Since the NATO bombings began, the Kosovo crisis has dominated Voice of America news broadcasts to the Balkans as well as the worldwide broadcasts of VOA’s 53 language services that reach, according to VOA, some 83 millionlisteners each week. “Our challenge,” according to VOA News Director Sonja Pace, “is to bring not just the American and Allied point of view but all views, including the Yugoslav.”
Has VOA met that challenge? And how effective has VOA been in getting its reports to people who live in the Balkan region, especially to those who are in Serbia and thus have been cut off from receiving reports from journalists there who were once independent of government control?
An examination of daily VOA news files, beginning in the fall of 1998, when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began his now-comprehensive crackdown on the independent media in Serbia, shows conclusively that VOA news and information to the Balkans have been presented in a professional, unvarnished manner. In short, the news on VOA has been told in what skeptics of a government-funded broadcasting organization would fairly call “the truth,” in adherence with VOA’s guiding charter which stipulates that “the Voice of America must serve as a reliable, authoritative source of accurate, objective and comprehensive news.” There has been no obfuscation or equivocation for propaganda purposes on the part of the U.S. government or the NATO alliance.
Listeners of VOA can hear the words of President Clinton and the NATO officials every day, as well as briefings from the White House, State and Defense Departments and NATO headquarters in Brussels. Reports on the exodus of ethnic Albanian refugees have, of course, been told continuously as their flight continued and their plight deepened. And reports of alleged Serb atrocities and ethnic cleansing have been aired.
All this has been covered in VOA broadcasts, including U. S. and foreign editorials supporting the strategy and mission of the Clinton-NATO action as well as VOA editorials expressing the policies of the U.S. government. At the same time, this international radio system, whose work is funded by American taxpayers at a cost of $100 million per year, has aired the views of those whom the war is being waged against and those who disagree with aspects of U.S.-NATO strategy. Qualms and questions about strategic decisions have been expressed by experts such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scrowcroft. So, too, has the skepticism about strategy by leading U.S. senators such as Richard Lugar and John McCain. With an eye on credibility, VOA has also reported criticism of Clinton for publicly ruling out, very early, the use of ground forces. VOA also reported independent analysis of dozens of experts at universities and think tanks around the world. The Yugoslav side of events has been reflected in interviews with former Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic, with the Yugoslav Ambassador to the United Nations, and with the President of the Democratic Party of Serbia.
Handling such a controversial and emotional Balkans story requires some degree of sensitivity on the part of the reporters sent to do this. As a way of trying to remind its reporters and listeners of the human dimensions of this story and the emotional connections that underlie any attempt to report on this conflict, VOA has devised a provocative reporting technique. VOA has put on the air joint interviews with Serb and Albanian journalists. One such broadcast was called “A Tale of Two Women”—one Serb journalist and one ethnic Albanian journalist.
These journalists found common ground in their belief—backed up by their reporting—that Belgrade’s independent journalists, those most targeted in Milosevic’s media crackdown, are angry at the United States and the West because of NATO air raids. “You have united all Serbs, nationalists and moderates alike,” these journalists agreed. “You have ruined everything the opposition [to Milosevic] has done in this country in the last 10 years,” the Serb journalist told listeners. The ethnic Albanian journalist, who was manager of an Internet radio service (Radio 21) in Kosovo, gave the VOA interviewer a firsthand account of the ransacking and burning of her offices in Kosovo and confiscation by Serb forces of birth certificates and personal papers of ethnic Albanians as she and they fled Kosovo for Macedonia. The Serb journalist did not respond to the description of these events.
Milosevic’s manipulation of Serbian public opinion through tight media control has affected how effectively VOA is able to report the story and transmit its news reports. Along with other reporters from NATO countries, the VOA correspondent in Belgrade was expelled. So VOA turned to Serbian stringers, but they soon stopped filing reports as a way of expressing opposition to the NATO bombing.
“Stringers in both Belgrade and Serbia are either in hiding or scared to file for VOA,” a staff report advised VOA’s director. VOA also has been without acorrespondent in Kosovo. And VOA was excluded by the Yugoslav government from a guided tour of Kosovo that was provided to other members of the international press. VOA does have an American correspondent and a stringer in Macedonia and they have been consistently filing reports from the refugee camps.
Soon after the war began, Milosevic shut down the best-known independent radio station in Belgrade, Radio B92. It had been a VOA affiliate, rebroadcasting VOA news. The other 29 VOA affiliates in Yugoslavia bowed to Milosevic’s earlier media crackdown, which began last fall, and stopped carrying VOA programming. VOA still has 50 affiliates in Bosnia and 10 in Croatia which have continued to broadcast VOA news daily during the crisis.
Given these circumstances, VOA has been relying on short wave, medium wave and satellite broadcasts to the Balkans. Engineers at VOA have not detected radio jamming by the Yugoslav government. In addition, VOA has taken several positive steps to get more news to more Balkan listeners. It expanded its Albanian and Serbian broadcasts by 15 minutes a day, bringing 2 1/4 hours of Albanian and 2 3/4 hours of Serbian daily transmission via short wave and medium wave to listeners. VOA also broadcasts to the Balkans in Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovene.
To break the Milosevic-imposed media blackout, the U.S. government also announced that broadcasting by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will beam 24 hours a day of FM programming into Serbia from transmitters to be erected in nearby countries. Fifty-two percent of Serbs listen to FM, according to U.S. officials. VOA also has turned to television to get into Serbia. Signals are picked up in Serbia through the use of home satellite dishes. VOA estimates that 10 percent of Serbian homes have dishes capable of picking up their broadcasts. Additionally, all of VOA news can be picked up contemporaneously on the Internet.
During this crisis, VOA has been adjusting creatively to provide comprehensive coverage. But there can be no conclusive answer to the question of whether the broadcasts are getting through. However, there have been some signs. From mid-March to mid-April, VOA had 2.1 million “hits” on its Internet Web site, and 4,000 of them came from the former Yugoslavia. Also, a great deal of hate E-mail has been received at VOA Serbian Service from Serb listeners protesting NATO air strikes. And VOA’s Albanian-language service has received cellular phone calls from Albanians on mountain tops as they flee Kosovo, asking plaintively, “Where is the United States?”
It has been a wrenching and painful story to cover for the able and experienced heads of the VOA Serbian and Albanian-language services. As Maya Drucker, Serbian-American, and Elez Biberaj, Albanian-American, sat side by side for an interview, both acknowledged the human dimensions of their challenge. To do their job well requires them to submerge their personal, visceral and emotional ties to the story and rely on the kind of professional detachment needed to direct a balanced and comprehensive coverage. This is hard—though not impossible—for each to do. Drucker’s mother and four sisters are in Belgrade. Biberaj has friends in Kosovo. Both contend that they never let their private grief or their emotional ties to their heritage interfere with their VOA responsibilities. Both noted that they work for VOA, not for Serbia or Albania, and insisted that there is no place for emotionalism in their business.
Drucker explained one aspect of her professional approach to this coverage: “I watch the Serb translations of the news stories from the VOA central news desk like a hawk,” making certain that emotions and personal animosity do not creep in. These language chiefs meet daily with their staffs to keep foremost in their minds the need for professionalism; they say they have had no staff problems. “I tell my staff to think of how you’d cover the violence and atrocities in Rwanda,” said Biberaj. The story does become quite personal, however, when the voices of refugees themselves are heard as they try to locate lost family members.
An important step taken by VOA’s Albanian Service was to establish a refugee hotline to help Kosovar Albanians locate missing relatives. Hundreds of calls arrived each day (202-205-0611) with messages that VOA records and then broadcasts on its 30-minute refugee hotline daily. One example is: “My name is Xhavit Ekelija and I am from Vushtri. My two sons were lost on April 2; Agron, 6 years old, and Arben, 3 years old. If you have information, please contact International Red Cross.” One week after VOA set up its hotline, the BBC established a similar arrangement through its network.
Without Voice of America’s creative attempts to keep credible information from all sources flowing into the Balkan region, the wall of silence that Milosevic tried to erect in Yugoslavia would have remained even more impenetrable.
Mark B. Lewis is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and former VOA correspondent who reported from the Middle East and the White House.