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Oh What a Lovely War!

Some comments on the second war, NATO's propaganda war, and how it was reflected in Western media


By Sören Sommelius
TFF associate


"Oh what a lovely war!" was the headline of an article in the April 24th issue 1999 of the British magazine The Economist. The NATO bombings of Yugoslavia had then been going on for a month. The magazine published the results of an interesting and in my opinion rather shocking opinion poll, made by the polling firm Argus Reid Group - - at the request of the magazine. 8.575 people in 17 countries had answered questions related to the NATO bombings.

One of the questions was:

" Are you for or against NATO's decision to bomb Serb military installations?"

Croatia was the country in which the largest part of the asked people was in favour of the bombings, almost 80 %. That is maybe what you could expect.

But the second highest figure in the poll came from Denmark, with almost 60 % in favour of NATO‚s war, even more than in countries leading the action as Britain (45%) or United States (about 40%).

Italy was the NATO country most worried about the bombings, with 47 % for and as many against it. And in Russia 94 % were against the war with only 2 % supporting it.

Being a Swedish citizen I have reasons to believe that the opinion in Sweden was similar to that in Denmark and Norway, although Swedish citizens were not involved in the referred poll. The Swedish social democrat prime minister Goran Persson went to Washington during the bombings to congratulate NATO when the organisation celebrated its 50th birthday, with little or no criticism in the leading Swedish media.

Sweden has a long tradition of being a neutral country, strongly supporting UN and working actively to promote conflict solving by non-violent methods. But during the Kosovo war it was the other way. The government supported the war. The only official criticism came from the foreign minister, Anna Lindh, who once asked for smaller bombs against targets in central city areas, after damages on the residence of the Swedish ambassador in Belgrade. Denmark is a peaceful country with a strong democratic tradition and a strong civic society, I thought. But now Denmark was taking active part in the military aggression against Yugoslavia, in a war started without the approval of the Danish parliament and obviously in a way contrary to the Charter of the United Nations. This should be a matter of highest importance in the society and in the media. But it was not.

60 % of the Danish population supported Denmark‚s war against Yugoslavia. The figure is the result of in favour-answers minus opposed answers, which means that it could be 70 or even 80 % of the Danes supporting the war.

Supporting the war at this rather stage (the poll was made between March 25th and April 17th 1999) means largely that you accept the official arguments of why it was fought.

An overwhelming majority of the population in countries like Denmark and Sweden did accept the official arguments/propaganda from NATO, that this was a " humanitarian intervention" and that the war was the best way to solve the conflicts in Balkan.

How could that be? What was the role of the propaganda warfare? How could it be that there was so little discussion in the Nordic media at this time and why was the war so seldom questioned?

NATO is an organisation with 17 member states. To start a bomb campaign like this against Yugoslavia was only possible with the support of all the member states. And in each member state it was essential for the government to get the support of the population. Without such a support the war might become also a costly internal affair, with consequences like the government losing political power.

It was a question of survival for NATO to fight a successful propaganda war during the bombings of Yugoslavia. Without this the military war could have been lost.

The propaganda war was as important as the military war. In my opinion it is relevant to talk about a second war, fought not with bombs and guns but with words and press releases, with the daily press conferences at NATO headquarters in Brussels as an important part of the battlefield.

This was a war where every citizen in the Western world was a target, not our bodies, but our minds and our ways of thinking.

I can only guess what goals had the highest priority in the propaganda war of NATO. I don't have any strategic documents as proofs. But the question is too important not to be discussed.


- One thing is evident. It was important to give a picture of the enemy, that is the regime in Belgrade, as being so evil that all our „good violence is legitimate to destroy the evil violence of the enemy". This has always been elementary in all war propaganda, as pointed out long ago by Phillip Knightley, British journalist and author to the classic book about war propaganda, „First Casualty" (1975), where Knightley points out that truth always is the first victim of war.

In speeches by NATO political leaders the president of Serbia was often compared with Adolf Hitler. The situation in Kosovo was repeatedly described as „genocide", as by US president Bill Clinton (quoted in New Statesman 15th of November 1998) who talked of „deliberate systematic efforts at genocide". British Prime minister Tony Blair (The Guardian 28.10.98) said that „Milosevic and his hideous racial genocide will be defeated".

The quotations from Clinton and Blair I have from an excellent article in French magazine Le Monde Diplomatique (March 2000) by Serge Halimi and Dominique Vidal, „Media and Disinformation" about the lessons from the Kosovo war. They also quote an article in French Le Nouvell Observateur >from the 1st of April 1999, where Françoise Giroud wrote:

" Mr Milosevic is cleansing. Everyone has their own methods. They must be short of gas ovens in Serbia."

In this way the war was presented as a crusade against the evil, which was accepted by large parts of the populations in the NATO-countries, as I said.


- A second aspect of the NATO propaganda or information strategy was ˆ after the bombing had started ˆ to present extremely high figures of Albanians killed by Serbs in Kosovo.

For instance French TV-Channel TF-1 reported on the 21st of April:

" According to NATO 100.000 to 500.000 men are reported missing. It is feared that they have been executed by the Serbs. Of course we have yet to prove this accusation."

US Defence Secretary William Cohen talked in May of 100.000 military-aged Kosovars missing, " they may have been murdered", he said.

After the war, in June last year, the figure had declined radically. In a speach at that time president Clinton talked about 10.000 " Kosovars killed by the Serbs".

Halimi and Vidal concludes: " Once the war had been won, Western estimates of Albanian dead dropped from six to five figure numbers.

In November 1999 after intense work of international forensic experts the figure 2.108 dead bodies was presented. The vast majorities of the bodies were buried individually, not in mass graves. And no information was given of age, sex or nationality of the dead people.


- Another major goal of the NATO information strategy was to create a feeling among the journalists of an honest open attitude, with no lies and with reliable information. The British historian Jamie Shea was an efficient NATO spokesman at the press conferences in Brussels. After the war he said that " a large number of journalists have said how much they appreciated our efforts to keep them informed".

French Le Nouvel Observateur discussed on July 1st 1999 the information strategy of NATO during the war:

" We had quite effective tactics for dealing with mistakes, explained a NATO general. Most of the time we know the exact causes and results of these errors. But to anaestethise public opinion we would say we were going to carry out an enquiry and that there were several possible explanations. We would reveal the truth a fortnight later when everyone had lost interest. You can shape public opinion, just like anything else."


- To NATO it was important to give reports about the bombings showing the total superiority of its military campaigns. It was high priority to give an impression that its high technology weapons made it possible to direct the bombs only to military targets, hit with extremely high precision and with little or no civil suffering.

On the press conferences in Brussels computer pictures, taken by the bombing planes, were often presented to support this information strategy.

Notable is also the use of language passed on from the NATO headquarters by for instance US television company CNN. There was no talk of " war" but of " air campaigns", of " strike against Yugoslavia" or " Crisis in Kosovo". All attacks were presented as attacks against " military targets", but the term " military target" was never defined, what I could see. A military target could be just anything, like bridges, electricity plants etc.

It is not my intention here to comment in any more detailed way on the NATO-propaganda. Instead of that I will point out some consequences, with examples from media, and mainly from media in my own country Sweden.

In an interview in the Swedish radio the British journalist and writer Phillip Knightley (mentioned above) stated that " The Kosovo war is the modern war most badly covered in Western media".

In an editorial comment to Knightley‚s statement evening daily Aftonbladet wrote under the headline „Truth is not the victim of this war":

" it is of course so that NATO gives selective information with delays. But in the intense news world of today they cannot lie to much and to long."


" Manipulation and propaganda is normal today. But the old tricks cannot be used as easily as before. Regarding Yugoslavia and Kosovo it is our opinion that the journalists so far are more professional in their job than the militaries in theirs."

This was published on the 11th of April. Four days later, on the 15th of April, most of the front page of the same Aftonbladet was dedicated to NATO‚s killing of 64 Albanian refugees. The headline was: " Nato accuses the Serbs as guilty of the massacre".

The newspaper trusted NATO information such an extent after several weeks of bombings. It is really exceptional.

In the largest and most prestigious daily morning paper in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter, the same event was mentioned only in a short text of some 20 lines on the page of foreign news. The headline was „70 killed when Nato bombed a convoy". But the headline was put between quotation marks. And the first lines in the text were as follows:

"According to the Serb information Center in Pristina 70 people had been killed "

The way this story was printed was strange indeed. With the use of quotation marks the paper sent a signal to its readers, that this is something that you couldn‚t take for sure. The mentioning of the source as the very first part of the text was a second signal in the same way, meaning, this isn‚t reliable news. Had it been reliable, then the story would have been treated in a quite different way, with a large headline, as the main foreign story of the day.

As a matter of fact, the event was remarkable. NATOs warfare was planned so that its pilots would take no risks at all. The philosophy was that dead American pilots could jeopardise the war, if the public opinion in United States turned critical to the warfare.

As a result it happened several times that NATO "collateral" killed innocent civilians, as it did in this event, just because of the strategy of letting its aeroplanes fly on such a high altitude.

Whether you like the bombings or not, this is something that a competent newspaper should try to describe, that regards for the security of the pilots led to highly dangerous situations for innocent civilians on the ground and to lots of acts that only could be described as violations of the laws of war.

What Dagens Nyheter and Aftonbladet did in this case could also be analyzed with an expression made by Noam Chomsky, "worthy victims". The civilians killed by Nato were not worthy victims, neither in this case near the Albanian border nor in many other cases during the bombings.

Similar slanted reporting was almost standard in Western media during the wars in Bosnia. People killed in Sarajevo were "worthy victims" because they had Serbs as enemies. But the Muslims killed in Mostar during the fights with the US-allied Croats were not as worthy victims. The same was the case with the 200.000 Serbs, ethnically cleansed from Krajina in 1995 and with the Muslims supporting Fikret Abdic, fighting against Izetbegovics troops.

The Kosovar refugees killed by NATO in 1999 were neither worthy victims.

This question of the killed refugees was important also in another way. During the press conferences in Brussels NATO talked much about "smart weapons", and "intelligent bombs" that could hit exactly what the militaries wanted, without damaging civilians. NATO was telling us that they were fighting almost a bloodless war, directed only against military units and military installations. The journalists in Brussels frequently were presented with " computer games" pictures, showing the excellent precision of these smart bombs.

But the story of the 64 or 70 killed refugees tells us something quite different. And in the evaluations made afterwards another aspect on that topic became evident.

A report published in July 1999 by the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington commented thus on the use of " smart bombs":

a) that NATO during the war told journalists that 99.6% of the smart bombs really hit their targets, but the real figure was rather around 80 %.

b) that out of the 23.000 bombs dropped over Yugoslavia only 35 % were "smart" and the rest conventional bombs.

The conclusion is evident. The picture given on the press conferences in Brussels of a war with high tech precision was false. In spite of this most media accepted it.

Some more examples from Swedish press. On the first of May NATO bombed a bridge in Kosovo, north of Pristina. A bus was hit and some 40 people killed. It was the regular civil bus from Nis to Pristina.

In the Swedish daily where I work, Helsingborgs Dagblad, this was the main item on the foreign page of that day, with a large picture and a detailed story of what had happened. Sources from Nato HQ in Brussels were quoted as saying that the bridge was not listed as a military target.

This was as far as possible an accurate version at that time of the event.

In the Dagens Nyheter the same story was treated in a very different way, as just a short notice, a few lines in one column.

On the 20th of May NATO bombs hit a hospital in Belgrade. Four people were killed according to the headline in Swedish conservative daily Svenska Dagbladet on the following day. A picture in the paper from the hospital showed a woman with her new born baby, the mother with some wounds in her face. This was the main story on the foreign page.

At this time the Dagens Nyheter had‚nt got an accreditation for any journalist to go to Yugoslavia. So the report from the bombing of the hospital was written by a journalist from the Los Angeles Times. The text was, so far as I can see, correct. The article had no picture and was laid out at the bottom of the foreign page.

The headline was:

"New born baby welcomed by NATO-bomb"

It is not my intention here to draw any far-reaching conclusions, I have not worked with the material in that way. But in my opinion bombing a hospital and hitting a maternity-department are among the worst atrocities that could be committed in a war. Journalists working with this kind of news should be extremely careful with the nuances. That was not the case this time, really not.

One more example is taken from the Swedish evening newspaper Expressen. On May the 3rd it published a double page with the theme " The war in Kosovo". The headline was:

"The Serbs arrived. Death carried black mask and was wearing machine guns"

The text was a translated version of an article written by an American journalist from the Washington Post. It was a story about what is called "The massacre at Djakovica". Only two sources are mentioned with names in the text, a man and a woman, both in their 30-ies and Kosovo Albanian refugees, interviewed in a refugee camp in Macedonia. A person, not presented with name, representing the International Court in Hague, says that "we have reports with high credibility about murder and ethnical cleansing in Djakovica "

I am sure many people lost their lives in Djakovica. But I don‚t have any possibility to cheque the credibility of the article and it is not my intention in this context. What is interesting to me is the way the Expressen makes the layout of the story. On the left page the paper uses news graphics, trying to give a picture of the village, to convey the impression that the story is based on detailed and deep information. The right page is covered by a very large picture. We see dead bodies and a walking person with a camera, looking like a western journalist.

The text together with the picture is the following:

"Victims of the Serbs. Nobody knows today how many Kosovo Albanians were victims of the ethnical cleansing, systematically carried out by the Serbs. The Serbs are walking from village to village, harassing, killing, burning."

The problem is that the picture couldn‚t be from Djakovica. It is obviously an archive picture from some other event, it could be from Racak, but I am not sure.

The normal reader of the newspaper will believe that the picture in question is an authentical picture from Djakovica illustrating what is mentioned in the text.

This is really the worst kind of bad journalism.

I have personally studied journalism in war and especially in connection with the wars in the Balkans during the nineties. And over and over you meet this kind of horror journalism, where dead human bodies are used to create enemy-pictures.

The rule must be: The more horrible a news story is, the more work should be done by the journalist to sort out what is confirmed truth, what is probable and what could have happened but cann‚t be confirmed.

When papers are printing rumours or as in this case are using obviously false pictures to create sensation the journalists are really taking part in the propaganda warfare.

During the Kosovowar most Swedish newspapers took a pro-NATO-position. Sources like the NATO-press conferences were treated as reliable news. When information came from Serbia it was the other way.

Even a remarkable event like the NATO bombing of the TV-house in Belgrade didn‚t create much revulsion in Sweden. Killing journalists was apparently accepted as part of the modern media war.

This is the general picture. Of course there were exceptions. And today I think there is a growing awareness among Swedish journalists that the truth is always complicated.

In May 1999 I visited a large Peace Conference in The Hague, with about 10.000 participants, peace activists and peace researchers. UN General Secretary Kofi Annan was there as well as some ten Nobel Peace Price Winners, ministers and politicians from most European countries.

In every corner of the conference the ongoing Kosovo war was discussed, often in a qualified way, by people with knowledge and engagement. Everybody felt that this spring 1999 was a time when the destiny of the future was formed, not only for the Balkans, but for the world.

I was as a Swede proud to hear the Swedish social democrat Maj-Britt Theorin in strong and clear words condemn the war. Other politicians supported it actively, as the Dutch prime minister, also present at the conference.

But the Hague Peace conference was very poorly covered by the media. It seemed as if every journalist interested in the Balkans was stationed at NATOs HQ in Brussels with no time or interest for what was discussed in the Hague.

For the first time I there heard about the NATO weapons with depleted radioactive uranium, used in Kosovo as was the case before in operation Desert Storm in Iraq. And I listened to discussions about the cluster bombs, which NATO used against targets in civilian areas of Yugoslavia, with deadly effects for a long time after the war. According to Halimi/Vidal in Le Monde Diplomatique (3/2000) "over 200 people have also been killed since the war by stepping on unexploded Nato cluster bombs". Is the use of these kinds of weapons not to be considered as inhuman? That was an important question in Hague. But in Swedish and Western Media I have so far seen very few references to these subjects.

Local Balkan media did play an important destructive role in the wars accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia. That is evident to me. But what is much more remarkable is the role of those western media with really large resources, experience and technological possibilities.

The 1999 war more characterized by disinformation than by honest work in describing the war and its consequences. And information from NATO was used as reliable with too little reflection on the huge efforts of same NATO to create an opinion favourable to the war. It is a very sad lesson, indeed.

I finally want quote a sentence by John Pilger in The Statesman from the 28th of June 1999:

"Humanitarian intervention‚ is the latest brand name for imperialism as it begins a return to respectability."

Sören Sommelius




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