The Other War in Bosnia: Influencing Western Media
To win hearts in US and Europe, officials try to sway TV coverage
ZAGREB, CROATIA — WESTERN camera crews are routinely allowed into Sarajevo morgues to capture shocking images of civilian victims of Serb shelling.
In Zagreb, a police officer's remains are left on display for two hours after Serb rockets hit a hospital.
The message is clear: Innocent victims -- Muslims, Croats, or United Nations peacekeepers -- continue to die as the West does nothing. But coverage is often subtly directed by officials to sway Western public opinion.
With the armies of Muslim-led Bosnia and Croatia racking up victories over Serbs, a reduced UN mission being proposed, and US pressure to lift an arms embargo rising, public-relations efforts by the Bosnian and Croatian governments are in high gear.
Both governments are scrambling to solidify Western perceptions that they are the victims in the conflict and that stopping the war is worth risking peacekeepers' lives.
''The potential for the Bosnians and Croats to lose the mantle -- almost the halo -- of victim status is there,'' says Dan Nelson, an international relations professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. ''It would be a tremendous loss, possibly more important than a military defeat.''
Dr. Nelson and other observers say the war in the former Yugoslavia continues to set new precedents for the ''art of war in the CNN era'' -- where perceptions based on news media coverage can be more important than military victories. The Muslims and Croats know that maintaining the image that the international community is protecting innocent victims -- instead of prolonging a feud -- is crucial.
''We fight wars in a much different way now, we fight them much more in the media. We kill people, but we also concentrate on imaging it, massaging it, giving it a spin,'' Mr. Nelson says.
But others argue that the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is setting new precedents for the media's lack of influence in changing government policy. The long-term failure of the West to militarily intervene in the conflict -- despite massive media coverage -- is proof that the media are not as powerful as people think. ''In a way, this is a testament to the media's lack of power,'' says one Sarajevo-based UN official. ''Despite all the coverage, US soldiers have still not been sent here.''
BUT the Bosnian and Croatian governments are taking no chances. Both are trying to maintain their much-cherished victim images as well as become more aggressive in the conflict.
The Bosnian Army launched twin offensives in March that broke a four-month cease-fire brokered by former President Jimmy Carter, and the Croatian Army retook a 200-square-mile Serb enclave earlier this month, but neither government received bad press.
Serbs see the coverage of the offensives as simply the latest example of long-running Western media bias. In interviews in Belgrade and the capitals of Serb-held parts of Bosnia and Croatia, Serb officials say coverage has become more balanced as they have launched public-relations efforts of their own, but Western news organizations still mainly present the Muslim or Croat side of the story.
''We have invested an enormous effort, and it has brought some success,'' says an official in Pale, the self-declared Serb capital in Bosnia. ''They have access to all the media. Nobody listens to us.''
Observers say the Bosnian and Croatian governments are eager to freeze Western perceptions where they were in 1991 and 1992 when reports of Serb-run concentration camps dominated the news. The Serbs would like to have the conflict viewed as starting in World War II, when a fascist Croat-led regime killed tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies in concentration camps and mass executions.
''There is no doubt that the war in the former Yugoslavia is much more complicated than it has been presented -- one aggressor, one victim,'' says a senior Western diplomat. ''I think the media have failed.... They must have one angle and one devil. I understand the Serbs have been the aggressors, but what I don't like is the uncomplicated reports.''
Some UN officials say the Bosnian government sometimes tries to instigate fighting that will provoke a heavy-handed Serb retaliation and generate international sympathy. Serbs have long claimed that the Bosnians shelled themselves in the infamous February 1994 marketplace massacre that left more than 60 dead.
Most Western observers and UN officials reject the theory, saying it would be a disaster for the Bosnian government if it was caught. But they say some Bosnian soldiers acting on their own may occasionally attempt such attacks. In the first incident of its kind, UN officials found that Bosnian forces fired mortar onto a Sarajevo neighborhood just after Serb shells had hit there this winter.
''I've talked to people at the Pentagon who say most of the cease-fire violations are provoked by the Bosnians,'' says one Washington-based Western observer, ''but the public still sees them as the victims.''
The Croatian government appears to be learning from its Bosnian neighbors. The restraint and public-relations sophistication the Croatian government showed over its May 1 capture of the Serb enclave surprised many observers.
''They milked [the Serb rocket attacks], that's clear, but there wasn't any disinformation about them,'' says Mark Thompson, a Zagreb-based media analyst.
Observers say that frustration with the failure of diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict is benefiting the Croatians and Bosnians. A perception that only a balance of military force on the ground will lead to serious negotiations may be taking hold.
''I think there's a general feeling that they're entitled to it, and a general sense that the [UN mission] doesn't work and is not solving this,'' says the Western official. ''There's a sense that this logjam has to be broken by military action.''
The fact that such conclusions are being reached in the region is a testament to the continuing success of the Bosnians and Croats at portraying the war in their own terms, according to Nelson.
But Patrick Glynn, a foreign-policy analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, says it is the way the war has been carried out by the Serbs that has given the Bosnian and Croats the advantage. ''It was the events that created the Bosnia hawks, not the PR,'' he says.