The Media And The Death Of Slobodan Milosevic

“If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives. But if we know some history, if we know how many times presidents have lied to us, we will not be fooled again.” (Howard Zinn, historian)

Introduction – 2003 And All That

Three years on, it is clear that the case for war against Iraq was based on lies. Despite the cover-ups, insider compromise and silence, there can be no serious doubt that the lies were conscious and carefully planned.

The real target of Western ’intelligence’ was not Iraq, but the British and American public – the goal was to frighten and deceive us to support a war fought for elite interests. It was to persuade us to send our troops to kill and die for profits. It was to persuade us to ignore clear warnings that, in all likelihood, we would be subject to terrorist reprisals. Such risks were clearly deemed a small price to pay for the prize that mattered – control of Iraqi oil and enhanced influence in the region and beyond.

This is the ugly reality behind ’patriotic’ governments ‘supporting our boys’ and protecting ‘national security’.

Iraq, of course, never posed any kind of threat to the West. Even if portions of Saddam’s WMD had been retained, they would have been no danger to America, Britain and Israel bristling with veritable doomsday weapons. Saddam Hussein may be an animal, but he is a political animal – a survivor, not someone who would have committed national suicide by launching WMD at the West.

An honest press would be hyper-sensitive to these issues – it would be keenly aware that Bush and Blair had lied, and would be re-evaluating earlier wars, earlier claims of “humanitarian intervention”, in light of what they now know.

Given this context, something truly astonishing is revealed by media coverage of the death of Slobodan Milosevic. Because it could not be clearer from current media reporting that journalists have come to understand that the 78-day NATO bombing of Serbia from March 24 to June 10, 1999 was also based on lies. It is therefore clear to them that the government deceived the public and, once again, the media supported the deception. And yet, despite this, despite the endless horror of Iraq, journalists cannot bring themselves to expose either the earlier lies of government or their own complicity in them.

Virtually to a man and woman, journalists sold the lie to the public in 1999. This makes them complicit in the killing of 500 Serb civilians and $100 billion worth of destruction. More importantly (for the media), the lies about Kosovo provided a template and justification for the subsequent lies surrounding the “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq. An Observer editorial gives an idea of the significance, explaining that the West’s “belated response to political thuggery” in the Balkans resulted in “a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention”. It was led “at first by President Clinton over Bosnia, and again in Kosovo. The rationale behind those interventions was then invoked for the invasion of Iraq”. (Leader, ‘Let a dictator’s death remind us of the evil of unchecked nationalism,’ The Observer, March 12, 2006)

Dissident writer Alexander Cockburn translates this into meaningful English: “the legal, military and journalistic banditry that have accompanied the Iraq enterprise from the start were all field-tested in the late 1990s in the Balkans”. (Cockburn, ‘Did Milosevic or His Accusers “Cheat Justice”? The Show Trial That Went Wrong,’ CounterPunch, March 14, 2006; www.counterpunch.org)

Kosovo – Genocide It Wasn’t

Just as they knew Iraq possessed WMD in 2003, so in 1999 politicians and journalists knew exactly what the Serbs were doing in Kosovo. Bill Clinton, then President, talked of “deliberate, systematic efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide”. (John M. Broder, ‘Clinton underestimated Serbs, he acknowledges,’ New York Times, June 26, 1999)

British defence Secretary, George Robertson, insisted that intervention in Kosovo was vital to stop “a regime which is intent on genocide”. (Nic North, Kevin Maguire And Harry Arnold, ‘A pilot saved,’ Daily Mirror, March 29, 1999)

A year later, Robertson conjured up the ghost of Nazism to justify NATO’s action:

“We were faced with a situation where there was this killing going on, this cleansing going on – the kind of ethnic cleansing we thought had disappeared after the second world war. You were seeing people there coming in trains, the cattle trains, with refugees once again.” (ITV, Jonathan Dimbleby programme, June 11, 2000)

US Defence Secretary, William Cohen, claimed: “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… They may have been murdered.” (Quoted, Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Degraded Capability, Pluto Press, 2000, p.139)

Across the spectrum, the media instantly rallied to the cause. A Daily Mail news report was titled: “Flight from genocide; as half a million Kosovans flee their homes in terror from Milosevic, a haunting echo of another war 60 years ago.” (Steve Doughty, Daily Mail, March 29, 1999)

The Mirror referred to “Echoes of the Holocaust.” (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘The lies that brought hell,’ Morning Star, December 13, 2004) The News of the World declared: “The aim of this war is to stop Serbian genocide in Kosovo.” (Cited, Monitor, The Independent, April 19, 1999) A 2002 BBC documentary on the alleged Serbian genocide, ‘Exposed’, was billed as a programme marking Holocaust Memorial Day. (Exposed, BBC2, January 27, 2002)

As we will see, this constitutes a tiny sample – in fact British media were filled with hundreds of claims of genocide in Kosovo. A Lexis Nexis database search similarly showed that between 1998-1999, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time used ‘genocide’ 220 times to describe the actions of Serbia in Kosovo.

And yet, following the war, NATO sources reported that 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo on all sides in the year prior to bombing. In November 1999, the Wall Street Journal published the results of its own investigation. Instead of “the huge killing fields some investigators were led to expect… the pattern is of scattered killings (mostly) in areas where the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army had been active”.

The Journal concluded that NATO had stepped up its claims about Serb killing fields when it “saw a fatigued press corps drifting toward the contrarian story – civilians killed by NATO bombs. The war in Kosovo was cruel, bitter, savage. Genocide it wasn’t.” (Quoted, Pilger, op., cit)

In 2004, Neil Clark, a Balkans specialist, reviewed Milosevic’s trial in the Guardian, noting that the charges relating to the war in Kosovo were expected to be the strongest part of the case. But “not only has the prosecution signally failed to prove Milosevic’s personal responsibility for atrocities committed on the ground, the nature and extent of the atrocities themselves has also been called into question”. (Neil Clark, ‘The Milosevic trial is a travesty,’ The Guardian, February 12, 2004)

Philip Hammond of South Bank University summarised the extent of the political and media deception:

“We may never know the true number of people killed. But it seems reasonable to conclude that while people died in clashes between the KLA and Yugoslav forces… the picture painted by Nato – of a systematic campaign of Nazi-style ‘genocide’ carried out by Serbs – was pure invention.” (Degraded Capability, The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, edited by Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Pluto Press, 2000, p.129)

What A Difference Seven Years Make – The Genocide Disappears

Without recognising their earlier role in propagandising for war against Serbia, and without drawing attention to the implications for US-UK criminality, the media has completely re-written its own history on Milosevic. A media database search by Media Lens has failed to turn up a single example of any British journalist describing Kosovo as ‘genocide’ since Milosevic’s death.

The Sunday Express provides a typical example of the kind of language used:

“He [Milosevic] was facing 66 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity for his central role in the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo during the 1990s, in which 200,000 people died. The worst incident was the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, when an estimated 8,000 Bosnian men were murdered.“ (Tominey, ‘Milosevic cheats justice by dying in his jail cell,’ Sunday Express, March 12, 2006)

Thus, also, the Guardian website:

“Milosevic faced 66 charges including genocide in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The most egregious act committed under his watch was the Srebrenica massacre, in which up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys died.” (Guardian Unlimited, ‘Closure perhaps, but no justice,’ March 11, 2006)

It seems the earlier massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 is now Milosevic’s worst crime. Of the 1999 ‘genocide’ in Kosovo, the alleged mass slaughter of tens of thousands, there is not a word.

And yet in 1999, the Guardian’s Timothy Garton Ash observed that the Nato attack on Serbia was intended to stop “something approaching genocide“. (Garton Ash, ‘Imagine no America,’ The Guardian, September 19, 2002)

Francis Wheen ridiculed opponents of the war who believed, “that genocide is a lesser evil than bombing military installations“. (Wheen, ‘Why we are right to bomb the Serbs,‘ The Guardian, April 7, 1999)

Also in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland wrote of Milosevic‘s plan “to empty a land of its people“. (Freedland, ‘No way to spin a war,’ The Guardian, April 21, 1999)

A Guardian editorial described the war as nothing less than “a test for our generation“. (Leader, The Guardian, March 26, 1999)

This month, Ian Traynor of the Guardian wrote of Milosevic‘s death:

“… he left a legacy of more than 200,000 dead in Bosnia and 2 million people (half the population) homeless. He ethnically cleansed more than 800,000 Albanians from their homes in Kosovo”. (Ian Traynor, ’Obituary: Slobodan Milosevic,’ The Guardian, March 13, 2006)

Traynor mentions forced displacement in Kosovo, but does not mention the ‘genocide’ described by the Guardian in 1999.

Admirably, John Laughland has even noted in the Guardian how “witnesses have been trooping into The Hague for nearly two years now, testifying that there was neither genocide in Kosovo nor any plan to drive out the civilian ethnic Albanian population“. (Laughland, ‘Criminal proceedings,’ The Guardian, March 14, 2006)

But Laughland made no mention of what virtually the entire British media, including the Guardian, had been insisting just seven years earlier.

In 1999, a team of Observer reporters wrote:

“His [Slobodan Milosevic’s] troops in Serbia are out of barracks. But in Kosovo they are scouring the fields, villages and towns, pursuing their own version of a Balkan Final Solution.” (Peter Beaumont, Justin Brown, John Hooper, Helena Smith and Ed Vulliamy, ‘Hi-tech war and primitive slaughter,’ The Observer, March 28, 1999)

An Observer leader declared:

“There are already grounds for considering events in Kosovo as genocide.” (Leader, ‘Time, now, to raise the stakes,’ April 4, 1999)

Leading Observer commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, wrote of how Milosevic had “embarked on his latest campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’, that vile euphemism for genocide”. (Rawnsley, ‘You can’t deal with barbarism by washing your hands – nor by wringing them,’ The Observer, March 28, 1999)

But ‘genocide’ has now also disappeared from the Observer’s vocabulary:

“Europe and the US watched and failed to act for far too long. The consequences were the massacres of Srebrenica and Gorazde, the prolonged siege of Sarajevo and the forced displacement of a large part of Kosovo’s Albanian population.” (‘Leading article: Let a dictator’s death remind us of the evil of unchecked nationalism,’ The Observer, March 12, 2006)

Again, the emphasis is on Srebrenica. Again, the crime is “forced displacement” rather than ‘genocide’.

In 1999, David Aaronovitch – then employed by the Independent – described Serbian actions in Kosovo as “the worst crime against humanity committed in Europe since the Second World War“. (Aaronovitch, ‘The reality is that war, tragedy and incompetence go together,‘ The Independent, May 11, 1999)

In a tragicomic moment, Aaronovitch even asked:

“Is this cause, the cause of the Kosovar Albanians, a cause that is worth suffering for?… Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die?”

His answer: “I think so.“ (Aaronovitch, ‘My country needs me,’ The Independent, April 6, 1999)

And yet in reviewing the death of Milosevic in the Times last week, Aaronovitch wrote of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica:

“In front of our eyes, just about, with our full knowledge, thousands were taken to European fields – just as they had been 50 years earlier – and murdered en masse. It was the most shaming moment of my life. We had let it happen again.” (Aaronovitch, ‘The meaning of Milosevic: how the Butcher of the Balkans changed us,’ Times, March 14, 2006)

Aaronovitch made passing mention of Kosovo four times in the article, but he made no mention at all of the extent of the killing. Instead, he wrote:

“If Bosnia was the betrayal through inaction and appeasement, Srebrenica the consequence and Kosovo the determination not to let it happen again, then the line runs clear.”

But, according to Aaronovitch in 1999, Kosovo was all about the fact that “it” +had+ happened again in a more extreme form. We wrote to Aaronovitch:

“Why no mention of this, given that Kosovo was ‘the worst crime against humanity committed in Europe since the Second World War‘? Do you still believe there was a genocide in Kosovo 1998-1999? If so, what is your evidence for this?” (Email, March 14, 2006)

We have received no reply.

In 1999, Marcus Tanner wrote in the Independent:

“NATO stepped up the air war against Yugoslavia last night in what appeared a desperate race against time to stop the Serbs from committing ‘genocide’ against Albanian civilians in Kosovo.” (Tanner, ‘NATO targets troops as refugees flee genocide and tells Serbs to pull back or die,’ The Independent, March 29, 1999)

A month later, Tanner wrote:

“RTS [Radio Televisija Serbija] has turned into a vehicle that whips up genocidal passions, a vital cog in the business of psychologically preparing the entire Serbian nation for the necessity of exterminating its enemies.” (Tanner, ’I watched as “TV Slobbo” turned into voice of hate,’ The Independent, April 24, 1999)

This month, Tanner notes that in the spring of 1998 a new group, the Kosovo Liberation Army – which in fact was funded by the CIA – organised an insurrection that spread rapidly across the province:

“Milosevic responded with the ruthless brutality that had become his trademark, pouring special police units and paramilitaries into the province and burning down villages where the rebels were based.“ (Marcus Tanner, ‘Obituaries: Slobodan Milosevic,’ The Independent, March 13, 2006)

Tanner writes of how the “conflict worsened” and how “the policy of burning villages and expelling Kosovar Albanians was stepped up, massively so after Nato began air strikes” – but about the alleged “genocide” there is not one word.

Likewise, an Independent leader last week referred, not to ‘genocide’, but to “thousands killed in Kosovo and Croatia“. (‘Leader, ‘A death that cheats justice and Serbia’s democracy,’ The Independent, March 13, 2006)

The Independent on Sunday also noted blandly: “1998: Milosevic sends troops to crush uprising in Kosovo.” (‘The bloody life and times of the butcher of Belgrade,’ The Independent on Sunday, March 12, 2006)

In 1999, in an article titled, ‘Europe’s turn in the killing fields,’ Jon Swain wrote in the Sunday Times:

“The symbols of death found in Cambodia under Pol Pot are everywhere in Kosovo today – in the blackened ruins of houses where the victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ lie, in the broken and homeless people on the move in their tens of thousands.

“Only this is Europe. This continent has not seen such a procession of human misery since the end of the second world war, and for it to be allowed to happen again has diminished us all.” (Swain, ‘Europe’s turn in the killing fields,’ Sunday Times, April 4, 1999)

Last week, the same newspaper argued:

“It was only in 1998-99, when Milosevic reacted to Albanian guerrilla tactics in Kosovo with large-scale repression, that the West finally ended its long courtship and took up arms against him.“ (Brendan Simms, ’The butcher is dead,’ Sunday Times, March 12, 2006)

Again, no genocide – the description cannot be compared to the picture painted by the Sunday Times in 1999.

Conclusion – Safety In Numbers

In 1999, moving as an intellectual herd, almost all journalists portrayed Serbian actions in Kosovo as ‘genocide’ and supported military action. The Blair government needed a black and white picture of the world to generate public support for the killing. A civil war was not enough, “scattered killings” were not enough. The state needed atrocities, Nazi-style horror – it needed a ‘genocide’. And the media obliged. How ironic that politicians and journalists used comparisons with the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ to sell their war. In August 1939, one week before invading Poland, Adolf Hitler declared:

“The wave of appalling terrorism against the [minority] inhabitants of Poland, and the atrocities that have been taking place in that country are terrible for the victims, but intolerable for a Great Power which has been expected to remain a passive onlooker. We will not continue to tolerate the persecution of the minority, the killing of many, and their forcible removal under the most cruel conditions.” (Hitler, August 23, 1939, from letters sent to the UK and French governments, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, April 2003; www.swt.org/share/ancientciv.htm)

In 2006, again moving as a herd, journalists have now silently rejected their own fraudulent claims of ‘genocide’ from 1999. Moreover, they have rejected the need to examine how they got it wrong, why, what it tells us about Clinton, Blair and Bush, and, above all, what it tells us about the latest “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to David Aaronovitch
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Write to Timothy Garton Ash
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Write to Jonathan Freedland
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Write to Peter Beaumont
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Write to Andrew Rawnsley
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Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:
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Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:
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Writ to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer
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