‘REPORTING THE TRUTH ABOUT KOSOVO’
SPEECH BY THE PRIME MINISTER, TONY BLAIR, TO THE NEWSPAPER SOCIETY
ANNUAL LUNCH, LONDON, MONDAY 10 MAY 1999
Of course the major preoccupation of politicians and media alike in recent weeks has been the Kosovo crisis.
As I have said before, the responsibility of asking servicemen and women to risk their lives is one that any Prime Minister takes very seriously indeed. You do not do it unless you think it through and you believe it to be right. [A minuscule risk considering that NATO’s fighting was high altitude bombing and missiles fired from afar. NATO had one fatality in the war – and that was from an accident]
Every single political leader in the NATO Alliance has thought it through and believes it to be right. The longer it goes on, and the more we hear of the nature of the Milosevic regime and the atrocities committed, the more convinced I become of the rightness of our course. Our aims have been clear throughout. His troops must get out, and the refugees must be allowed home in safety under an international military force. These are basic minimum demands and they will be met. [NATO members didn’t think very hard – they signed up for illegal aggression against a sovereign state entirely on the basis of unproven claims and propaganda]
This is the media age, the era of 24-hour news, in which events are subject to instant and relentless analysis and commentary. As the politicians who ultimately take the decisions to send our forces into battle, it is absolutely right that we are subject to such analysis – something which President Milosevic does not agree with, but then that is one of the many distinctions between dictatorship and democracy. [Milosevic won elections organised and monitored by the international community which were judged to have met all the appropriate standards]
This is largely presented as a two-sided conflict – NATO versus Milosevic. But it is not as simple as that. There is a third party, the Kosovar Albanians, and for various reasons, they are in danger of being overlooked and sidelined in the media. That is not to say there has not been some powerful reporting on the refugees. There has. There was one such piece on the radio this morning. There have been many others and they have helped our public understand why we are engaged in the way that we are. [The problem with uncorroborated refugee testimony is that it very often turns out to be untrue or greatly exaggerated. This has been the case for many decades, but has become even more powerful with the advent of digital communication and social media]
But when I visited Macedonia last week, one of the TV reporters there told a member of my staff that he was really pleased we went. My visit, he said, meant there was a chance of him getting a report on the news that night. He’d been struggling in recent days. His news desk had told him that ‘refugee fatigue’ was setting in.
Refugee fatigue. In other words, once you’ve reported one mass rape, the next one’s not so newsworthy. See one mass grave, you’ve seen the lot. This is a dangerous path, and it is one that benefits the Serbs. The reporter said the story told by the refugees became repetitive. That is because the Serbs follow a pattern. News doesn’t like patterns. It likes news. [‘Refugee fatigue’ sets in because the stories are hugely repetitive. The same words, the same incidents are bound to lose their impact, particularly when they are entirely uncorroborated. In the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, The Hague Tribunal claimed that it would substantiate its case solely with evidence from the Kosovo war. After some 3 years, it found it couldn’t do this and had to persuade the judges that it should be given further time to bring evidence from the Bosnian war. But here again they got nowhere]
Please understand that this is not an attack on the media but a plea for understanding of the full picture, despite – through no fault of your own – your limited access to it.
For the Serbs also benefit from the fact that there is no media access to Kosovo, and I fully understand why most journalists would not want to risk even trying to get in there.
But just as we should be alert to the dangers of refugee fatigue, so we must resist the notion that unless something is on film, it’s not news. No pictures, no news. [What was needed was real evidence to support specific allegations. This was never forthcoming because no professional independent investigations were ever carried out by The Hague Tribunal or anyone else. The narrative of the Balkan conflicts was created by US and other intelligence services and media reporting. Even the so-called professional organisation in charge of gathering scientific and DNA evidence was a sham. It has never produced any of its primary evidence for independent scrutiny and never will, thanks to legislation giving it complete immunity from all requests to do so. The Hague tribunal, of course, saw no problem in admitting its ‘evidence’ as established fact on the basis of a written report of its conclusions]
We live in a democracy. We take freedom of speech and freedom of the press, for granted. Whatever your criticisms, I defend your right to make them. The Serb media is State-controlled. It is part and parcel of Milosevic’s military machine. Critical editors are shot. Independent radio stations are shut down. Western journalists are censored and restricted and the bland ‘reporters are subject to certain restrictions’ at the beginning or end of their reports does not really convey the full nature of those restrictions. [Contrary to myth, Radio Television Serbia was noted for surprisingly balanced coverage during the Kosovo war. Unlike NATO, it revised casualty totals downwards if new information emerged. Unlike NATO, it did not make false and exaggerated claims. The restrictions placed on foreign journalists operating within Serbia were far from draconian. Serbia also had quite numerous independent newspapers and broadcasters]
If reporters are only allowed to see what the Serbs want, and if their reports are censored, then it is very hard, if not impossible, to be genuinely authoratitive. If a bomb goes astray, and hits a residential area, or the Chinese Embassy is mistakenly attacked, then I’m not going to pretend that is not news. It is.
But if these are the only scenes reporters are allowed to see and this becomes the only news they report, then it is far from being the whole picture. Several thousand bombs have been used in the campaign. A very small proportion have gone astray. We regret, genuinely, the loss of civilian life, the pain and hurt they cause. But of course the Serbs only show you the damage they want you to see. [Only 2% of NATO’s ‘smart’ bombs hit military targets. When NATO had one of its many ‘accidents’, their invariable response was, initially, to deny everything and only correct this days or weeks later when contrary evidence became irresistible]
The fact that the media is not inside Kosovo in my view increases, rather than lessens, the responsibility to try to find out what is going on in there.
And as refugees are the prime source, then surely we need to be extra vigilant not to fall victim to ‘refugee fatigue’.
There have been civilian deaths in Belgrade, yes. But how does it compare to 1.5 million people driven from their homes? 100,000 men aged 15-55 missing? The systematic rape? The mass graves? The executions? People forced to bury their dead, and then murdered and – thrown in on top? [No evidence has ever emerged to support any of these propaganda claims. The United Nations, with many staff present in Kosovo throughout the bombing campaign, reported a final figure for war fatalities on all sides of 4,000 and said that half of this total related to deaths caused by the NATO bombing.]
If the cameras were in there, able to see these things, the world would see a very different situation to the one being reported.
The conflict does not begin or end on a TV screen. You may be wondering why I have a map of Kosovo behind me, and what it shows.
It shows 20 incidents, all since early March, in which more than 100 people have been killed, or 1000 or more displaced from towns and villages inside Kosovo.
The numbers of dead run into thousands; the number displaced tens of thousands. We published the map last week. It made very little impact.’No pictures, no news’. But I believe the fact that there are no pictures is part of the story. And it is a story that has to be told, day after day, pictures or no pictures. [If real evidence of their allegations had been found, does anyone believe that the western allies would not have found a way to provide access to western media reporters?]
These are real places, real people. Real stories of burnt villages, devastated families, lootings, robberies, beatings, mass executions. [Not a single mass grave was found in Kosovo by international forensic teams that arrived there within days of the end of the war. Nor did they find any evidence of mass executions. They left saying they had been brought there under false pretences]
These people are the reason we are engaged and the fact that we cannot see them makes us more determined to get in there and give them the help they need. This is more than a map. It is a montage of murder.
Of course we regret the loss of civilian life in Nis and at the Chinese Embassy. Every single one of them. But are these tens of thousands of lives inside Kosovo worth less because there happens to be no film of them? Are they non-people not worth a studio discussion simply because CNN and the BBC and the rest cannot get in on the ground? [Evidence, real evidence, must always be the foundation of any judgement that atrocities have taken place. If there is no attempt to carry out objective investigations, that strongly suggests that there was little confidence that real evidence would be found]
Few of us have even heard of Orlate. Look at the map. ‘Village set on fire after 200 executions’. Is that not a story of horrific proportions? Was that news? Shouldn’t it be?
Or Malakrusa? Did that get much coverage when we published the map, or at any time before and since? ‘112 men shot – bodies burnt to conceal evidence’. No pictures, no news.
These deaths are not the unintended consequences of military action. They are acts of policy. Deliberate. Systematic. And evil.
By controlling the media in Belgrade, or by keeping them out of Kosovo, Milosevic hopes that we will be lulled; that if you see no evil, you will speak no evil. But you can hear of the evil, and the voices telling of it, the Kosovar Albanians have as much right to be heard as the Serb ministers or the indicted war criminals who can get themselves out on screen whenever they want. Indeed, I would say they have more of a right. [The Kosovo Albanians were heard incessantly throughout the war on all western media. UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gave KLA leader Hacim Thaci a state-of-the art satellite phone so that he could pass on directly to Cook any information on claimed Serbian outrages.
If I mention ‘the convoy attack’ you know what I mean, because the story ran for days. If I mention 20,000 taken prisoner in Srbica, 50,000 expelled from Pec, 270 killed in Izbica, it won’t have quite the same resonance. [The story of the convoy attack was true and supported by evidence. The others were not]
No pictures, no news. But these people are the victims of the most appalling acts of barbarism and cruelty Europe has seen since World War 2. We teach our children never to forget what happened in that war. We must not allow ourselves to become sensitised to accept what is happening in Kosovo today. [We know now that the ‘appalling acts of barbarism and cruelty did not take place. We also know that the KLA set up a organ-trafficking business involving the murder of captured Serbians and the extraction of their organs]
I believe that the vast majority of the readers of your newspapers understand why we are engaged in this conflict. They understand too that in conflicts like this, innocent people will be hurt. Like me, they regret that.
But provided the full story of the conflict continues to be told I have no doubt that because of their basic decency, and their basic common sense, the British people will maintain their support for what we are doing until the job is done.
And the job will be done. Of that I am in no doubt whatever. We have taken down Milosevic’s air defences. We have done huge damage to the infrastructure that supports his regime, the fuel dumps and refineries that keep his artillery and tanks on the move; the bridges, railways and roads he needs to supply his forces; the power plants; the high command in Belgrade who are directing the ethnic cleansing on the ground. [It was no big deal for a huge western military alliance to destroy the air defences of a small, impoverished country like Serbia. The ‘huge damage’ done to Serbia’s infrastructure was in the early 1990s independently estimated by foreign think tanks as $50-100 billion]
And with all that done, we are doing more and more damage to the ethnic cleansers themselves. They are increasingly cut off inside Kosovo. Supplies, food and fuel are scarce. They have no air cover and proper accommodation. They are pinned down; unable to move freely, busy repairing the damage we have done. [As it turned out, no ethnic cleansing had taken place. The Serbian forces in Kosovo were protecting the integrity of the sovereign Serbian state against the invasion of Kosovo by a KLA army trained and armed by the western powers and Arab states in the early months of 1998. The west had no legal or moral basis for intervening in any way]
I made a pledge to those refugees. I intend to deliver. Refugee fatigue may have set in with some TV stations, but it will not set in with me until the refugees are home.
Our objectives are clear. And they must and will be met. And to achieve them, far from slowing down, we will intensify our attacks upon Milosevic’s military machine until he accepts what he knows, what I know, what every NATO and Serb Commander knows – that he cannot win and that NATO will prevail.