Lies Reporters Tell

Recent revelations that a New York Times reporter invented quotes, fabricated facts and flat-out lied in dozens – if not hundreds – of his stories hardly come as a surprise to a jaded Balkans observer. Lying journalists, fallacious newspapers and severely biased TV coverage are all old news in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb, even if Washington and New York claim to be shocked.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the supposedly objective reporting became crass propaganda. Perhaps a milestone could be the coming-out of "advocacy journalism" during the Bosnian war. It amounts to nothing more than lying for a cause, a dream come true for social-engineering types and governments. It used to be that people believed the press existed to keep the government in check. Those times are long gone. The media today are at best an ineffectual foil for governments or, more often, their faithful servant.

Although the role of the media in Balkan conflicts has been mentioned here before, a second look shows that nothing has changed since. From ignoring the important news in Serbia to trumpeting nonsense in Bosnia, from avoiding the truth in Kosovo to misreporting the Milosevic trial, most reports about the Balkans are hardly better than lies Jayson Blair told. Had the fabrication-prone Times reporter covered this corner of the world, he not only would not have been fired, but would most likely have won a Pulitzer and a pseudo-government job instead.

Our Scandals, and Theirs

Not so long ago, Western press was abuzz over the scandalous allegations that Serbian and Bosnian Serb companies sold weapons and repaired engines for the Iraqi military. The exact extent of the alleged trade remained dubious, and after the political purges the scandal was intended to justify were accomplished, the scandal faded into oblivion. A far more real affair has surfaced just recently, implicating the new Serbian government in a vast sugar-smuggling scheme that abused EU agricultural subsidies. Western media attention? Zero.

Mentioning government subsidies is just bad form in the Brave New World. Besides, the Serbian regime is now obedient and politically correct, so any wrongdoing on its part must be suppressed. End of story.

One would think the media would at least care about themselves, condemning the targeting of journalists and restrictions of free speech, but no such luck. It is easy to justify the bombing of Hotel Palestine after one’s endorsed the destruction of Serbian television, simply because it dared question the Official Truth of the Empire. So what if the new, Empire-friendly Serbian government banned a newspaper and forcibly closed its publishing house? As long as the Powers that Be approve of their cause, just about anything goes. The paper is dismissed as a "tabloid" that suffered from "poor journalism," as if that excuses a ban on thought of a certain kind.

So there it is, a triumph of envy over solidarity, expediency over principles, and most of all, ignorance over truth. And it’s a pattern seen across the board.

News In The Key Of ‘D’Oh!’

A similar practice of ignoring the obvious is at work in Bosnia, this time compounded with the fact that it is probably one of the most misconstrued and misrepresented parts of the Balkans. Getting a straight story from a reporter on anything related to Bosnia, from its origins to the present situation, is almost impossible, even when they don’t commit acts of sheer stupidity.

For example, on May 10 AFP broke a story that a "top official" of the Bosnian Serb Republic accused the police and the military of that entity of sheltering and aiding suspected war criminals. Just so no one misses the significance, this was the "first top government official" to make such an accusation. Breaking news, indeed.

Only, it wasn’t. The official in question was a Muslim, holder of a token office created by the Imperial viceroy last year in an effort to enforce political correctness through ethnic quotas. He is a member of the ruling Muslim party, and was just following its policy of denouncing the Serb Republic at every opportunity. AFP reporters and editors should have been aware of this, if they’ve been paying attention to events in Bosnia since last March. But they only saw the title of "Vice President" and the instant credibility of a government official.

A desire to lend credence to politically correct accusations, Agence France-Presse trumpeted something so utterly yawn-worthy as a Bosnian Muslim denouncing Bosnian Serbs. D’oh!

Ignorance Is Bliss

When it comes to media reports, Bosnia may be the reigning champion of confusion, but Kosovo beats it for sheer deliberate ignorance. The occupied Serbian province still has Serbs in it? Who knew!

Over the past four years, during NATO’s occupation, over 100 churches were destroyed by Albanian militants. None were ever caught, or tried, or punished. And if they were, the media sure didn’t mention it. Most churches were destroyed without any media coverage. When there is a report, the headline usually says "Church blown up," as if it happened spontaneously, and never even suggesting the well-known identity of the perpetrators. Why, the press practically had to be dragged into reporting that Kosovo’s viceroy declared the latest KLA manifestation a "terrorist organization." Just as an example, the Washington Post buried the news in a footnote on Page 17, when it was announced in April.

One just can’t have Albanians going around being terrorists, not when their "salvation" from The Evil Serbs needs to be invoked by Imperial officials as a justification for wars of conquest.

Instead, Reuters fawns over the US Institute of Peace rewarding a NGO for peace efforts in "Rahovec." In truth, the surviving Serbs of Orahovac are in a virtual concentration camp, tormented by both their Albanian neighbors and the occupying NATO troops. The situation has been so bad, even a prominent Serb supporter of the Empire felt compelled to say that NATO’s actions effectively "pardoned any crime against members of ethnic minorities." But according to Reuters, USIP and the rewarded NGO, everything’s just great.

And because the supposed guardians of decency are either silent or lying, Kosovo’s viceroy Michael Steiner can get away with claims that he’s making Kosovo into a "beacon for the rule of law," and other such nonsense. Were it not for a handful of tenacious clerics and stubborn remaining Serbs, the truth about Kosovo would have been completely extinguished long ago.

Firm Evidence… of Precisely Nothing

When it comes to fabricating or misreporting news, covering Slobodan Milosevic’s show trial at The Hague Inquisition is an old favorite. Just this past weekend, the London Observer claimed the Inquisition had "direct" and "firm" evidence of Milosevic’s responsibility for atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia. What was this stunning new evidence? The Observer didn’t say, mentioning only that it was contained in the testimonies of the late warlord Arkan’s former secretary, and the owner of a casino where Milosevic and his officials had drinks once. Then it goes on to cite exuberant statements of former Head Inquisitor Richard Goldstone.

Truth, as always, is more complicated. What little of her testimony appeared in the press indicates that Arkan’s secretary heard of events between 1990 and 1994 from her colleagues. And her claim that Arkan’s men never took any prisoners was a confessed personal interpretation. The casino owner mentioned in his testimony that Mile Isakov, currently deputy Prime Minister of Serbia, was an agent of the Serbian State Security, prompting Isakov to challenge his credibility.

"I will demand that the Tribunal remove the protection measures for Witness C-48, so we could judicially establish who recommended him for such a performance and instructed him to utter the fabrications he pronounced there," Isakov told Serbian papers on Tuesday.

Finally, Richard Goldstone was a leading apologist for NATO, first as the leading ICTY prosecutor, then as co-chair of an "independent" commission suggesting the independence of Kosovo. It is obviously in Goldstone’s best interest to advocate a certain outcome of the Milosevic trial, which makes his selection as the Observer‘s chosen authority on war crimes indicative of the story’s purpose.

So there – a set of unsubstantiated assertions, a false claim of firm evidence, and more than half the story comprised of gloating statements by a NATO apologist posing as a dispassionate observer. But it gets worse, as the story was then cribbed (without acknowledgment!) by a London-based "independent" journalist, Gwynne Dyer. He even quotes the same Goldstone statement, and commits several factual errors, in a piece aimed at glorifying the "martyrdom" of slain Serbian PM Zoran Djindjic.

How appropriate.

An Orgy of Lying

There are certainly other examples of media shenanigans than the widespread Blairage they’ve practiced in the Balkans. The recent "embedded" reporting from Iraq comes to mind. Libertarian commentator Ilana Mercer has a word for those gleeful shills for government propaganda: "presstitutes."

Perhaps Balkans tabloid publishers know something when they put graphic nudes on their covers.

Worst of all, this orgy of lying is pretty much voluntary. It is a choice. Why else has there not been a single challenge in the mainstream press to the patently offensive lies and fabrications those very same papers and TV stations have peddled about the Balkans conflicts? Oh sure, a snippet of reality escapes now and then through the storm of lies, semi-lies and half-truths we’re constantly pelted with, but those exceptions only reaffirm the rule. Is the reverence for Official Truth so strong, that people believe their own lies?

Whether at the behest of governments and policymakers, or simply driven by "advocacy journalists" and fame-hunters devoid of integrity and honor, the fact remains that the media have created a perception of Balkans conflicts that has prevented both their understanding and resolution.

If this is "history’s first draft," we badly need a rewrite.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.