Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999

W A R   I N   K O S O V O:
A Victory for the Media?
Part I: The Construction of a Conflict

Marina Blagojevic

Coming from Belgrade, where I have lived almost all my life, including during the catastrophic 1990s, I have learned very clearly that war can be created almost anywhere, at almost any time. I have also learned another absurd but nevertheless true lesson - that the lower the probability of war, the easier the possibility of manufacturing it, because of the absence of systemic and structural mechanisms to prevent it.

This was, I believe, the situation in all of the ex-Yugoslav wars. They happened exactly because they did not need to happen, in a vacuum of determinism which gave too much authority to the power-holders, while at the same time producing disbelief, confusion and distrust on the part of those who were powerless and predominately victimised. Wars (one war or several?) in ex-Yugoslavia have been the wars of "states-to-be" against society. The problem has been the existence of too many "states-to-be" and only one society which "needed to be" ripped apart. The winners are the states, small and caricatured, and the political elites and war-profiteers. The loser is society, artificially and painfully sacrificed for "higher" national goals.

Post-factum explanations of those tragic wars start with the self-validating assumption that they were logical, determined and therefore explicable. But for the vast majority of people living in ex-Yugoslavia, back in the late 80s and early 90s, wars were not expected, not logical and not justified.

The greater the lack of a rationale for the wars to occur, the greater the media activity in inventing one. In fact, the media played an absolutely key role in preparing the population for war. They fed the collective consciousness with reasoning, explanations and justification of the necessity and inevitability of war, along with dubious ethical prevarication. The weaker the "real" reasons were, the stronger the war propaganda.

It would be logical to expect that real reasons for ethnic wars would be based on religious tensions and/or discrimination. Yet, neither of these existed to any substantial degree in ex-Yugoslavia, certainly not in comparison with any Western democracy. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, the population was primarily atheistic, and discrimination against minority ethnic groups in each of the republics - or provinces - was extremely weak (with the exception of Kosovo, where, from the 70s on, the non-Albanian population was exposed to extensive discrimination by the Albanian administration and the Albanian population in general).

In fact, data from the 1981 census demonstrated convincingly that almost nowhere in ex-Yugoslavia did individual upward mobility depend on ethnic origin (Blagojevic, 1989). For the majority of the population, regardless of ethnic origin, there was a high probability that - until the end of the 80s - an individual born after the Second World War could live the whole of his or her life without experiencing ethnic or religious discrimination or prejudice. This was especially true in urban settings, of which Sarajevo was a prime example.

While the society of ex-Yugoslavia was largely free of ethnic tensions, the restructuring from federation to confederation, starting with the Constitution of 1974, led to the empowerment of ethnic and national elites. The economic crisis of the 1980s predictably added to ethnic tensions, in a manner similar to societal patterns found in other cultures. As the size of the cake was shrinking, competition for the pieces was growing.

The pressures within ex-Yugoslavia were also substantially influenced from the outside - both by international monetary institutions and especially by the rapidly changing context of European integration. In the latter case, the inclusion of some strongly emphasised the exclusion of others. In the context of ex-Yugoslavia, nationalism was emerging as a synthesis of anti-Communist fervour on the one hand and blame-the-victim and scapegoat ideologies on the other.

The "other" was virtually an overnight invention. It is not that the "other" did not exist before, but no context had existed to support the wide acceptance and justification of animosity, discrimination and aggression towards "otherness." Although both the nationalists and other disappointed and nostalgic ex-Yugoslavs consider the slogan of "brotherhood and unity" a self-deluding relic of Communist ideology, the fact is that "brotherhood and unity" were experienced, practiced and believed in and were at least as real then as nationalism is now.

In the 80s, according to many surveys, ethnic distancing was increasing, permeating mainly from "above," from the level of the ethnic elites, but also reactivating some "archeological" buried layers of negative collective memories. The growth of ethnic distance was clearly demonstrated in the decline in the number of inter-ethnic marriages. At the same time, the process was expressed by a kind of "empty hatred"; devoid of content, stereotypes and prejudices - more a simple feeling of alienation.

At the end of the 80s, hatred existed, prompted by harsh economic realities and the impoverishment of the population, but other justification was still absent. It was a difficult feat to invent, in a short period of time, these stereotypes and prejudices - against one's own neighbours, cousins and friends. Therefore, historical "explanations" of eternal hatreds were activated, reinforced by a set of old and new narratives. Generally, these narratives had four main refrains:

  • victimisation (we are the only victims)
  • hierarchisation of victimisation (we are the greater victims)
  • justification of revenge (we are getting back at them for what they did to us)
  • "preventative aggression" (if we do not do it to them, they will do it to us).

Narratives based on hostilities which had lain dormant since the Second World War were reactivated, recycled and, through the media, regurgitated under the rubric of undeniable historical truths. They gradually superseded all other problems related to "real life": hunger, poor health, poor education, unemployment and housing - to name but a few.

Construction of a conflict

There is a vague and porous boundary between the political manipulation of conflict in the specific interests of concrete social actors, the promotion of conflict by the media and its justification by "scientific" interpretation and prediction. The initiation and orchestration of conflict are two sides of a coin, which I would classify as "ethnic hostility/conflict-making." While the instigation of conflict takes place at the level of real interests and a clear cost-benefit analysis and is undertaken by those who are major decision-makers, the actualisation of conflict relies on its self-justificationon and the prior preparation of fertile ground.

At the end of the 20th century, the media's role in encapsulating "reality" necessarily includes the promulgation of ethnic conflict and war, although on its own it does not create sufficient pre-conditions for war to occur. The media's key role in self-justification of conflict lies in defining it as "necessary," "unavoidable," "normal," "predetermined" - even "justified" and "moral." The media thereby create a broad consensus through a wide range of "pro-war" arguments. Without this mobilisation of propaganda through the media, ethnic conflict and war simply would not make sense for most of the social actors - who are almost always also the main losers. Without this media promotion of war, which exhorts a collective readiness to victimise (others) and to sacrifice (oneself), there would be no driving force, no logic, no inevitability to the conflict.

In ex-Yugoslavia, the media basically had two different roles, similar in nature but with different consequences. The first was related to the slow but steady deconstruction of ex-Yugoslav commonalities and the promotion of divisive ethnic cultures. This fulfilled the necessary condition for defining difference, and later justifying separation and antagonism. The second role was to add to that matrix of non-negotiable differences the seeds of hate and to create demands that "something must be done" - thereby later justifying concrete political acts and military actions.

Paradoxically, this same pattern can be detected when analysing, for example, the approach of CNN; one sees both the creation of the same matrix, the "otherness" of the Balkans, as well as the creation of the pressure that "something must be done," with little consideration - even active disregard - of the consequences. Both of these roles, that of creating a certain matrix and of exerting pressure, can be clearly demonstrated in any extensive analysis of media content.

One of the most puzzling questions in relation to the media's engagement in war is: who is controlling whom? Are the media acting independently in promoting war, according to their own interests, or are they in fact just one of the strings that the power-holders pull when they need to? It seems that both possibilities may be true.

However, since the Gulf War, the media have become increasingly more independent and influential in pursuing their own interests of prestige and profit-making. There has been a profound change in the role of the media in relation to conflict, which has not yet been sufficiently analysed nor understood. In a dominant worldwide media culture of violence and ggression, war itself is becoming an important source of profit for the media.

In the Kosovo conflict, three sides were clearly involved: the Serbs, the Kosovo Albanians and NATO. Though nominally representing positions of different political and cultural interests, there were striking similarities between the media of all three, which clearly suggests that the media can be considered as a single, specific element of the conflict.

The commonalities in media strategies of promoting the conflict demonstrate that "conflict-making" is an intrinsic component that represents the very nature of international media as it exists at the end of the 20th century. Understanding how the media helps to prepare the pre-conditions for conflict that make it possible and probable may lead us to seriously consider demanding a different role for media in the future.

Marina Blagojevic
Faculty of Philosophy
University of Belgrade, Belgrade
Collegium Budapest, Budapest

In the coming weeks, we will examine in detail how both the Serbian and the Western media went about constructing the Kosovo conflict and manufacturing a new reality and will discover a striking similarity in the mechanisms employed.

Next week: Serbia: A clear-cut case




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