The NATO-Media Lie Machine
"Genocide" in Kosovo?
by Edward S. Herman & David
Z magazine, May 2000
NATO's "humanitarian" enterprise
in Kosovo was built on a structure of lies, many of them flowing
from NATO headquarters and officials of the NATO powers, and uncritically
passed along by the mainstream media of the NATO countries. One
of the great ironies of Operation Allied Force, NATO's brief 1999
war against Serbia, was that Yugoslavia's broadcasting facilities
were bombed by NATO on the claim that they were a "lie machine"
serving the Yugoslav apparatus of war. This was contrasted with
the NATO media, which in the view of NATO officials, and in that
of media personnel as well, were "objective" and provided
what Richard Holbrooke described as "exemplary" coverage.
It never occurred to media leaders and journalists that Holbrooke's
accolade should embarrass them-although were Slobodan Milosevic
to have lauded the Serb media's performance as "exemplary"
we suspect their NATO-bloc counterparts would have interpreted
this as proof of the "lie machine" accusation. The double
standard runs deep.
An important reason for the congruity
between Holbrooke's and the media's views was the sense of self-righteousness
that accompanied Operation Allied Force. The belief that NATO
was fighting a "just war" against an evil enemy had
been so well cultivated over the prior decade that for the media,
"getting on the team" and thereby promoting the war
effort seemed perfectly consistent with "objective"
news reporting. This perspective, which was not shared by most
governments and media outside NATO, or by a vigorous but marginalized
media within the NATO countries, was ideal from the viewpoint
of the NATO war managers, as it made their mainstream media into
de facto propaganda arms of NATO. Ultimately, this gave NATO and
its dominant governments a freedom to ignore both international
opinion and international law-and to destroy and kill-that would
have been far more difficult to achieve if their media's performance
had been less "exemplary. "
One of the many successes of the NATO-media
lie machine was effectively pinning the label of "genocide"
on the Serbs for their operations in Kosovo. "Genocide,"
like "terrorism," is an invidious but fuzzy word, that
has long been used in propaganda to describe the conduct of official
enemies. It conjures up images of Nazi death camps and is frequently
used along with the word "holocaust" to describe killings
that are being condemned. On the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust model,
genocide implies the attempt to wipe out an entire people. But
in the Genocide Convention of 1948 the word was defined more loosely
as any act "committed with the intent to destroy, in whole
or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such."
The Convention even included in genocide acts that were causing
serious "mental harm" or inflicting "conditions
of life" aimed at such destruction. This vagueness has contributed
to its politicization, and Peter Novick notes how in the 1950s
its users "focused almost exclusively on the crimes-sometimes
real, sometimes imagined-of the Soviet bloc" (The Holocaust
in American Life).
It is a notorious fact that the Clinton
administration carefully refrained from using the word genocide
to apply to the huge 1994 Rwanda massacres of Tutsis by the Hutus.
To have allowed the word to be used there would have suggested
a need to act, and having decided not to act, the decision to
avoid using an emotive word that might have mobilized public opinion
on the need to act followed accordingly. By contrast, in the case
of Kosovo, the decision to act demanded the mobilization of opinion
to support violent intervention, so the aggressive use of the
word genocide followed.
In the context of the wars over the disintegration
of Yugoslavia, and in its opportunistic use elsewhere, the word
genocide has been applied loosely wherever people are killed who
are deemed "worthy" victims. In our view this is not
only opportunism but also a corruption of meaning of a word whose
unique sense implies not just killing or massacre but an attempted
extermination of a people, in whole or substantial part.
Genocide Pinned on Serbia
The word genocide was applied to the Serbs
in the early l990s by some Western analysts and journalists who
had aligned themselves with other Yugoslav factions (notably the
Bosnian Muslims), but it came into intense use during the NATO
78-day bombing campaign and briefly thereafter. In good part this
escalated usage was a result of the virtual hysteria of NATO leaders
at the Serb reaction to their bombing, which had been put forward
as necessary to stop Serb brutalities against the Kosovo Albanians
but which caused their exponential increase. With the help of
the media, and cries of genocide, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard
Schroeder, and other NATO spokespersons were able to transform
the consequences of their bombing strategy-the refugee crisis-into
its retrospective justification.
To make their case the NATO leaders needed
generous numbers of victims, stories of Serb terror, and images
of women and children in flight or being put on expulsion trains,
allowing recollections of trains to Auschwitz. The number allegedly
"missing" and suggested to represent massacre victims
by William Cohen on May 16 was 100,000, a figure which peaked
at 500,000 in a State Department estimate. Both during and after
the bombing campaign the main interest of the cooperative NATO
media was in finding victims; a scramble to unearth and report
on "mass graves" was launched. There were many victims,
but the media's appetite for them was insatiable and their gullibility
led them to make numerous errors, exaggerations, and misrepresentations
(see Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, eds., Degraded Capability:
The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, forthcoming from Pluto press,
for many illustrations). Numerous published images of departing
Albanian woman and children were linked to the "Holocaust,"
although as one British commentator noted "the Nazis did
not put Jews on the train to Israel, as the Serbs are now putting
ethnic Albanian Kosovars on the train to Albania" (Julie
Burchill, Guardian, April 10, 1999).
The word genocide was applied to Serb
operations in Kosovo even before the NATO bombing, although the
number killed in the prior 15 months was perhaps 2,000 on all
sides and despite the fact that there was no evidence of an intent
to exterminate or expel all Albanians. The Kosovo conflict was
a civil war with defining ethnic overtones and brutal but not
unfamiliar repression (less ferocious than that carried out by
the Croatian army against the Krajina Serbs in August 1995, in
which some 2,500 civilians were slaughtered in the course of a
few days). Even for the period of the bombing the term genocide
is ludicrously inapplicable. The Serb reaction to bombing, while
frequently savage, was based on their correct understanding that
the KLA was linked to NATO and that NATO was giving it air support
(Tom Walker and Aidan Laverty, "CIA Aided Kosovo Guerrilla
Army," Sunday Times [London], March 13, 2000). Their brutalities
and expulsions were concentrated in KLA stronghold areas, and
those expelled were sent not to death camps but to safe havens
outside Kosovo. The intensive postwar search for killings and
mass graves has produced under 3,000 dead bodies from all causes-killings
of the same order of magnitude as the 1995 Krajina massacres of
Serbs, carried out with U.S. support.
In short, the use of the word genocide
for Serb actions in Kosovo was gross propaganda rhetoric designed
to mislead as to the facts and to provide the moral basis for
aggressive intervention. It paralleled the use of the War Crimes
Tribunal to indict Milosevic in the midst of the NATO bombing
campaign-an indictment that was also designed to justify NATO's
increasingly civilian-oriented (and illegal) bombing of Serbia
by demonizing the head of the state under NATO attack.
Media & Left NATO Propaganda
Having encouraged the disintegration of
Yugoslavia from 1991, and actually obstructed peaceful solutions
to the problem of protecting minorities in breakaway states, the
policies of Germany and the United States in particular assured
ethnic violence. Their chosen villain was Serbia, and an intense
official and media focus on Serb crimes followed. This involved
not only selectivity of outrage and a misreading of causes and
locus of responsibility, but also a demonization process helped
along by the one-sided, ahistorical portrayal of events frequently
infused with disinformation (as in the British news station ITN's
fabrication of a "death" or "concentration"
camp at the Trnopolje refugee center in 1992; see Thomas Deichmann,
"The Picture That Fooled the World," Living Marxism,
Demonization and the continuous purveying
of atrocity news created a moral environment receptive to charges
of genocide. This reached deeply into the liberal and left communities
and media, with many liberals or leftists passionate supporters
of "doing something," including the NATO bombing war.
This was to be expected of the New Republic, where the notion
of collective Serb guilt a la Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's
Willing Executioners, conveniently justifying attacking Serbian
civil society and committing war crimes, found a happy home. (Stacy
Sullivan, "Milosevic's Willing Executioners," New Republic,
May 10, 1999). But it also affected the Nation, whose UN Correspondent
Ian Williams was pleased to see the UN bypassed in the interest
of humanitarian bombing (April 2, 1999), and where Kai Bird (June
14, 1999) and Christopher Hitchens (November 29, 1999, among others)
both found Serb behavior "genocidal" in the course of
their quasi-defenses of NATO policy. Only Hitchens seemed to suggest
that the Serbs were trying to exterminate a people.
In the mainstream media, genocide was
used even more lavishly and uncritically. Often it was presented
in the form of assertions by officials, with numbers like Cohen's
100,000, but reporters or commentators rarely if ever challenged
the figures or questioned whether the actions designated as genocidal
were intended to exterminate a people. It was rare indeed to mention
the difference between trains to Auschwitz and to the Albanian
border, as the Guardian.
Genocide was used as a symbol of aversion
and disapproval, justifying extreme measures against the "dictator"
and his people-the media felt impelled to call Milosevic a "dictator"
even though this put a crimp in condemning "ordinary Serbs"
as responsible for his actions, but they managed to do both at
the same time (Anthony Lewis, "The Question of Evil,"
NYT, June 22, 1999). Some commentators were carried away by their
own passion, David Rieff, a New York Times, Wall Street Journal,
and Chistopher Hitchens favorite, asserting that "the Milosevic
regime was trying to eradicate an entire people" ("Wars
Without End?," NYT, September 23, 1999). But most commentators
were satisfied with using the word without getting specific as
to meaning or providing facts. They never acknowledged any military
rationale to the post-bombing expulsions and killings: it was
evil people doing evil things for evil reasons.
In a masterpiece of the NATO anti-genocide
apologetics genre, the New York Times provided Sebastian Junger's
"A Different Kind of Killing" (NYT Magazine, February
27, 2000), where it is explained that even if the number of bodies
found in Kosovo were not of genocidal scope and some stories turned
out to be untrue, nevertheless "A single murder can be considered
an act of genocide if it can be shown that there was an intent
to kill everyone else in that person's group." Junger then
recounts his visit to the site of an unclaimed body of a teenage
woman, allegedly kidnapped, raped, and killed by Serbian "irregular
forces." Junger then says that, "it was not until this
century that a mechanized army carried out such crimes in the
service of its government. That is genocide; the rest is just
violence." Junger makes not the slightest effort to show
that the "irregular forces" had done this as part of
a government plan and "in the service of its government"
rather than on their own, or that the KLA or U.S. army didn't
carry out similar acts. In short, this is completely worthless
nonsense-but it pins the word genocide on the official enemy,
and therefore the New York Times allows this travesty to appear
in its Sunday magazine.
Some Comparative Data
We can also measure the spectacular politicization
of the word genocide by comparing its lavish use in describing
Serb conduct in Kosovo with its minimal use for Turkey's treatment
of its Kurds in the l990s (indeed, for decades) and Indonesia's
treatment of East Timorese in 1999 as well as in earlier years.
The force of this comparison is strengthened by the facts that
Turkey killed far more Kurds in the l990s than the Serbs killed
Albanians in Kosovo, not only before the bombing (whose number
presumably elicited the "humanitarian" intervention)
but even including those killed during the 78-day bombing and
war (see Chomsky's New Military Humanism). Indonesia's invasion-occupation
led to the death of almost a third of the East Timor population
(1975-1980), and Indonesia was subsequently responsible for the
1998-1999 slaughter and expulsion of a still untold number of
East Timorese associated with a UN-sponsored election. The number
of East Timorese killed in this latest round of Indonesian terror
far exceeded the pre-bombing total of Kosovo Albanian victims-estimates
run from 3,000-6,000 killed even before the August 30, 1999 referendum
unleashed unrestrained Indonesian destruction and murder-and the
grand total for 1999 is surely far larger than the overall total
of Kosovo Albanians killed by the Serbs in 1998 and 1999.
But as Turkey and Indonesia are clients
of the United States and the recipients of aid, military supplies,
and diplomatic support from the United States, Britain, and the
Western powers generally, their human rights crimes are never
referred to by Western officials as genocide. In fact, in a droll
feature of the NATO campaign against Serb genocide in Kosovo,
Turkey, a member of NATO, took part in the war against Yugoslavia
with direct bombing missions and the provision of bases for flights
of other NATO powers, perhaps generously reallocating its own
forces from the ethnic cleansing of Kurds to "humanitarian"
Given this warm relationship between the
NATO powers and Turkey and Indonesia, we would expect the NATO
media to follow in the footsteps of their leaders and treat Turkey
and Indonesia kindly, refraining from serious investigative effort
and the enthusiastic searches for "mass graves" they
pursued in Kosovo, and avoiding the use of an invidious word like
genocide in reference to these client states, no matter how applicable
and inconsistent with their usage of the word as regards Serbia.
This expectation is fully realized.
We will limit ourselves here to usage
in the New York Times, although we believe the findings applicable
to the general run of mainstream media. In the Times the bias
is startling, and has some unexpected sidelights. The accompanying
table shows that in the year 1999, the word genocide was ascribed
to the Serbs in Kosovo in 85 different articles, including 15
that began on the front page, and in 16 editorials and op-ed columns.
In some of these articles the word was used repeatedly. (In one
remarkable example, during the current year and outside our sample
proper, Michael Ignatieff repeated the word genocide 11 times
in a single op-ed [February 13, 2000]).
By contrast, the word showed up in the
Times in only 9 items referring to East Timor in 1999, only once
in an editorial or opinion piece, and only 15 times for East Timor
in the entire decade of the l990s. The word was never used in
a front-page article during the l990s. Furthermore, no Times reporter
or editorial writer ever used the word genocide in application
to East Timor over the entire period, 1975-1999. (That is to say,
in all instances where the word did appear, it did not express
the opinion of the Times writer, but was attributed to another
source.) Anthony Lewis, who repeatedly referred to Serb action
as genocidal and called for Western intervention there, spoke
of "human rights abuses in East Timor" (July 12, 1993),
but he never called it genocide or urged intervention. Barbara
Crossette repeatedly complimented Suharto for bringing "stability"
to the region. In a notable mention of the word genocide, veteran
Times reporter Henry Kamm explicitly denied its application to
East Timor, calling such usage "hyperbole," and allocating
the mass deaths to "cruel warfare and the starvation that
accompanied it on this historically food-short island" (February
Equally remarkable, the table also shows
that the word genocide was never once used in application to Turkey
and its treatment of its Kurds in 1999, and was used only five
times for such a relationship in the decade of the l990s, never
in a front-page article. However, in a wonderful illustration
of how the Times follows the line of U.S. foreign policy, the
table shows that Iraq's mistreatment of its Kurds in the years
1990-1999 was described as genocidal 22 times, in five cases in
In short, only "worthy victims"-that
is, the victims of officially designated enemies like Yugoslavia
and Iraq-suffer from genocide; those that are unworthy, like East
Timorese and the Turkish Kurds, are merely subject to "cruel
warfare" and adverse natural forces, as Henry Kamm explained
in regard to East Timor. So the Western media and "international
community" will be mobilized on behalf of the former, and
the latter will be compelled to suffer in silence. But as we have
stressed, there never was genocide in Kosovo, so that the NATO
war there was based on a lie. And that lie, like the May 27 indictment
of Milosevic by the War Crimes Tribunal, served mainly to provide
a moral cover that allowed NATO to bomb the hostage population
of Serbia into submission. That population now joins Iraq's in
being subject to further "sanctions of mass destruction"
whose effects offer a much closer fit to "genocide"
than the Serb actions which, allegedly, precipitated NATO's war.
International War Crimes