The Media Wars
By: Milan Milosevic
In: Burn This House
I've always been very interested in the role of the media in the Bosnian conflict. On the one hand, I believe that it was the strong presence of Western journalists in places like Sarajevo, which forced the West to at least pay a minimal amount of attention to Bosnia; while at the same time they were completely ignoring tragedies in places where the media coverage was sparse, like Rwanda.
And of course within the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the media also played a specialized role in the conflict. In this essay, Milosevic looks at the role of propaganda and opposition played in the Serbian and to a lesser extent, Croatian media.
According to Milosevic, the Serb media failed in the main purpose of war propaganda, to arouse the will to fight. Many men were doing all they could not be conscripted into the army. However, while it failed in this(very important) aspect of war propaganda, is suceeded in replacing trust with fear, doubt, confusion that was necessary for nationalism to take root.
One of the main themes in this essay is the role of language, and in particular the language of memory that was utilized by both the Serbian and Croatian media for propaganda purposes.
Both the Serbian and Croatian media revisited the ghosts of World War II. The Serbian media claimed that the number of Serbs killed in the Ustasha genocide were much higher than originally calculated. The Croatian media claimed that, naturally, the number of Serb deaths were much less than originally calculated.
The dead were literally unburied. Under the glare of the TV cameras, WWII Serb victims were unburied and reburied. In Croatia, in a bizarre attempt to show that Croatia had moved past its Ustasha past, Partisan graves and monuments were desecrated. While the Serb media was seemingly rubbing salt in the wound and magnifying every single terror for political purpose; the Croatian media was denying any horror had occurred; and that if it had occurred, it was obviously exaggerated.
The use of memory and language also pertained to the way the Serbian and Croatian media used to describe Tudjman and Milosevic. According to the Serbian media, Tudjman was the “heir to Pavelic.” (The Ustasha era leader). Naturally, Tudjman was better received by the Croatian media where he was described as a “mature statesman.” In the Serbian media, Milosevic was portrayed as a “wise” man, while the Croatian media portrayed him as a “Stalinist.” The ghosts of Pavelic and Stalin apparently made many media appearances during this period leading up to the war; and their crimes were being revisited, in an effort to link Tudjman with the worst of the Ustasha era and Milosevic with the worst of Communism.
This use of biased language also extended to the Serbs and Croats as people. In the Croatian media, the Croatian-Serbs were portrayed as “terrorists.” While in the Serbia media, these same people were portrayed as “brave defenders of hearth and home.”
While, as this essay has amply shown, the Croatian media certainly played a role in propaganda; the use of language and memory took on a heightened form in the Serbian media.
This new language was, in the words of Milosevic (the author, not the dictator) a compound formula of folk history, old Communist rhetoric and new nationalist ideology. The core of this formula was portraying the Serbs as a “chosen people” who had suffered tremendously in the past and were suffering tremendously in the present. In their coverage of the Bosnian war, Serbian media completely eclipsed coverage of the genocide perpetrated against the Bosniaks; and instead portrayed all of the victims as Serbs.
"Spontaneous" telegrams lauding Milosevic gave the impression of popular backing for his policies. Of course, some of these telegrams purportedly written by "average Serbs" were in fact, actually written at the TV Belgrade Studio itself.
Of course, not everyone fell for the distorted view of the war, or the new war time language used by the media. One of the strongest oppositional voices was architect, Bogdan Bogdanovic, who spoke out against the ultra nationalist rhetoric. However, brave voices like Bogdanovic's were too far and few. The official Belgrade daily, Politika (which somehow gave itself permission to speak on behalf single Serb) said "Serbia is sick and tired of people like Bogdan Bogdanovic."
Like all war time propaganda (and dare I say, similar to comments made by major figures in the G.W. Bush administration) everyone who did not go along with the "script" was deemed a traitor and a friend of the enemy.
The use of memory and language by the media made oppositional voices very hard to hear. The inflation faced by Serbia in 1992 made it even harder to hear oppositional voices. The independent media, such as Studio B and radio B-92 faced tremendous financial difficulties trying to stay afloat. Antiwar print media, such as Borba and Vreme also faced financial difficulties. In an ironic twist, these, independent news sources bore the brunt of the effect of the sanctions; while the Milosevic supported media did not.
The use of language was also used not only to label political leaders and ethnic groups, but also reporters. “Rebellious” colleagues were labeled “obstacles to the government’s effort to restore order.” Music editors were fired for played four times more Croatian music than Serbian music. The manager of Radio Belgrade divided his staff into “reliable Serbs” and “bad Serbs” (presumably those who played more Croatian than Serbian music on air.)
Anti war protests were demonized by the media as “anti Serb riffraff.” TV news programs referred to all opposition as “traitors.”
While the opposition was demonized the “patriotic” Serbs were lauded. Chief amongst these new “heroes” was Zeljko Raznatovic (Arkan). A Mafioso criminal whose paramilitary troops had been the shock troops of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and later Bosnia; Raznatovic was romanticized as a “brave warrior” defending his country, church and family. And of course, although it is not discussed in the essay, his marriage to Ceca is often seen as the apex of the relationship between the ethnic cleansing campign and pop culture, the media and the Milosevic regime.
Beyond just the use of memory and language, the coverage of the war also reflected propaganda. As I stated earlier, the genocide being perpetrated against the Bosniaks was ignored, and all of the victims were portrayed as Serbs. In the earlier conflict in Croatia, the same propaganda was used. Vukovar was “liberated.” Dubrovnik was “untouched” (despite the fact that town was in fact, in flames).
According to Milosevic, both the Serb and Croatian media thrived on death porn. Croatian TV featured witnesses accusing Serb soldiers of gouging out the eyes of their victims. While the Serbian media accused the Croatian soldiers of wearing necklaces made out of the fingers of dead Serbs.
Both included graphic close ups of war time atrocities, not to explain the war, or explain the horrors, but the rile the population up.
When the war came to Bosnia, the strategists in Belgrade found it better to ignore the situation than to focus on it. Instead, archived footage and maps replaced scenes of shelling and sniping. And when shelling was shown, the side doing the shelling was not identified. Thereby, perhaps giving the Serbs in Belgrade the impression that the Bosnian government was the aggressor, instead of the other way around.
Bosnian Serb controlled TV Pale took this a step further and claimed that the breadline massacres were “self inflicted.”
It seems that even today this distorted view of the war still holds true amongst some people.
The use of language, the idolize and demonize, the misuse of memory and the unabashedly biased coverage of the war became weapons in this new media war during the Yugoslav conflicts.