When it comes to Milosevic stories, more than a little
skepticism is in
by Stephen Gowans
"If you want to be spectacularly
misinformed," said writer Henry Miller, "buy a newspaper."
Thatís something I discovered at the
age of 18, while working as a grocery store clerk.
One Tuesday, my day off, I happened by
the store in which I worked. My co-workers were milling about the parking
lot, chatting animatedly. There were police cars pulled up in front of the
store, and a fire truck.
As I approached, an older man named
Frank who worked as a butcher, called out, "You left your cigars on the
"What?" I replied, bemused.
"Your cigars. Whatís the idea of hiding
your cigars behind the fireworks?"
"What are you talking about, Frank?"
"Jody" -- he was one of my fellow
clerks -- "Well, he found two sticks of dynamite, attached to a timer,
hidden behind the fireworks in aisle three."
A bomb? I couldnít take it in. Things
like this didnít really happen, not to ordinary people.
They do. Something the local newspaper
was to remind to me of in the coming days. Of course, we snapped up the
newspapers every day as soon as they hit the streets, poring over the
stories, as otherwise anonymous people do whenever they find themselves in
the centre of a news story. And what we discovered came as a shock. They
got the story wrong. The names were wrong. The ages wrong. The sequence of
events wrong. The dates wrong. "If they can get this so screwed up," we
complained, "how screwed up is everything else weíre reading about?"
Fast forward a few years.
Having given up on the grocery
business, I found myself wearing the handle of a coffee mug -- the
graduate studentís ring, we called it. Graduate students, I now recognize,
are a supercilious lot, much attached to any sign of ascendance over mere
undergraduates. Like med students, who make a point of walking around with
stethoscopes slung across their shoulders like a rich matronís mink stole,
graduate students go out of their way to avoid being mistaken for their
junior peers. With no reason to wear stethoscopes (we would have if we
could have), we embraced coffee mugs. Index fingers wedged firmly in
coffee mug handles, we graduate students would regularly meet to mouth
egocentric and pompous twaddle, much of it beginning with: "Itís scary
what people out there donít know," "out there" referring to the great
unwashed masses upon whom the gods of wisdom had not smiled.
"Out there" also included the press,
for however blinkered we were to expect ordinary people to have even a
basic grasp of what we spent our days studying, it wasnít asking too much
to expect that at the very least journalists who took it upon themselves
to report on our subject could do a little research. Instead, reporters
showed a dismaying lack of knowledge, and a voracious appetite for
And so it was that I felt the same
dismay again. If the press was so far off on the subjects I knew something
of, wasnít it fair to assume they were equally far off on the subjects I
knew nothing about. And didnít that mean that on most matters, I was
For a few years I was gripped by a kind
of epistemological paralysis. If I knew I couldnít rely on the media to
get the story right, what could I do? I couldnít possibly research every
story myself. So mostly I threw up my hands and said, "Who knows whatís
going on?" And went about my life, trying to concentrate on areas that
were illuminated by personal insight, avoiding the great darkness, which
was much of the rest of the world, outside the narrow orbit of my own
But one thing I was sure of: There were
a lot of words in newspapers, many of them the words of presidents and
prime ministers, Secretaries of State and generals, CEOs and PR hacks, all
of whom, most of the time, had reasons to mislead. Newspapers are filled
with self-serving fictions.
Skip forward a few more years.
Slobodan Milosevic is being demonized
in the Western press. Brute, murderer, monster, ethnic cleanser, dictator,
strongman, warlord, demagogue. You canít stoop too low, exaggerate too
much, denounce him profoundly enough. Call him a Hitler and nobody bats an
In the official Milosevic demonology,
the former Yugoslav presidentís 1989 speech at Kosovo Field becomes the
signal event in Milosevicís transformation from communist party
apparatchik, to virulent Serb nationalist, intent on building a "Greater
On June 3rd 1999, with large parts of
Serbia laying in ruins after being targeted by NATO warplanes, The
"But it is primitive nationalism, egged
on by the self-deluding myth of Serbs as perennial victims, that has
become both Mr Milosevicís rescuer (when communism collapsed with the
Soviet Union) and his nemesis. It was a
stirringly virulent nationalist speech he made in Kosovo, in 1989, harking
back to the Serb Prince Lazarís suicidally brave battle against the Turks
a mere six centuries ago, that saved his leadership when the Serbian old
guard looked in danger of ejection. Now he may have become a victim of his
On July 9th, the international edition
of Time reports,
"It was St. Vitus' Day, a date steeped
in Serbian history, myth and eerie coincidence: on June 28, 1389, Ottoman
invaders defeated the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo; 525 years later, a
young Serbian nationalist assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz
Ferdinand, lighting the fuse for World War I. And it was on St. Vitus'
Day, 1989, that Milosevic whipped a million Serbs into a nationalist
frenzy in the speech that capped his ascent to power."
And on July 28th, as questions are
being asked about NATOís 78-day bombardment, the New York Times weighs in:
"In 1989 the Serbian strongman,
Slobodan Milosevic, swooped down in a helicopter onto the field where 600
years earlier the Turks had defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo. In a fervent speech before a million Serbs, he
galvanized the nationalist passions that two years later fuelled the
Certainly, it seemed that, regrettable
bombing errors aside, the destruction of Yugoslavia was necessary to stop
Milosevicís raging nationalist ambitions, ambitions it was said that
fuelled a campaign of murder, mass deportation, and genocide. Except, like
the story of the dynamite planted in the grocery store, this story was all
Gregory Elich, a researcher and writer,
decided to check out whether what the media said about Milosevicís speech
was truth or fiction. Tracking down a US government translation of the
address, Elich discovered the media had the story all wrong. Not only had
Milosevic not whipped up nationalist fervor, heíd tried to do the very
Jared Israel, who had been dissecting
media coverage of the Balkans, posted the speech on his Web site, Emperors
Wrote Israel, "It is impossible for a
society to engage in genocide unless the population is won to hate the
target group. This has to be done in a systematic way. That is, political
leaders must support hate in deeds but also in words."
"We are told that this happened in
Serbia. We are told that Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian leaders
indoctrinated the Serbian people to hate non-Serbs, especially ethnic
Albanians in Kosovo province. We are told that Milosevic launched this
racist campaign in a speech at Kosovo Field in 1989."
Except if you read what Milosevic said
-- something the media obviously hadnít done -- youíd see the claims that
the speech "did not differ greatly from the anti-Semitic diatribes of the
Nazis" was all dross. Milosevic had said none of it.
Francisco Gil-White, an Assistant
Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a Fellow at
the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, happened
upon the Emperorís Clothes site. "I noticed their startling claim that we
have been systematically lied to about Yugoslavia," recalled Gil-White. "
Since their views entirely contradicted my own, I started systematically
checking their references by obtaining the relevant original documents."
Startled by the transcript of the
Kosovo Field speech-- "according to what I had read," Gil-White observed,
"this was supposed to be an inflammatory ultranationalist diatribe" -- the
University of Pennsylvania academic tracked down a BBC translation of the
speech to check against the version Israel had posted on his Web site.
"They matched almost exactly except for very minor variations in wording
due to the fact that they used different translators," Gil-White remarked.
An expert in ethnopolitical conflict,
Gil-White decided to delve deeper. How had academics and the media got it
so wrong, he wondered.
Going back to press reports filed in
1989, days after the speech was given, and a decade before Milosevic was
to fall within the cross-hairs of a NATO eager to oust the Yugoslav
leader, Gil-White discovered that a very different story was being told,
far closer to the truth.
June 29th of that year, the day after
the speech, The Independent reported:
'There is no more appropriate place
than this field of Kosovo to say that accord and harmony in Serbia are
vital to the prosperity of the Serbs and of all other citizens living in
Serbia, regardless of their nationality or religion,' he said. Mutual
tolerance and co- operation were also sine qua non for Yugoslavia:
'Harmony and relations on the basis of equality among Yugoslavia's people
are a precondition for its existence, for overcoming the crisis.' The
cries of 'Slobo, Slobo' which greeted his arrival on the vast monument to
the heroes of 1389 soon gave way to a numb silence. 'I think people were a
little disappointed, it became very quiet after the beginning,' an
educated-looking woman from Belgrade said"
Milosevic "talked of mutual tolerance,"
the Independent added, "'building a rich and democratic society' and
ending the discord which had, he said, led to Serbia's defeat here by the
Turks six centuries ago."
The same day, the BBC reported,
"Addressing the crowd, Milosevic said that whenever they were able to the
Serbs had helped others to liberate themselves, and they had never used
the advantage of their being a large nation against others or for
"He added that Yugoslavia was a
multi-national community," the BBC continued, "which could survive
providing there was full equality for all the nations living in it."
Twelve years later, on April 1, 2001,
the BBC would change its story, claiming Milosevic had "gathered a million
Serbs at the site of the battle to tell them to prepare for a new
Milosevicís words that day were
patently pacific. "Serbia has never had only Serbs living in it. Today,
more than in the past, members of other peoples and nationalities also
live in it. This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I am truly convinced
that it is its advantage. National composition of almost all countries in
the world today, particularly developed ones, has also been changing in
this direction. Citizens of different nationalities, religions, and races
have been living together more and more frequently and more and more
Hardly an appeal to hate filled
"Equal and harmonious relations among
Yugoslav peoples are a necessary condition for the existence of Yugoslavia
and for it to find its way out of the crisis and, in particular, they are
a necessary condition for its economic and social prosperity. In this
respect Yugoslavia does not stand out from the social milieu of the
contemporary, particularly the developed, world. This world is more and
more marked by national tolerance, national co-operation, and even
national equality. The modern economic and technological, as well as
political and cultural development, has guided various peoples toward each
other, has made them interdependent and increasingly has made them equal
as well [medjusobno ravnopravni]. Equal and united people can above all
become a part of the civilization toward which mankind is moving. If we
cannot be at the head of the column leading to such a civilization, there
is certainly no need for us to be at is tail."
This isnít ultra-nationlism. This is
the opposite. Itís an appeal for harmony, for equality, for
interdependence. How could the story change so radically in the space of a
Thatís what Gil-White vowed to find
out. His conclusion? "The problem is not merely that reporters and
academics are misinformed," he observes. "It appears to be a conscious
effort to misinform."
Itís curious, Gil-White notes, that
"the same source will report the facts accurately and then, in another
place, usually later, report them completely inaccurately. I have
difficulty explaining this as a result of ignorance, or chance, or
Not too long after Milosevicís Kosovo
Field speech, the Soviet Union collapsed and the US, free to embark
largely unopposed on a program of establishing global primacy, began to
draw Eastern Europe and the Balkans into its orbit, economically,
politically, and militarily. Yugoslavia resisted, too fond of socialism
and public ownership for Washingtonís liking, and uninterested in NATO
membership. Washington decided it was time for "a regime change."
The first step in justifying regime
change is to demonize the regime to be changed. Gil-White believes the
demonizing of Milosevic was "calculated to exploit the human tendency to
essentialize racial, national, and ethnic groups, in order to solidify the
prejudice that Serbs are virulent nationalists, which prejudice then
stably frames the conflict in Yugoslavia in such a way that the interests
of the powers which dismembered it might be served."
Did journalists deliberately lie, or
were they just lazy, relying on what someone else said about Milosevicís
Kosovo Field address, not bothering to read the original transcript? The
University of Pennsylvania expert figures journalists parroted unreliable
sources, which happened to present Milosevic in a light that was
consistent with NATOís propaganda aims.
The implications are far-reaching,
especially now that Milosevicís trial at the Hague is underway. Newspapers
talk of Milosevic as a monster, of the tribunal as a step forward for
international justice, of horrific atrocities.
But Gil-White asks, "What can we
believe about what has been written about Milosevic in particular, and
Yugoslavia more generally? After all, the demonization of Milosevic, and
the Serbs more generally, perfectly fits with the propaganda aims of the
NATO powers that went to war against Yugoslavia, including the US and
Britain. Here we have seen that the media establishment in these two
countries has produced stories about Milosevicís speech that are
consistent with such a deliberate propaganda campaign."
This wouldnít be the first time NATO
pressure has led to spectacularly misleading claims by the media. Soon
after NATO began its assault on Yugoslavia in 1999, spokesman Jamie Shea
claimed 100,000 Kosovor Albanians were unaccounted for, a claim
uncritically accepted by the press.
Dr. Peter Markesteyn, a Winnipeg
forensic pathologist, was among the first war crimes investigators to
arrive in Kosovo after NATO ended its bombing campaign.
"We were told there were 100,000 bodies
everywhere," said Dr. Markesteyn. "We performed 1,800 autopsies -- that's
Fewer than 2,000 corpses. None found in
the Trepca mines. No remains in the vats of sulphuric acid. Most found in
isolated graves -- not in the mass graves NATO warned about. And no clue
as to whether the bodies were those of KLA fighters, civilians, even
whether they were Serbs or ethnic Albanians.
Not surprisingly then, when the Hague
Tribunal issued its first indictment against Milosevic, it said nothing of
100,000 dead, citing 391 deaths instead, all from incidents -- with the
exception of one now believed to have been faked -- that happened after
NATOís bombing started. The media, scrupulously steering clear of asking
tough questions, didnít wonder how a bombing campaign to stop a genocide
could be justified, if those who were doing the bombing had no evidence of
a genocide in the first place (and donít now; the Tribunal has not brought
forth a genocide charge for Kosovo, despite the loud claims by NATO at the
time that a genocide was going on and needed to be stopped.) But by then,
the press was so firmly implicated in building the credibility of the
myth, they could hardly back off.
The one pre-bombing incident on which
Milosevic was indicted, the Racak massacre, is still treated as gospel
truth by the media, even though a number of questions had been raised
about the incident at the time, and have been raised since.
The French newspaper La Monde had some
trouble swallowing the story. It reported on Jan. 21, 1999, a few days
after the incident, that an Associated Press TV crew had filmed a gun
battle at Racak between Serb police and KLA guerillas. The crew was
present because the Serbs had tipped them off that they were going to
enter the village to arrest a man accused of shooting a police officer.
Also present were two teams of international monitors.
It seems unlikely that if you're about
to carry out a massacre you would invite the press -- and international
observers -- to watch.
The film showed that as the Serbs
entered Racak they came under heavy fire from KLA guerillas positioned in
the surrounding hills. The idea that the police could dig a trench and
then kill villagers at close range while under attack troubled La Monde.
So too did the fact that, entering the village after the fire fight to
assess the damage and interview the villagers, the observers saw no sign
of a massacre. What's more, the villagers said nothing about a massacre
It was only a day later, when
Washingtonís man in Kosovo, William Walker, returned with the press in tow
-- at the KLA's invitation -- that a trench was found filled with bodies.
Adding to the implausibility of the
claim, a report last February by the Finnish forensic team that
investigated the incident on behalf of the European Union said none of the
bodies were mutilated, there was no evidence of torture, and only one was
shot at close range -- all at variance with the official story.
Thirty-seven of the corpses had
gunpowder residue on their hands, suggesting that they had been using
firearms, and only one of the corpses was a woman, and only one was under
15 years of age.
The pathologists say Walker was quick
to come to the conclusion a massacre had happened, even though the
evidence was weak.
And they point out that there is no
evidence the deceased were from Racak.
The first casualty of war is the
truth," says Paul Buteux, a political scientist at the University of
Manitoba, echoing a clichť that is sententiously uttered after every war,
but never learned from.
"It gets very murky. I have no doubt
that whoever was putting those intelligence reports together prior to the
NATO air campaign would be under pressure to put things in the worst
possible light. There was a point when the spin doctors came in."
Putting things in the worst possible
light? There's a big difference between putting things in the worst
possible light and turning 1,800 corpses into 100,000, between arguing
that a genocide had to be stopped by a bombing campaign, and being able to
adduce only one incident of a war crime -- and a doubtful one at that --
occurring before the bombing.
As for Jared Israel, heís so certain
the depiction of Milosevic as a racist monster is baseless, heís willing
to put his money where his mouth is. Israel says heíll pay $500 to anyone
who can "show that Slobodan Milosevic made a racist statement in any
speech or interview at any time," a prize you would think the journalists
who have been writing about Milosevic whipping Serbs into an
ultranationalist frenzy would step forward to claim. Israelís challenge,
http://www.icdsm.org/more/peaceintro.htm, was issued last
Slobodan Milosevic's speech at Kosovo
Field can be read at
Gil-Whiteís research can be read at
Mr. Steve Gowans is a
writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.
by courtesy & © 2002 Steve
by the same author: