nettime's_roving_reporter on Sat, 22 May 1999 21:01:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Extra!: Naureckas: Forgotten Background of Serb/Albanian Conflict



  May/June 1999
   Rescued from the Memory Hole
   The Forgotten Background of the Serb/Albanian Conflict
   By Jim Naureckas
   In times of war, there is always intense pressure for media outlets to
   serve as propagandists rather than journalists. While the role of the
   journalist is to present the world in all its complexity, giving the
   public as much information as possible so as to facilitate a
   democratic debate, the propagandist simplifies the world in order to
   mobilize the populace behind a common goal.
   One of propaganda's most basic simplifications is to divide
   participants in a conflict into neat categories of victim and villain,
   with no qualification allowed for either role. In the real world, of
   course, responsibility cannot always be assigned so neatly. Both sides
   often have legitimate grievances and plausible claims, and too often
   genuine atrocities are used to justify a new round of abuses against
   the other side.
   In presenting the background to the Kosovo conflict, U.S. news outlets
   have focused overwhelmingly on the very real crimes committed by
   Yugoslavian and Serbian forces against ethnic Albanians. In the
   process, they have downplayed or ignored the ways that Albanian
   nationalists have contributed to ethnic tensions in the region. These
   one-sided accounts have reduced a complex dynamic that calls for
   careful mediation to a cartoon battle of good vs. evil, with bombing
   the bad guys as the obvious solution.
   In order to eliminate any moral ambiguity from the NATO intervention,
   media attempts to provide "context" to Kosovo generally start the
   modern history of the conflict in 1987, when Slobodan Milosevic began
   using Serb/Albanian tensions for his own political ends. A New York
   Times backgrounder (4/4/99) by Michael Kaufman basically skips from
   World War II until "1987, when Slobodan Milosevic, now the Yugoslav
   president, first began exploiting and inflaming the historical
   rivalries of Albanians and Serbs." In Kaufman's account, "the conflict
   was relatively dormant until Mr. Milosevic stirred up hostilities in
   1989 by revoking the autonomous status that Kosovo had enjoyed in
   The revocation of autonomy was a crucial decision, one which greatly
   destabilized the multi-ethnic Yugoslavian system and contributed to
   the country's breakup. The loss of autonomy was a grievance that
   helped pave the way for the rise of an armed separatist movement, in
   the form of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
   But the decision to end Kosovo's autonomous status did not come out of
   nowhere, or out of a simple Serbian desire to oppress Albanians. To
   get a more complicated picture of the situation in Kosovo in the '80s,
   Kaufman would only have had to look up his own paper's coverage from
   the era.
   Origins of "ethnic cleansing"?
   New York Times correspondent David Binder filed a report in 1982
   (11/28/82): "In violence growing out of the Pristina University riots
   of March 1981, a score of people have been killed and hundreds
   injured. There have been almost weekly incidents of rape, arson,
   pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive
   Kosovo's remaining indigenous Slavs--Serbs and Montenegrins--out of
   the province."
   Describing an attempt to set fire to a 12-year-old Serbian boy, Binder
   reported (11/9/82): "Such incidents have prompted many of Kosovo's
   Slavic inhabitants to flee the province, thereby helping to fulfill a
   nationalist demand for an ethnically 'pure' Albanian Kosovo. The
   latest Belgrade estimate is that 20,000 Serbs and Montenegrins have
   left Kosovo for good since the 1981 riots."
   "Ethnically pure," of course, is another way to translate the phrase
   "ethnically clean"--as in "ethnic cleansing." The first use of this
   concept to appear in Nexis was in relation to the Albanian
   nationalists' program for Kosovo: "The nationalists have a two-point
   platform," the Times' Marvine Howe quotes a Communist (and ethnically
   Albanian) official in Kosovo (7/12/82), "first to establish what they
   call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with
   Albania to form a greater Albania." All of the half-dozen references
   in Nexis to "ethnically clean" or "ethnic cleansing" over the next
   seven years attribute the phrase to Albanian nationalists.
   The New York Times returned to the Kosovo issue in 1986, when the
   paper's Henry Kamm (4/28/86) reported that Slavic Yugoslavians "blame
   ethnic Albanians for continuing assaults, rape and vandalism. They
   believe their aim is to drive non-Albanians out of the province." He
   reported suspicions by Slavs that the autonomous Communist authorities
   in Kosovo were covering up anti-Slavic crimes, including arson at a
   nunnery and the brutal mutilation of a Serbian farmer. Kamm quoted a
   prescient "Western diplomat" who described Kosovo as "Yugoslavia's
   single greatest problem."
   By 1987, the Times was portraying a dire situation in Kosovo. David
   Binder reported (11/1/87):
   Ethnic Albanians in the Government have manipulated public funds and
       regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs. Slavic Orthodox
       churches have been attacked, and flags have been torn down. Wells
       have been poisoned and crops burned. Slavic boys have been knifed,
       and some young ethnic Albanians have been told by their elders to
       rape Serbian girls.
       As Slavs flee the protracted violence, Kosovo is becoming what
       ethnic Albanian nationalists have been demanding for years, and
       especially strongly since the bloody rioting by ethnic Albanians
       in Pristina in 1981--an ''ethnically pure'' Albanian region, a
       ''Republic of Kosovo" in all but name.
   This is the situation--at least as perceived by Serbs--that led to
   Milosevic's infamous 1987 speech promising protection of Serbs, and
   later resulted in the revocation of Kosovo's autonomy. Despite being
   easily available on Nexis, virtually none of this material has found
   its way into contemporary coverage of Kosovo, in the New York Times or
   anywhere else.
   Consistent skepticism
   It may be, of course, that some of the charges levied against Albanian
   nationalists during the '80s were exaggerated or even fabricated by
   politically motivated Serbs. Those who are tempted to dismiss these
   accounts based on this possibility, however, should be careful to
   apply the same critical standards to media coverage of anti-Albanian
   atrocities in the '90s. The current coverage of Serbian crimes, if
   anything, should be viewed with even greater skepticism, since
   Yugoslavia has now become an official enemy of the U.S., and
   establishment reporting generally shows a strong bias against such
   countries. (See Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky.)
   And if one suggests that the New York Times had a peculiar
   anti-Albanian bias in the '80s, one still has to explain why similar
   reports of proto-ethnic cleansing appeared in the Washington Post
   (11/29/86) and the Financial Times (7/20/82, 7/22/86).
   It would not be responsible journalism, of course, to imply that
   crimes against ethnic Slavs justify assaults of even greater magnitude
   against ethnic Albanians. The challenge of reporting on a cycle of
   violence is to make sure that the wounds nursed by each side are not
   presented as if they vindicate further violence. The Times' Binder
   makes an attempt at this in his November 1, 1987 piece:
   Many Yugoslavs blame the troubles on the ethnic Albanians, but the
       matter is more complex in a country with as many nationalities and
       religions as Yugoslavia's and involves economic development, law,
       politics, families and flags. As recently as 20 years ago, the
       Slavic majority treated ethnic Albanians as inferiors to be
       employed as hewers of wood and carriers of heating coal. The
       ethnic Albanians, who now number 2 million, were officially deemed
       a minority, not a constituent nationality, as they are today.
   Of course, it's not always the case that both sides are equally or
   even partially at fault in an ethnic conflict: The Holocaust was not a
   response to historic crimes committed by German Jews against German
   Christians, and the people of East Timor did not provoke an Indonesian
   invasion by anti-Javanese pogroms. The question of historical
   responsibility is one that must be answered through careful research
   and reporting. Overwhelmingly, the U.S. media have failed to do that
   research, instead relying on a simplified, truncated official history
   that serves NATO's propaganda purposes more than it serves the
   citizenry's need for a complete and accurate context.

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