Robert Fisk   The Independent   24-Apr-1999   NATO's information war
Was Serbian television's real sin its broadcast of film of the Nato massacre of Kosovo Albanian refugees last week, killings that Nato was forced to admit had been a mistake?
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NATO engages in an information war the only way it knows how having an excess of smart bombs at its disposal, but a deficit of smart writers, it blankets Yugoslavia with bombs and not with information.  Instead of answering Milosevic's disinformation with Western information, NATO works toward imposing silence.

Making NATO's method of waging an information war tolerable to the squeamish, perhaps, is the underlying feeling that some Eastern Europeans have not quite ascended to the same level of humanity as have the people whose governments have joined NATO, and thus can be killed without qualm.

Quotations from two other sources on the bombing of the Serbian TV studios appear at the bottom of the present page.

Please read also the earlier Thoughts on Kosovo which explains why it is possible to imagine that the chief remedy for saving Kosovo should have been an information war.

External link to The Independent

24 April 1999
by Robert Fisk

"Once you kill people because you don't like what they say, you change the rules of war"

Hanging upside-down from the wreckage was a dead man, in his fifties perhaps, although a benevolent grey dust had covered his face.  Not far away, also upside-down his legs trapped between tons of concrete and steel was a younger man in a pullover, face grey, blood dribbling from his head on to the rubble beneath.


Deep inside the tangle of cement and plastic and iron, in what had once been the make-up room next to the broadcasting studio of Serb Television, was all that was left of a young woman, burnt alive when Nato's missile exploded in the radio control room.  Within six hours, the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, declared the place a "legitimate target".

It wasn't an argument worth debating with the wounded one of them a young technician who could only be extracted from the hundreds of tons of concrete in which he was encased by amputating both his legs.  Nor with the silent hundreds who gathered in front of the still-smoking ruin at dawn yesterday, lost for words as they stood in the little glade of trees beside St Marko's Cathedral, where Belgrade's red and cream trams turn round.  A Belgrade fireman pulled at one of the bodies for all of 30 seconds before he realised that the man, swinging back and forth amid the wreckage, was dead.

By dusk last night, 10 crushed bodies two of them women had been tugged from beneath the concrete, another man had died in hospital and 15 other technicians and secretaries still lay buried.  A fireman reported hearing a voice from the depths as the heavens opened, turning into mud the muck and dust of a building that Ms Short had declared to be a "propaganda machine".

We had all wondered how long it would be before Nato decided that Radio Televizija Srbija should join the list of "military" targets.  Spokesmen had long objected to its crude propaganda it included a Nato symbol turning into a swastika and a montage of Madeleine Albright growing Dracula teeth in front of a burning building.

It never reported on the tens of thousands of Albanian refugees who spoke of executions and "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.  It endlessly repeated films that depicted Yugoslav soldiers as idealised heroes defending their country.  It carried soporific tapes of President Slobodan Milosevic meeting patriarchs, Cossacks, Russian envoys and the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.  The channel was showing an American interview with Mr Milosevic when the first cruise missile smashed into the station's control room just after two o'clock yesterday morning.

But did this justify killing the night staff in their studios and taping rooms?  Two weeks ago, Nato's spokesmen had been suggesting that RTS would have to carry six hours of Western television a day if it was to survive CNN's bland, safe coverage of events presumably offering some balance to the rubbish churned out on the RTS news.  But once Nato decided this was as preposterous as it was impracticable, its spokesman announced that the station was not on the list of Nato targets.  Then, on Monday, CNN's bosses called up from Atlanta to inform the satellite boys in Belgrade that they should pull out of the RTS offices.  Against the wishes of other Nato nations, so the word went, General Wesley Clark had decided to bomb Serb television.  CNN withdrew from the building in Takovska Street.  And that night, we were all invited to have coffee and orange juice in the studios.

The building was likely to be a target of the "Nato aggressor", according to Goran Matic, a Yugoslav federal minister, as he walked us through the ground floor of the doomed building.  Yet, oddly, we did not take him seriously.  Even when the air-raid siren sounded, I stayed for another coffee. 

Surely Nato wouldn't waste its bombs on this tiresome station with its third-rate propaganda and old movies, let alone kill its staff.

Yesterday morning, the moment I heard the cruise missile scream over my hotel roof, I knew I was wrong.  There was a thunderous explosion and a mile-high cloud of dust as four storeys collapsed to the ground, sandwiching offices, machines, transmitters and people into a pile of rubble only 15 feet high. 

Yet, within six hours, Serb television was back on the air, beaming its programmes from secret transmitters, the female anchorwoman reading the news from pieces of pink paper between pre-recorded films of Serbian folk-songs and ancient Orthodox churches.  All along, the Serbs had been ready for just such an attack.  We had not believed Nato capable of such ferocity.  The Serbs had.

The crowds still stood in the park as darkness fell, watching the men with drills punching their way through the concrete for more survivors.  By that time, explanations were flowing from Nato's birthday celebrations in Washington.  Serbia's "propaganda machine" had been prolonging the war.  I wonder.  I seem to recall Croatian television spreading hatred a-plenty when it was ethnically cleansing 170,000 Serbs from Croatia in 1995.  But we didn't bomb Zagreb.  And when President Franjo Tudjman's lads were massacring Serbs and Muslims alike in Bosnia, we didn't bomb his residence.  Was Serbian television's real sin its broadcast of film of the Nato massacre of Kosovo Albanian refugees last week, killings that Nato was forced to admit had been a mistake? 

Yes, Serbian television could be hateful, biased, bad.  It was owned by the government.  But once you kill people because you don't like what they say, you have changed the rules of war.  And that's what Nato did in Belgrade in the early hours of yesterday morning. 

Lewis Mackenzie, TV studio a weak target at too great a price, Vancouver Sun, 24Apr99, p. A17.

Maj.Gen. Lewis MacKenzi, now retired, commanded UN troops during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war of 1992.

Every western television outlet covering the war from Belgrade used the studio in the heart of the city to transmit their reports CNN, ABC, BBC, ITN and Sky from Britain, and CTV.  There wasn't any choice.

And obviously this put a huge strain on the staff, who were unaccustomed to such a heavy outgoing traffic.

There was a check on our reports, although you could hardly call it censorship.  We were required to show them the tapes, which they reviewed, always within five minutes, and during the three weeks I was there, we never heard even a comment.

Nothing was rejected; not a frame or a word changed in any way.  In fact quite a bit of the footage was taken for use on their own domestic broadcasts.

In the hectic atmosphere of nightly air raids and a heavily booked uplink schedule, the staff was unfailingly courteous, helpful, and thoroughly professional.

The staff was all young most in their 20s and some were volunteers working without pay.

I think all assumed they were safe from being hit by the presence of western reporters and producers, if not through some code of journalistic immunity.  So much so that some brought their kids to work with them on the theory they would be safer in the studio than at home.

Lewis Mackenzie, TV studio a weak target at too great a price, Vancouver Sun, 24Apr99, p. A17.

Maj.Gen. Lewis MacKenzi, now retired, commanded UN troops during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war of 1992.

Looking at the pictures of the rubble Friday I could not help thinking about the dozen or so people I had spent three weeks working with on a professional and collegial basis.

I think I know a military person when I see one and they certainly seemed civilian to me.  And they sure seemed innocent enough.

If we are going to knowingly target civilians as we did in the raid on Serbian TV, then maybe we should be up front about it.

And if we really think it is necessary to shut down Milosevic's television service, then maybe we should do it effectively by hitting the TV towers on the hills around Belgrade and Novi Sad instead of the downtown studios.

That way, we would not have killed a dozen civilians and Serb TV might have been shut down for more than six hours.

Philippa Fletcher, Journalists condemn bombing of Serbian TV, National Post, 24Apr99, P. A12.

The bombing was condemned by the International Federation of Journalists, which said it was counterproductive and set a violent precedent that put all journalists at risk.

"Killing journalists and media staff never wins wars or builds democracy, it only reinforces ignorance, censorship and fear," said Aidan White, general secretary of the IFJ.