|OFF THE AIR|
May 4, 1999
Are NATO air strikes of Serbian media outlets justified or are the attacks a violation of the Geneva Convention and a threat to journalists? Media correspondent Terence Smith and guests discuss.
TERENCE SMITH: Another night of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia, another strike against Serbian television and radio facilities.
SPOKESMAN: And last night, more bombing in Novi Sad, this time a Serbian TV antenna and building.
TERENCE SMITH: RTS, Serbia's radio and television network, has been knocked off the air by allied aircraft repeatedly over the last two weeks. NATO's rationale for the attacks is that the stations are what it calls "principal instruments" of the Milosevic war machine, and, therefore, fair game. Spokesman Jamie Shea justified the strikes during the NATO summit in Washington.
|NATO: "RTS is not media."|
JAMIE SHEA: RTS is not media. It's full of government employees who are paid to produce propaganda and lies. To call it media is totally misleading. And therefore, we see that as a military target. It is the same thing as a military propaganda machine integrated into the armed forces. We would never target legitimate, free media.
TERENCE SMITH: The strikes have not been without casualties. The April 23 attack on RTS studios in Belgrade killed at least 11 people. RTS has been virtually the only means western broadcast journalists could use to transmit pictures from Yugoslavia. Now broadcasters must ferry tape out of the country to be transmitted. The Serbs exercise absolute control over what is seen, heard and taped.
SPOKESPERSON: We can't videotape anywhere without a police escort.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite the bombing, Serbian television has managed to continue transmitting its own images of the situation in Yugoslavia. These, in turn, are being picked up and replayed by many international news organizations. US and European broadcasters and advocacy groups have protested the bombing of media targets as a violation of the Geneva Convention and a threat to journalists of all nationalities.
TERENCE SMITH: The debate over targeting Serb TV continues with retired Marine General Richard Neal, who was deputy for operations at the US Central Command during the Gulf War, and with Robert Leavitt, associate director of the New York University's Center for War, Peace and the News Media. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Robert Leavitt, is NATO justified in striking Serbian television and radio?
ROBERT LEAVITT: No, I don't think so. There really are two reasons here that we need to think about. The first is that this is really a deliberate targeting of civilians, which is questionable in any circumstance. This is not a military target, no matter what NATO says. The second is that it really creates a very dangerous precedent with regard to freedom of the press. Once we start defining journalists as legitimate targets, it becomes very hard for us to criticize any other attacks on media, including those of Milosevic himself on his own independent media.
TERENCE SMITH: General Neal, do you agree with that as deliberate targeting of civilians?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: No, I don't. I think it was brought up during one of the telecasts on your show telling about these are government employees, schooled in the art of disinformation and misinformation. They're a propaganda tool that's been used to Milosevic's advantage to keep the populous in support of him and giving only one side of what's going on in the war. I think also it's a little bit disingenuous by Bob to talk about the deliberate targeting turning against the media on a routine basis. Obviously target selection has been very carefully scrutinized by 19 countries, not one country. And it took the vote of those 19 to determine that this was a legitimate military target, giving military advantage to Milosevic's forces. And they took away that advantage by striking those targets.
TERENCE SMITH: Mr. Leavitt, what about that? Does it matter to you if these are, in effect, paid propagandous, arms and employees of the government?
ROBERT LEAVITT: Well, most of the people in Serbia are employed by the government. Most of the people working for Radio TV Serbia are regular people who are doing their jobs, many of them don't like Milosevic, many of them don't like what they're doing. It's a whole media operation that does include some very nasty propaganda. And yet this is really crossing a dangerous line.
TERENCE SMITH: General Neal, what about the point of crossing the line? Where is the line? In other words, are schools a target because they educate people who might fight? Are hospitals? Where is the line?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: No, I think the lines are very carefully drawn. And I think I would add that they're a case-by-case basis. In this particular case, the target list had been reviewed and discussed at great length from what I'm told. Basically that line is drawn that, in fact, doesn't give the opposing side, the enemy as NATO and the US call it right now, Milosevic's forces, he's crossed the line by using the media to his advantage. We're only getting -- the people of Bosnia are only getting one side of the story, of Yugoslavia are only getting one side of the story. And I think that's critically important to remember. Our press are not able to wander freely about the battlefield and to report both sides of the story. They only get one side. And that's the side that the Yugoslav forces want to send out of country.
TERENCE SMITH: But isn't that usually the case in a country at war, General?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: I'm having trouble with my ear piece but I think, as you say, there's restricted targets that are not allowed to be struck. They're carefully crafted -- schools, historical sites, hospitals. All of those things are on restricted target lists. Obviously the enemy uses that to their advantage. They know that in fact NATO and US forces are very concerned about collateral damage and so they take into serious consideration what targets to strike, are they of military advantage, and only after they've passed that litmus test are they really then put on the target list to be struck.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Mr. Leavitt, you were talking before about a precedent, a dangerous precedent from your point of view. Are you concerned that journalists per se become targets?
|A dangerous precedent?|
| ROBERT LEAVITT: Yes. We know journalists are targets in
many countries. They have been in Serbia, independent Serbian media. We
really need to do everything we can to support freedom of the press. There
is an active debate about whether there are some incredibly extreme situations,
perhaps in Rwanda during the genocide there where journalists actually
have been indicted by the international tribunal for inciting genocide
-- they have not ruled on that yet. And I don't think you can really look
at what's happening in Serbia in that way. Certainly the media is propagandistic,
it has been a very destructive force. And yet it's very difficult to draw
a line and say that this is no longer media. There are many governments
around the world who are very happy now that NATO has said it's legitimate
to target journalists. And they will be doing that in the future.
TERENCE SMITH: General Neal, what about that standard? Who is to determine -- after all, a one man's propaganda is another man's information.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: I don't think NATO has said that now it's legitimate to target media. I think they have very carefully crafted the explanation that this is not media, that it's in fact a tool of Milosevic's government to control the activities of its citizens and to make sure he keeps the morale high for the folks down in Kosovo province that are wrecking havoc among the Albanian population. I don't think that these people or this institution falls under what I would call a classic definition of media.
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder -- Mr. Leavitt, go ahead. I'm sorry.
ROBERT LEAVITT: Well, I was going to say, you know, Jamie Shea in your lead-in peace here said we would never target free, legitimate media. I think it's very difficult to take on that power to say we will define what is legitimate media. We really need to do everything we can to support independent media, to really take the opposite tack here; instead of bombing media as we've done, do as much as we can do build up independent and alternative media, if we're worried about the effect of that media.
TERENCE SMITH: General Neal, the classic professional to propaganda is to counter it with more information, more reporting. Why wouldn't that work?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Well, we've done some more reporting. We've had some different aircraft that are used to get some of the word out down to the province and also into Yugoslavia airspace. But I think basically if we don't control the medium that is disseminating the information out to the Yugoslav people so that they can determine which is the right side and which is the wrong side, instead they get a constant feed of rhetoric from the Milosevic government that is saying that NATO is the threat, that NATO is the enemy, that there's nothing going on down in Kosovo, a few isolated incidents. If this is media, then I'm afraid we've got a contradiction in terms as far as I'm concerned.
TERENCE SMITH: Mr. Leavitt, is there, in your view, any danger of a backlash here? In other words, if the people don't know what's going on, if they can't see what's going on in their country, the Yugoslav people, I wonder how that might affect their attitude towards the government.
ROBERT LEAVITT: Well, what we've seen so far is a growing support for Milosevic, unfortunately. I mean, that's been the predominant effect of the bombing. And I think bombing media will only add to that. The media in Serbia, the state media, is not directly contributing to the war in a military sense. Certainly it's giving a distorted view of what's happening. But, look, you know, there are a lot of sophisticated people in Belgrade who can watch CNN, who can watch BBC; they think they're seeing propaganda from the US and Britain. And so, again, you know, propaganda is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. I think the backlash really is against NATO. That's the result of this.
TERENCE SMITH: One question, General Neal, goes to the effectiveness of the bombing of these television and radio installations. Generally they've only been off for a few hours and then they're back on the air. They seem to be multiple transmission points. Is it doable?
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Is it doable to knock out the transmission?
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Well, obviously it's a challenge and obviously they have redundant systems that allow them to come back up on line fairly quickly. But I think the message is being sent. When the postmortems are done on this campaign, there might be soul searching saying perhaps the phase three, as they call it, might have been more appropriate early on. I think there was a lot of hope that a few bombs or a few activities on the part of NATO forces might bring Milosevic to the peace table. Right now the people in Belgrade, they haven't got a clear picture of what's going on down in Kosovo because of the "media's" lack of legitimate reporting. And so the only way I hope the BBC is getting through - I hope that CNN is getting through and that the Belgrade population, mostly the intelligentsia are getting a feed of what's really going on and hopefully, they will bring pressure to bear on Milosevic.
TERENCE SMITH: From international broadcasting. Okay, gentlemen, thank you both very much.
GEN. RICHARD NEAL: Yes, sir.
ROBERT LEAVITT: Thank you.