Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999

W A R   I N   K O S O V O:
A Victory for the Media?
Part 3: Western media: Professional invention of reality

Marina Blagojevic

Click HERE for the first installment in this three-part series, Part 1: The construction of a conflict.

Click HERE for the second, Part 2: Serbia: a clear-cut case.

For someone who was trying to protect herself from the polluting and destructive influence of state media in Serbia, experiencing the Western media's interpretation of the Kosovo conflict and the NATO "action" was a numbing and shocking experience. The very first night of the war, I found myself in a confusing multiplicity of diverse roles: I was an observer watching a spectacle - which is what it was meant to be - of the NATO bombing of my native city, Belgrade; I was a daughter talking with my mother on the phone at the same time that the bombing was taking place and, naturally, crying in panic; I was a sociologist, trying to analyse the course of a conflict which I had personally anticipated for several years (Blagojevic,1995); I was also an activist in the feminist and peace movements, who felt defeated by the very first Western bombs and was suddenly confronted with the "other face" of Western democracy; I was a Fellow at Collegium Budapest, in a formerly "friendly" country which had become a NATO member just a few days before the war; finally, overnight, I also became "an intellectual in exile," perhaps, along with my daughter, even a refugee.

The confused shock in which I found myself was further heightened by the events of the following day, technically the first day of the war. I was to give my final lecture to the students of the Minority Studies Program at ELTE, during which I discussed the students' projects on "Media Construction of the Kosovo Conflict." A few hours later, I held an open lecture at CEU with the title: "Towards a Visible Women's History: The Women's Movement in Belgrade in the 90s," explaining how developed the women's movement was and what kind of efforts were being made to create a civil society in Serbia. All these pieces of my personal reality, interwoven with the intense historical drama of the moment, made my own life almost unreal.

I spent the next three weeks mostly watching CNN and EURONEWS, giving a number of interviews to different media and using the Internet to receive and forward information on "the other side of the coin." I felt the consequences of the media's engagement in conflict-making personally and directly, while simultaneously I was trying to utilise the power of the media for purposes in which I passionately believed. As I have never thought that "my" truth excludes "yours," I did not find it difficult or unethical to speak about the suffering of the other side. In fact, I firmly believed, and still do, that balance is needed. Balance is the only remedy for the radicalisation which produced the conflict in the first place. The media should be held responsible for maintaining this healthy balance, instead of feeding extremism.

Are the Western media balanced and objective? My answer is clear and unequivocal: no. The Western media were deeply involved in the conduct of the ex-Yugoslav conflicts and bear considerable responsibility for the confusing, inconsistent and counterproductive measures of their respective governments.

Allocating sole blame to the media would be unjust. However, to fail to identify their devastating role and to ignore the manipulation employed in the promulgation of "media truth," of media-constructed "para-reality," which was then accepted as a template for "real" reality, would be immoral, shortsighted and dangerous.

The Gulf War was the first postmodern war in which the role played by the media was an essential aspect of "reality"; the Kosovo war, is (so far) the most recent one.

The Western media's manipulation of the conflict relied on a series of mechanisms, not entirely original but deployed in a previously unprecedented pattern and with an unprecedented intensity. In isolation, none of these mechanisms would be capable of producing "the wrong picture," but in combination, they succeeded in creating an intensive justification of the NATO war against Yugoslavia.

Similar strategies were widely employed by the Serbian media (and most probably by the Albanian media as well), but in comparison with the Western media, their lower level of professionalism made them less convincing. The seductive quasi-objectivity of Western media is far more dangerous than the blatant, crude, primitive propaganda of Serbian state television.

Exactly what mechanisms were used by the Western media in constructing ethnic conflict? I believe they can be divided into the following categories:

Fragmentation of truth

The Kosovo conflict was represented through fragments of the truth, which justified the initial assumption of Serbian guilt. Important aspects such as the pre-war Serbian migration from Kosovo under Albanian pressure, the high level of support for secession among the Albanians, the Albanian refusal to vote against Milosevic and aggressive actions by the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), which could have assisted in creating a more balanced view of the problem, were simply ignored.

Reduction and oversimplification

Explanation of the conflict was largely reduced to the - very superficially treated - political aspect and ignored the much wider social context of the ethnic conflict.

Ethnic conflict in Kosovo has occurred many times throughout history, under very different social conditions. The latest stage of conflict is related to the process of ethnic-state development in ex-Yugoslavia and also to the economic under-development of Kosovo, exacerbated by explosive population growth (the highest in Europe, higher than in Albania). The Albanian community of Kosovo functioned, and still functions, according to a system of pre-modern, traditional regulation, which has very specific effects on social organisation, including the range of individual political choices. The power of collectivity has not been as strong anywhere else in ex-Yugoslavia as it has in the Albanian community.

Oversimplification, leading to the identification of "good-guys" and "bad-guys," finally resulted in the cynical promotion of the KLA as the legitimate "representatives" of the Albanian population of Kosovo and in their becoming the most important partner of NATO in resolving the Kosovo issue.

The recognition now, after the war, of the relevance of economic factors is a kind of moral cynicism; what is now - after the devastation - regarded as normal and essential investment in the development of the region, and especially of Kosovo, was not imaginable as a preventative action prior to the conflict.

De-historicisation and false historicisation

The complex, shifting ethnic conflict in Kosovo resembles the movement in historical time of a pendulum whose swing determines that a particular moment in time defines who is the victim and who the victimiser. Once President Milosevic had been cast in the role of villain by the Western media, a veritable metaphor for ultimate evil (in exactly the same manner as with Sadam Hussein), a black-and-white context, was established, within which it was easy to demonstrate the absolute guilt of the Serbs and the absolute innocence of the Albanians.

The starting point most commonly used for this analysis was the elimination of widespread Albanian autonomy in Kosovo, a simplified view which is acceptable as long as it strategically ignores the expulsion of the non-Albanian population which had taken place during the period of autonomy. The selection of a starting point of explanation carries within itself the consequent judgment.

False historicisation is usually linked to Serbian "historical claims" over Kosovo, thereby representing the Serbs as completely irrational people "stuck" in a six-century-old myth. The fact that Kosovo is a part of Serbian state territory, that it contains much Serbian investment, that many Serbs were (are?) still living in Kosovo and that it is the home of valuable monasteries, recognised as part of the world cultural heritage, was simply ignored, while non-Serbian rational interests were acknowledged and respected.

De-contextualisation and false contextualisation

Ethnic conflict always takes place within a specific context. Just as the selection of a starting-point influences judgment, the selected context influences perspective. What, in fact, was the geographical context of the Kosovo conflict? Was it Serbia, Yugoslavia, the Balkans, the Mediterranean Region, Europe? Maybe the context of the Kosovo conflict was ex-Yugoslavia, with its individual, highly complex inter-ethnic dynamic, in which Albanian nationalism was strongly supported by some members of the former federation as a counterbalance to Serbian nationalism.

This was the same ex-Yugoslavia in which the protection of the minority rights of Albanians (who were a majority in Kosovo) had effectively created discrimination against the official Serb majority (in the state of Serbia as a whole), who remained numerically a minority group in Kosovo province (together with Montenegrins, Roma and other non-Albanian nationalities). In fact, positive discrimination aimed at the protection of the Albanian population led to the counter-effect of discrimination against the supposedly majority Serb population.

How (deliberately?) confusing the chosen context could become was clearly illustrated in President Clinton's speech on the first night of the NATO attack, in which he explained that the purpose of NATO intervention was to bring stability to the entire region. Whatfollowed was exactly the opposite.

Preparing the ground

Careful content analysis of Western media would indicate how professionally, in the manner of a good thriller, a build-up of suspense was created, which could result in an average Western citizen experiencing some kind of moral catharsis with the release of the first NATO bombs. The intensity of pro-war propaganda was not in proportion to the real gravity of the existing problem, but rather to the internal political dynamics of the main players within NATO and to NATO's own quest to redefine its role as "the world's policeman."

Counting on ignorance

The media does not only oversimplify issues, but also caters to the assumed ignorance of its consumers. Much research has demonstrated that the quantity of information presented on a given political topic has little bearing on an increased public understanding of the issue. One can perhaps conclude that the hidden function of publishing information about a certain topic is to produce some other effect, for example to produce wide acceptance by the democratic public of a "just war."

The Western media was playing with the emotions and the moral feelings of the public in the same manner as the Serbian media was when the latter showed the bodies of Serbian citizens in Kosovo who had been killed by the KLA. In fact, both the Western media and the Serbian media were each focused on an individual (and opposite) side of the conflict, assuming that either the Serbs or the Albanians were the problem, not that ethnic conflict as such was the problem.

(Ab)Use of science and expertise

To validate "truths" and to demonstrate their own objectivity, the media called on various authoritative experts to present scientific information. However, the "rules of the game" always favoured the chosen interpretative framework. Instead of offering a deeper and more analytical approach to the topic, the media spoon-fed the public expert and scientific knowledge in a form that was palatable and easy to swallow. This was achieved as much through the low quality of the questions posed by the journalists as it was by the co-operation of the tame experts.

(Ab)Use of public opinion

Parallel with the exploitation of expert knowledge was the use of public opinion polls and interactive programs. Western public opinion, which was based on the media influences already described, was then quoted to justify the policies of both the media and the war. In fact this tautology would be almost comical, were the subject not so tragic. What was sacrificed here were the high principles of Western civilisation: rationality, objectivity, fairness. What was confirmed, however, was that modern Western civilisation is based on reductionism, expediency and the principles of either/or and of hierarchies.

Manufacturing victory

The more problematic a NATO "victory" became, the more necessary it was to create a victorious image in the media. One technique employed was to create heroes, which is why so many Western leaders visited the refugee camps of Kosovan Albanians during the war, and Kosovo itself afterwards - where photo opportunities were created to portray the joyous reception of the NATO saviours.


The most pervasive technique employed by the media was the legitimisation of military action by exploiting the scenario of victims and victimisation. This even produced competition for the highest "victim status."

Stage-managing events was certainly not a historical first but it was particularly blatant in the ex-Yugoslav wars, including Kosovo. This has yet to be fully documented.

All sides were putting their victims on display, understanding that this could be a powerful vehicle of public persuasion. For example, in Serbia, during the bombing, employees were not allowed to leave certain places, although they knew for certain that bombing would take place. They were forced to stay and anticipate their own destruction, to satisfy Milosevic's need of victims for his domestic public. In other instances, the international public was deeply moved by cases of victimisation which later proved to be false or exaggerated.

The "victim game" was made possible by the media's adoption of an inappropriate role; rather than opposing the conflict as such, asking bold and searching questions about whose interests were being served, the media radicalised the conflict by taking sides.

Hierarchisation of victims

Maybe the most powerful way of subverting moral and ethical public reactions in the West to the war was the application of double and triple standards toward the victims of the conflict. There was open racism in Western media, most clearly expressed in the exaggerated attention given to the fate of three captured America soldiers. Meanwhile, Albanian refugees were mostly treated en masse - rather than as individuals - and Serbian victims became "collateral damage."

Producing stereotypes, prejudices and hatred

It is widely acknowledged that stereotypes and prejudices are the antecedents of discrimination. In fact, they are also used as criteria for affirmative action programmes in the fight against discrimination. However, creating negative stereotypes against distant "others" apparently becomes legitimate when these "others" are victimizing their "others." This chain of "otherness" has not been recognised.

In the case of ex-Yugoslavia, this becomes even more confusing. Convincing analysis by J Sadkovich, for example, demonstrates the extent to which the orientation of the Western media was anti-Croatian and anti-Muslim. In Serbia, similar research proves the opposite - that the Western media was fundamentally anti-Serbian.

However, one does not necessarily exclude the other. The "otherness" of the Balkans and of the people living there was demonstrated in both instances. Whoever is chosen as the "other" from the Balkans, he or she (or they) is effectively selected to represent the "otherness" of the entire region. After a while, it becomes less and less important for the average Western viewer to know who-is-doing-what-to-whom, as it becomes clear that those being described are all savages obsessed by tribal hatreds. With this background narrative, it becomes simple to legitimise any kind of intervention imposed on the Balkan savages.

Destruction of meaning

In the Kosovo conflict, with the constant use of phrases like "humanitarian bombing" and "collateral damage" - the latter as a description of civilian victims - the media's capacity to subvert verbal meanings reached a new level of paradox. On CNN, bombing that lasted almost 80 days and nights was not defined as war but described as "strikes against Yugoslavia."

So, war was not war and peace was certainly not peace, but the situation was something in between - nameless, formless, out of control and with very visible consequences.

Factual distortion

One of the simplest but none-the-less most powerful means of creating conflict is through factual distortion. A good example of this, unfortunately, are the figures quoted as the number of Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo and of Albanian refugees. At one point in the conflict, reports from identical sources were citing figures differing by 40 to 50 per cent. The phantom figure of 90 per cent - referring to the percentage of Albanians in the total population of Kosovo - was officially maintained as the primary justification for the right of Albanians to an independent Kosovo.

It consequently became necessary to demonstrate that the number of refugees plus the number of people killed in Kosovo plus those who remained in Kosovo really added up to 90 per cent of Kosovo's total population. Albanians had chosen not to participate in the census of 1991, so in fact, the figure of 90 per cent is very likely highly exaggerated - as was the case in Macedonia, where a figure of 40 per cent was claimed, but an internationally monitored census showed that Albanians constitute 24 per cent of the Macedonian population.

Destruction of empathy - construction of new moralism

As political leaders became increasingly aware of the potential for exploiting images of their nations being victimised to manipulate Western public opinion, deliberate victimisation of their own populations became a viable strategy. It would be very interesting to compare how different victims were presented by the Western media. For example, in the case of both Iraq and Serbia, people were presented as being almost used to bombing. At one point, the Western media presented a parallel of people in Belgrade singing, alongside footage of Albanian refugees leaving Kosovo - scenes which were shown without commentary but were clearly manipulative of viewer's emotions, creating prejudice against "ruthless," "racist" Serbs on one hand and "pure" victims on the other. What could be a more convincing justification for the bombing?

In fact, the situation was very different. Initially, the people of Belgrade tried spontaneously to gain strength against their own fear and powerlessness by getting together and protesting in the center of the city. Later, these gatherings were co-opted by the regime, and people were forced to assemble under the threat of losing their jobs and by other means of coercion.

The West was experiencing, rightly, shock at the images of thousands of Albanian refugees fleeing their homes in fear and hopelessness. However, showing human suffering day after day probably eventually resulted in more apathy than empathy. Although these tragic pictures were very disturbing, not many Western countries opened their doors to the Albanian refugees - especially not in large numbers.

On the other hand, with the NATO war, the West again imposed itself as guardian of the "values of the civilised world," despite its own - not so distant - history of barbaric actions. Recent wars, such as those in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf are riddled with examples of ethnic brutality and moral hypocrisy.

Empty space

One of the most important techniques for producing ethnic conflict through the media is the omission of a great many relevant but inconvenient topics. For example, the role of the arms industry, the business profits of war, Mafia involvement, geo-strategical issues, ecological issues, censorship, peace initiatives and resistance. The Western media ignored complex and controversial topics which could complicate or provide different perspectives on understanding the conflict. The ecological effects of the NATO bombing, which were carefully suppressed, display a reckless disregard towards the whole of the region - especially to Kosovo, which was exposed to the most intensive bombing.

Conclusion: war as self-fulfilling prophecy

As social engineering can be used for conflict resolution or peacekeeping and peacemaking, it can equally - if not even more effectively - be used in conflict-making. Instead of treating war and conflict as spontaneous and sporadic, it would be much more useful to treat them as structural, endemic and even rational - at least for those who are the winners or profit-makers.

This is where the media play a highly significant - both instrumental and strategic - role. I believe that the media radicalise conflict when they take sides. In the 1990s, the media are succeeding in restructuring reality to fulfill their own interests. The media are definitely not only a mirror of reality; they are creators of reality. It is extremely difficult to define the boundary between the two.

Retrospective analysis, based on a detailed review of content, would clearly demonstrate the extent to which political decisions, and even military decisions, followed certain media initiatives. The whole dynamic of the ex-Yugoslav wars, including the latest one in Kosovo, was very much related to media campaigns which preceded specific events. Of course, this kind of understanding comes, of necessity, post-factum, when it is too late for any political initiative to abort the conflict.

In certain instances, events are created for media consumption, in other instances, the media start to initiate events themselves, thereby starting to form "reality." War is an extremely fertile and potent ground for this kind of manipulation. It appears that the world is entering a period in which the media threaten domination over societies. The vicious cycle of political decision-making and media campaigns is still invisible to the majority of the public - which still tends to reach its "independent" judgments based on what it assumes to be fair and objective reporting.

However, I maintain that in fact the power of the media definitely influenced the conflict in Kosovo - its initiation, its escalation and its outcome. It may still seem unclear who are the winners and the losers in this paradoxical war of NATO against Serbia, but it seems that, whatever the eventual consequences, the real victory belongs to the media.

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

English Language editorial assistance by Michal Pober

Click HERE for the first installment in this three-part series, Part 1: The construction of a conflict.

Click HERE for the second installment in this three-part series, Part 2: Serbia: a clear-cut case.


Bakic J. "Pisanje strane stampe o raspadu Jugoslavije i ratu vodjenom na njenom tlu (januar 1991- mart 1992)" in: Sociologija, No 3. Beograd. 1997.

Blagojevic M. "Drustvene karakteristike etnickih grupa: kako meriti diskriminaciju?" in: Polozaj Amanjina u Saveznoj Republici Jugoslaviji. Sanu. Beograd. 1996.

Blagojevic M. "Kosovo In/Visible Civil War," in: Veremis T and Kofos E (eds). Kosovo: Avoiding Another Balkan War. Eliamp and University of Athens. 1998.

Petrovic R, Blagojevic M. Seobe Srba i Crnogoraca sa Kosova i iz Metohije. Sanu. Beograd. 1989.

Popov N (ed). Srpska Strana Rata: Trauma i Katarza u Istorijskom Pamcenju. Republika, Beograd. 1996.

Sadkovich J. The U.S. Media and Yugoslavia, 1991-1995. Preager Publishers, Westport. 1998.



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