What a Lovely War!
Some comments on
the second war, NATO's propaganda war, and how it was
reflected in Western media
"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 - http://www.angusreid.com
- at the request of the magazine. 8.575 people in 17
countries had answered questions related to the NATO
One of the questions was:
" Are you for or against NATO's decision to bomb Serb
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 NATOs 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
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
60 % of the Danish population supported Denmarks
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 after the bombing had
started 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
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
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
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
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 Knightleys 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 NATOs 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
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
couldnt 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 isnt 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 hadnt 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
"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 dont 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
The text together with the picture is the
"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,
The problem is that the picture couldnt be from
Djakovica. It is obviously an archive picture from some
other event, it could be from Racak, but I am not
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
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 cannt 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
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 didnt 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
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
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
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
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
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
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