Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia & Bosnia-Hercegovina

Mark Thompson

This is a remarkable book which chronicles the media propaganda which prepared the populations of ex-Yugoslavia for war in their front yards. Forging War, William Shawcross notes in the introduction, is not a typical Article 19 report: "It is a detailed and often horrifying account of how, throughout the fall and destruction of former Yugoslavia, propaganda and lies have been amongst the most potent weapons of the Serbian and Croatian governments." In Belgrade, it enabled the Serb authorities to encourage all Serbs to see themselves as the tragic, blameless scapegoats in an international conspiracy to destroy the Serb people and their homeland. In Croatia it permitted the government to portray itself (falsely) as the last bastion of Western "democratic" values, while it enabled the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnia to present itself as an innocent victim, which it has not always been.

All over the troubled country the only source of uncensored news is from foreign satellite television. Yet, these are vital but inconstant sources of information which cannot counterbalance the constant barrage of local propaganda. The book serves as a warning of the terrible, destructive power of incitement to ethnic hatred which the mass media can unleash on a population when they are controlled by nationalist governments. It has been written by Mark Thompson on the basis of interviews with staff in the three republics, and on reports and documents about the media in the former Yugoslavia.

The book consists of five chapters. The first one, entitled "The Media in Former Yugoslavia," extends my 1977 description of the Yugoslav media situation as presented in Tito's Maverick Media. It details the deterioration of media organization after Tito's death in the early 1980s and explains how the seeds for nationalist control were laid by the Communist party which merely papered over the regional controversies through central control over the means of communication.

Chapter 2, "The Pan-Yugoslav News Media," analyzes in detail how the unified information space created by three pan-Yugoslav media organizations was undermined in 1990-91. Among these were Tanjug, the national news agency; Borba, the Belgrade party newspaper; and Yutel, a short-lived television station. All three were systematically undermined by the three republican leaderships in their preparation for electoral campaigns.

Chapter 3, "Serbia Sets the Pace," provides an account of the legislation which curtailed media autonomy in Serbia both formally and informally. It then describes in detail the Politika newspaper organization and how it lost its journalistic integrity through indirect means like the scarcity of newsprint and interference in the appointment of its chief editor. Various political events such as the coverage of the Serb rebellion in Croatia, the internal opposition, and Slovenia's independence are content analyzed to demonstrate the increasingly propagandistic slant of reporting. Similar analyses are offered for television coverage of the Vance-Owen plan and other issues, demonstrating that by the outbreak of aggression, stridency and misrepresentation had won the day.

Chapter 4, "Croatia Catches Up," follows a similar pattern, describing government control practices over the media in Croatia, privatization, and the changing role of journalists. Here again, television, the major papers like Vjesnik, and the regional and local press are separately described. There are also separate sections on radio and magazines. Each of these chapters ends with a conclusion which summarizes the salient differences between the different propaganda styles in Serbia and Croatia.

Chapter 5, "Bosnia-Hercegovina Left Behind," provides a picture of the communications breakdown resulting from the rotating government representing the three ethnic groups in the republic: Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, none of whom had a majority. Media ownership and reporting practices became more and more polarized with time, until they ended up providing the hate propaganda which laid the groundwork for the republic's demise and the ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out by its warlords.

The book is well organized and the arguments clearly stated. They are backed by innumerable sources which only a person on the spot could have collected. Tables and graphs provide important statistics on the systematic dismantling of the media and first-hand accounts add telling detail to the impossible situation of maintaining, let alone defining, "objectivity" in this kind of a journalistic situation. The book thus provides a horrifying "limiting case" of the kinds of issues which media in East Central Europe are facing daily. It is a "must read" for media scholars interested in media democratization and comparative analysis.

Gertrude J. Robinson, McGill University