Global Policy Forum

Milosevic's Propaganda War

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By Judith Armatta

Institute of War and Peace Reporting
February 27, 2003

Former Belgrade leader accused of launching ferocious media campaign to help him achieve his nationalist goals.


By "Without the media, and especially without television, war in the former Yugoslavia is inconceivable," according to Nenad Pejic, former Sarajevo TV programme controller in a report presented at the Milosevic trial last week.

His statement was cited in a 97-page expert report examining Serbian propaganda tactics during the Balkan wars. Written by Professor Renaud de la Brosse of the University of Reims, France, it was filed by the prosecutor in the Milosevic case.

In both the Croatia and Bosnia indictments, one of Milosevic's alleged contributions to a joint criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse large areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was his use of the Serbian state media to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred among Serbs by spreading "exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks by Bosnian Muslims and Croats against Serb people."

According to de la Brosse, Milosevic began his efforts to control audio-visual media in 1986-87, finishing the process in summer 1991. "The media offensive launched by Belgrade contributed to the appearance of equally detestable propaganda in other Yugoslav republics and its after-effects would be felt for years," the report said, quoting former Reuters Sarajevo correspondent Daniel Deluce.

De la Brosse claims the Serbian authorities used the media as a weapon in their military campaign. "In Serbia specifically, the use of media for nationalist ends and objectives formed part of a well-thought through plan - itself part of a strategy of conquest and affirmation of identity," said the report.

It was effective, in part, because the society was in transition from communism, an ideology that largely defined people for 50 years. Its demise left a vacuum, and a population in search of a new identity.

The nationalist ideology provided an answer. It defined the Serbs according to a historical legend, based part on fact, part on fiction. Not only did the nationalist ideology reach back 600 years to tales of the defeat of Serbia by the Ottoman forces at the battle of Kosovo Polje, it also encompassed the more factual and more recent tragedies suffered by Serbs during World War Two at the hands of Croatian pro-Nazi Ustashe.

By the early Nineties, an extremist element of rising Croatian nationalism fed the flames of fear, especially in Serb majority regions of Croatia, by rehabilitating Ustashe symbols. The new Serbian identity became one in opposition to the "other" - Croats (collapsed into Ustashe) and Muslims (collapsed into "Turks").

The report says Milosevic's propaganda campaign was based on the same techniques as used by Adolf Hitler, with the added power of television. "Nazi propaganda had shown that myths bind the masses together tightly. Indeed, it was through myths and, therefore, the appeal to the forces of the unconscious, to fear and terror, the instinct of power and the lost community that the propaganda orchestrated by Goebbels had succeeded in winning over the Germans and melding them into a compact mass," the report said.

"The Serbian regime would use a similar technique. To weld the population together, official propaganda drew on the sources of the Serbian mystique, that of a people who were the mistreated victims and martyrs of history and that of Greater Serbia, indissolubly linked to the Orthodox religion."

The fundamental principles of propaganda, highlighted by de la Brosse, are: keep it simple; project one's own faults onto the enemy; use the news to one's own advantage through exaggeration, distortion and omission; repeat the message endlessly; rely on myths and history; and create a national consensus.

Serbian television and radio's repetitive use of pejorative descriptions, such as "Ustashe hordes", "Vatican fascists", "Mujahedin fighters", "fundamentalist warriors of Jihad", and "Albanian terrorists", quickly became part of common usage.

Unverified stories, presented as fact, were turned into common knowledge - for example, that Bosnian Muslims were feeding Serb children to animals in the Sarajevo zoo. In these stories, friends and neighbours, fellow countrymen and women were turned into "the other", lacking humanising or individual characteristics.

Two members of the former Yugoslav federal security service, KOG, testified earlier in Milosevic's trial about their involvement in the defendant's propaganda campaign. Slobodan Lazarevic revealed KOG clandestine activities designed to undermine the peace process, including mining a soccer field, a water tower and the reopened railway between Zagreb and Belgrade.

These actions, at least one resulting in deaths and serious injuries, were blamed on Croats. The other KOG operative, Mustafa Candic, described the use of technology to fabricate conversations, making it sound as if Croat authorities were telling Croats in Serbia to leave for an ethnically pure Croatia.

The conversation was broadcast following a Serb attack on Croatians living in Serbia, forcing them to flee. He testified that the propaganda war was code named Operation Opera.

Another instance of disinformation involved a television broadcast of corpses, described as Serb civilians killed by Croats. Candic believed they were in fact the bodies of Croats killed by Serbs. De la Brosse described how Radio Television Serbia, RTS, portrayed events in Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, "The images shown of Dubrovnik came with a commentary accusing those from the West who had taken the film of manipulation and of having had a tyre [sic] burnt in front of their cameras to make it seem that the city was on fire.

"As for the shells fired at Sarajevo and the damage caused, for several months it was simply as if it had never happened in the eyes of Serbian television viewers because Belgrade television would show pictures of the city taken months and even years beforehand to deny that it had ever occurred."

The Serbian public was fed similar disinformation about Vukovar, according to Deluce, "Serbian Radio Television created a strange universe in which Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, had never been besieged and in which the devastated Croatian town of Vukovar had been 'liberated'."

For the print media, Milosevic's methods were different. Until the run-up to the Kosovo war, he allowed the independent press to publish, although their distribution was extremely limited. His methods of controlling the press included false paper shortages, interfering or blocking equipment supplies and confiscating newspapers printed without proper licenses - he controlled the license system.

For state-owned media, he could dismiss, promote, demote or have journalists publicly condemned. In 1998, he adopted a draconian media law which created a special misdemeanor court to try violations. This law had the ability to impose heavy fines and to confiscate property if the fine were not paid immediately.

Between October 1998 and November 1999, the court levied fines amounting to l.125 million US dollars. If that were not enough to deter any independent-minded journalist, there was the example of Slavko Curuvija, assassinated in front of his home shortly after the Kosovo war started.

According to the expert report, official Serbian propaganda reached more than 3.5 million people every night. Given that and the lack of access to alternative news, it is surprising how great was the resistance - evidenced not only in massive demonstrations in Serbia in 1991 and 1996-97, both of which almost toppled the regime, but also widespread draft dodging and desertion from the military.

Similarly, when Milosevic was finally overthrown in October 2000, RTS was a primary target of demonstrators. After attacking the parliament, the protesters headed for the state broadcaster's premises.

Propaganda as a war crime - coming under the heading Incitement to Genocide - is the subject of a case before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. And it figures prominently in the recent indictment of Vojislav Seselj, head of the Serbian Radical Party. In Yugoslavia, this propaganda was effective in dividing people who had lived together for decades. And it is the distortion of reality that is perhaps the hardest to correct. After more than 12 years living with a certain worldview, it is a shock to learn it is false. After being lied to, it is hard to trust what one is being told.

For some, it is easier to hold onto the lie. There lies the challenge for reconciliation. The hope is that the tribunal's process can assist in that painful, but necessary reawakening - if not now, at some future time.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.