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Killing ScreensKilling Screens
Media in Times of Conflict
Dušan Reljić

An examination of media in conflict zones, this text examines the specific cases of Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Macedonia.

Basic data:
   37,500 words
   153 pages in PDF, 125 A4 pages
   seven main chapters

Chapters and excerpts:

I. Nationalism: The Remaining Ideology: Following the "End of History"; Nations tear apart states because states tear apart nations; "The annihilation of space through time"; The structure of the study

II. The Communication Approach in Research into Nationalism: Karl W Deutsch: Complementary communication societies; Ernest Gellner: Communication and homogeneity; Benedict Anderson: "Print Capitalism"; Media communication and conflict: three assumptions; Omnipotent or impotent media

III. From Words to War: The Yugoslav Experience (read excerpt); Nationalist ideology in Yugoslav media (read excerpt); Stage management instead of portrayal of a conflict (read excerpt); The need for nationalist propaganda; Defining the conflict in the international arena

IV. Media and Conflict in Northern Ireland and Macedonia: The background to the situations in Northern Ireland and Macedonia; Media and the reproduction of ethnic division; The influence of the state on the media; External influences; Attempts to establish a new role for the media in situations of conflict

V. The Role of the Media in Intra-state Conflicts: Basic characteristics of communication through the media in situations of conflict; Centres of power: the controllers; Journalists: willing executioners?

VI. Media and the Regulation of Conflict: Consensus democracy and "constructive" journalism (read excerpt); The interaction of factors in the media system; Media in different stages of conflict; Concluding recommendation

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From Words to War: The Yugoslav experience

On one occasion in Summer 1992, the author was watching the evening news on state television with a colleague who, being a war correspondent, had just returned to Belgrade after an assignment in central Yugoslavia. The father of this colleague was also present; he was an educated man, who, however, loudly expressed his agreement with the simplistic and one-sided propaganda news items.

Embarrassed, my colleague tried to make his father aware of the contradictions and all too obvious misrepresentations. When this did not meet with agreement, he asked his father whom he actually believed, the state-controlled television or him, his son, who had just seen the war at first hand.

"The television, of course," answered his father without hesitating. When he saw the tears in his son's eyes he added, "But surely you can appreciate I do not need the television to know what is really going on?"

His father welcomed the propagandist offerings on the television because they confirmed and reinforced what he already believed. He did not want to believe his son, because he wanted to believe the television. And he wanted to believe the television, so that he could reaffirm his existing convictions. The effectiveness of the media, and television in particular, in situations of tension and conflict occasionally seems limitless. At the same time, as this example also shows, there are limits.

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Nationalist ideology in Yugoslav media

The media generally become part of the "internal" war management; they are brought into line to achieve a high degree of unification in the attitudes of the population. Deviating opinions are extremely rarely permitted; the concentration on a "binary" process is everywhere: "us" and "the enemy" (the mechanism of exclusion), a black and white picture, which cannot permit any dilemma.

Media communication is restricted to propaganda in the service of the government. The ruling political centre exercises complete control over the subject and style of information. The autonomy of the majority of the media, in any case the most important media, and above all national television, is removed.

The extent to which the spirals of hate speech turn is decided by the centre of power in conjunction with its political goals: whether it remains at the stage of stirring up prejudices and other negative feelings, or whether ethno-chauvinism is accelerated to incite the population for the purposes of the preparation and prosecution of war.

Is such a loss of media autonomy avoidable? One obvious answer is that constitutional traditions, the political and economic independence of the media and the autonomy of civil society in relation to the state doubtless reduce the ongoing danger of instrumentalisation, but can never completely intercept and avert it.

This was illustrated well by the propaganda deception campaign by the Pentagon and the arms industry in 1991. The US government had repeatedly asserted during the war that the most up-to-date American weapons had achieved a "clinical" degree of precision during operations.

This had reinforced the support of the domestic and international public, as it was suggested that only military targets would be hit and not civilian targets. Video footage was delivered by American television stations, which was then replayed worldwide, showing how laser-guided missiles found their way through ventilation shafts just a few centimetres wide.

Referring to a study by the US General Accounting Office, the two newspapers reported that there were sometimes "considerable" differences between what the US government presented to the American and international public, and what actually occurred. In reality, the most up-to-date American weapons apparently hit only 41 percent of their targets, not 80 percent as was claimed. However, this report, which was clearly embarrassing to the government, did appear, something which would have been unthinkable in authoritarian regimes.

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Stage management instead of portrayal of a conflict

Language developed into "hate speech," derogatory and hateful descriptions were applied to members of "enemy nations," and the political opposition was "genetically disposed to treason."

Often, the language of hate in the nationalist media of former Yugoslavia was not without a certain humour. During the war years the programme "Milja's Horoscope" was amongst the most popular programmes on Serbia's third channel, which normally offered light entertainment. Milja, a somewhat dishevelled actress, pronounced herself to be an astrologer, telling the nation's fortune.

When the international community announced harsher measures against Miloševic's regime, she informed her viewers that a "cosmic boomerang" would strike back at the enemies of Serbia.

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Consensus democracy and "constructive" journalism

Reading all the recommendations about "good journalism" for crisis situations, one is left with the impression that those who make the suggestions think it is simply a question of the journalists deciding, from now on, to report "clearly, without prejudice, and asking probing questions" in such a way as to enlighten their readers/listeners/viewers about the "real problems." Then their audiences will understand the "real costs" and reassess their views accordingly.

The view is sometimes expressed that new and better information technologies, such as the Internet, will almost automatically open up more peaceful means of overcoming conflict. This sort of interpretation appears to be very artificial and removed from reality. Before planning such great concepts, the question has to be answered as to why humbler ideas have not been successful up to now.

Killing Screens

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