Every day the official death count mysteriously decreased. At the end of the war we learned that there had been about 50 killed, the majority of whom were young recruits of the Yugoslav Federal Army. 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 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. I was reminded of this incident—and many similar relabelings of atrocity victims—this spring when my interpreter in Belgrade told me she had been a close friend of one of the young Serbs from Gospic whose dead bodies had been passed off as those of Croats.

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 could also depend on its large expatriate communities in the United States, Canada and Australia to put pressure on the media in their home countries. Croatians abroad have shown they are much better organized than Serbs, although they have not always been very careful in picking the people they sent out into the field. In the fall of 1991, I received a thick package from a U.S.- based Croatian organization. The propaganda material included—I presume inadvertently—a copy of a handwritten fax sent from Zagreb to the organization. It had been sent by a photographer who, it was clear from the contents, had been sponsored and sent by this organization to the war front. The photographer described his work in enthusiastic terms; he said he was “really” covering the war—not like some correspondents who he said spent their time at the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel—and he voiced disappointment that two European Community monitors who had recently been shot in the legs had not been killed.

Letter writing campaigns by members of both Croatian and Serbian communities in the United States 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 firsthand was the real story, not what was contained in U.S.-originated faxes. The result in some cases was to strengthen considerably the role of the editor at the desk and weaken the position of the correspondent in the field both in the way stories were assigned and in the way events were interpreted.

These have not been wars where the warring factions organize trips and escort journalists to the frontline, 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. And the Milosevic-controlled Serbian TV—the major source of information—has provided Serbs exclusively with the Serbian nationalist version of the conflicts. This has fomented a profound distrust, bordering on outright hatred, for foreign reporters, who are widely blamed by Serbs for their international isolation. And—as in Croatia, where the media is equally under total control of the Tudjman government—distrust of reporters is also rooted in a Communist tradition against freedom of the press.

While there is widespread agreement that the Belgrade government and Serbian fighters have been the major culprits in the conflicts, the Serbs’ entrenched attitude toward the outside world may have contributed to their being demonized and perceived by world public opinion as the sole culprits in the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia.

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, filmmakers 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 coexistence. 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 prewar idyllic coexistence, and the media in turn reduced an extremely complex conflict to a war of aggression from the outside.

It was the sudden and dramatic siege of Sarajevo, that began on April 6, 1992, that drew the international media to the Bosnian capital. And the focus on the continuous bombing and shelling of the city reinforced misperceptions of the war. For months very little or no attention was paid to what was happening in other parts of Bosnia. This past May in Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, a Bosnian Serb official told me that the shelling of Sarajevo had often been intensified on purpose, as part of a specific strategy to distract media attention from the Serbs’ military campaigns elsewhere.

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 Bosnian Serbs that had begun many months before. And it was not until the Muslims and Croats— erstwhile allies—began massacring each other this spring 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. One of the reporters then said, “But it has been journalism’s finest hour.”

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 20,000. 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. While it stated that Muslim women had been the chief victims, it said all three warring sides in Bosnia had committed rapes and abuses against women. The report cited several difficulties in assessing the full extent of sexual abuse of women in Bosnia, including the shame and social stigma which discourage many women from speaking of the abuses they have suffered. 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’s legal officer, Nick Howen, said in a news conference there was no evidence to back up the figure of 20,000 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 Ivo Andric (born in 1892 in Travnik, Bosnia) described in his novel “Bosnian Story” about the period under Ottoman rule, the selective use of numbers is an old Balkan habit:

“Once, some years ago, when Suleiman Pasha the Skopljak went with an army against Montenegro and burnt Drobnjak, Hamza [the town crier] was ordered to proclaim this great Turkish victory and to give out that a hundred and eighty Montenegrin heads had been cut off. One of the crowd which always gathers round the crier asked aloud, ‘And how many of ours were lost?’ ‘Ah, that’ll be given out by the crier in Montenegro,’ replied Hamza calmly and went on with the announcement set down for him.”

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 from my experience I have seen that 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 (something must be wrong when a senator such as Joseph Biden can say self-assuredly that Serbia invaded Bosnia, ignoring facts such as that Bosnia’s pre-war population was 31 percent Serb and that since early in Tito’s regime at least 60 percent of the Yugoslav Federal Army’s weapons and ammunitions have been located in Bosnia). And little emphasis was given to some crucial factors such as the well documented pre-war agreement between the Croatian and Serbian leaders, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, to carve up Bosnia between them; Milosevic’s long-standing consent to Slovenian independence, and Tudjman’s publicly asserted opposition to the creation of a Muslim state in the center of Europe. I cannot help but think that one reason why the media spotlight on former Yugoslavia dimmed late this spring was that the collapse of the so-called Muslim-Croat alliance in Bosnia made it abundantly clear that there were no innocents in this war.

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 for 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. She has been reporting for NPR since 1982, covering Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Italy and the Vatican. This year, she received the Edward Weintal Prize for diplomatic reporting from Georgetown University and the George Foster Peabody Award for coverage of the war in Bosnia.

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