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BACK TO : The Kosovo conflict 1999

The Propaganda War by Robert Fisk

INDEPENDENT (London) 23 November 1999
By Robert Fisk in Belgrade

Nato called it "the Serb Lie Machine". So did Alastair Campbell, who likes to be called Tony Blair's "spokesman". But Belgrade's propaganda was non-existent in the early days of the Kosovo war and when the Yugoslav army first tried to "manage" the press in Serbia, it got it hopelessly wrong.

Officers were watching Western journalists and camera crews to discover if they were taking secret videotape for Nato, only to find that the journalists sneaking pictures of railway and road bridges were mostly Russian.

Up to 25 Russian journalists and photographers were quietly expelled from Belgrade in the early days of the war while Western camera crews were trucked around to film damage to military barracks and factories, attacks which - in the initial days of the war - rarely involved civilian casualties and, in the case of army compounds, could only be considered "legitimate targets".

Then, after a group of Yugoslav colonels studied Jamie Shea's daily Nato press briefings, playing back through the videotapes and taking notes of his words, they tried to stage a series of parallel military press conferences in Belgrade.

It was a disaster. Senior Yugoslav officers have admitted to The Independent that they spent hours transcribing details of Nato's own sorties and air strikes to re-present them as their own material in Belgrade, complete with a Serb general to balance the Nato generals appearing on CNN and BBC World. "We should never have tried," one of the Yugoslav officers said."We should have left Nato to its own games and been more original from the start. Shea became one of our allies, so what was the point of trying to imitate him?"

Inevitably, it was Nato's killing of civilians that provided the Yugoslav army's "media relations" department with the material it needed - even if it still overplayed its hand. Inviting journalists, after a night of Nato bombing on the Pancevo oil refinery, to watch archive Nazi movies on the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia - the monochrome film badly scratched, the sound-track still in German - was unlikely to harm Nato. The tables turned, however, when Nato bombed a passenger train on the Gurdulice bridge and attacked a long Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy as it made its way across the province on 14 April.

"It took us time to decode Nato's real strategy," a senior military figure involved with the media during the war told The Independent last week. "In the beginning, they were absolutely denying causing any civilian casualties. They succeeded in doing this, at least at the start when they bombed the post office in Pristina. So we had to show who Nato was hitting. We proved it was killing civilians.

"Then, when Shea changed strategy and started calling this 'collateral damage', our task was to show such words were meaningless. Then Nato started bombing factories and television transmitters on the edge of housing estates and hit bridges in villages and called these 'legitimate military targets'. That term comprehended everything," he said.

What the Yugoslav authorities could never counter, of course, were the pictures of hundreds of thousands of persecuted Albanians being driven across the Kosovo border with their horrific tales of dispossession and execution. Even when the Serbs allowed journalists to visit Kosovo from Belgrade, they could not stop them seeing villagers, rounded up and awaiting expulsion or being driven along the roads in black-curtained buses.

Reporters taken to see the results of the first Nato attack on a refugee convoy witnessed hundreds of burning houses across southern Kosovo. It was a calculated gamble. The world already knew about the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. The burning houses were real but proved nothing new. So why not show the world what it still refused to believe - that Nato was killing scores of civilians?

It was a cynical decision but propaganda, if that is really the word for such campaigns, produces cruel decisions. At about the same time, so it was revealed at the Edinburgh television festival this summer, Nato took a strategic decision to stop apologising when it killed civilians. However many men, women and children were killed by Nato's bombs - dropped from high altitude so that the pilots should never be killed - there would be no remorse.

As a result, the world still believes the civilians killed in a bus west of Pec just before the war ended were victims of a KLA-Serb battle. Local Albanians now confirm the bus was hit by cluster bombs when Nato attacked a checkpoint on the road.

But of course, once the mass graves began to be exhumed in Kosovo, the story of General Pavkovic's Third Army in Kosovo took on a different character. War crimes investigators in the Hague say they have no proof that the army - as opposed to the Serb police and paramilitaries - participated in atrocities. But the army was there, and it was inevitably contaminated by the killers' wicked deeds. It's a fact the Yugoslav military - prepared to face the facts of the war - now glumly acknowledges.

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