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Pawns for the U.S. neo-imperialists? The Media, Human Rights and Kosovo

by Ian R Mitchell Department of International Politics. University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

This article appeared in ECRD Volume 3, Number 2 (September 2000)

REVIEWING: Philip HAMMOND and Edward S. HERMAN (eds.), Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 2000) 256pp. Index. Biblio. Pb.:£14.99; ISBN 0-7453-1631-X.; Jan BRIZA, Minority Rights in Yugoslavia (London: Minority Rights Group, 2000) 34pp. Pb.: £6.70; ISBN 1-897693-08-7.

"A media needs to be fostered which provides balanced information and represents all the peoples of society…" (Briza, 30)

Herein lies the common ground between two approaches to understanding the role of the media in the crisis that is the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. While it is only one of several recommendations made by Briza in Minority Rights in Yugoslavia, Hammond and Herman argue in Degraded Capability that the same can be said of the media in a majority of the 19 NATO countries (Greece a notable exception) which participated in the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

How one understands the motives of the international community for the intervention in Kosovo is at the root of the contrast in perspectives inherent in these two books. It is a clash between a liberal concept of the state, one which puts a primacy on human rights at the expense, if necessary, of sovereignty, with an 'autonomist' concept, where the sovereignty of a political community (crudely defined as the state) is essential to democracy, to reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict, and to the avoidance of a kind of neo-colonial extension of American hegemony, all in the name of the protection of human rights. In turn, this is built upon much deeper assumptions of what it means to be democratic at the turn of the century.

The editors of Degraded Capability seek to put questionable media practice during the bombing campaign in the context of what they argue is a perversion of democratic practice, that is, NATO's wider ideological project. They preface their discussion of the media's activities surrounding the crisis in Kosovo, with a 60-page section on 'The West's destruction of Yugoslavia'. It attacks an international political order in which the United States, with its British cheerleader, pursues its national self-interest under the guise of protecting the citizens of Yugoslavia from their own government. The book questions the effectiveness of international intervention, suggesting that it robs citizens of the former-Yugoslavia of the capacity to reconcile their differences. Further, they suggest that the Western project of democratisation and economic reform lies at the root of the violence in Yugoslavia.

One need not be a supporter of the international protectorates in Bosnia and Kosovo to see the last point as amounting to an excuse for the violent, exclusive nationalism responsible for 'ethnic cleansing'. The reductionist simplicity of defending state sovereignty avoids the possibility that the erosion of state sovereignty aids the purpose of defending, not defeating, citizens of authoritarian regimes. Too much of what is written in this first section (notably the forward by Harold Pinter - 'NATO is America's missile' (p. ix) echoes an earlier era when ideological confrontation tinged (the much-needed) criticism of American foreign policy objectives.

This is not to suggest that Degraded Capability is without merit as an analysis of flaws in Western media coverage of Kosovo. On the contrary, they identify the pathetic weakness of the mainstream media for oversimplification of the conflict, the 'Nazification' of the Serbs, a working relationship with the military which minimizes independent verification of stories and accepts the notion of 'disinterested humanitarianism' with little question. Fully half of the book is dedicated to an assessment of media responses to the conflict in different countries. However, some are thin on analysis, and rather too strong on restating evidence that supports the larger contention of a US liberal political/economic expansionism as the root of the crisis in Kosovo (and beyond).

Degraded Capability's focus on Great Power political gamesmanship extends to a critical analysis of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia as an 'arm of NATO' (pp.31-38). Criticism of the way the Tribunal has approached, or 'consistently violated' (p. 207) legal norms merits further discussion. In contrast with theories which deem due process of law as an aid to conflict resolution and reconciliation, Hammond and Herman suggest the Tribunal impedes this process as it 'stands outside' Yugoslav society 'unlike most national courts which are accepted by the majority as having a proper role' (p. 36).

The Minority Rights Group report begins its analysis of minority group rights in Yugoslavia from the perspective that to promote human rights is to promote peace. It observes that the international community 'appears to have decided to dismantle the Balkan 'powder keg'', with NATO intervention in 'Milosevic's regime' as the first step (p. 4). It is quick to criticize the Stability Pact for its 'tokenistic attention to minority rights, civil society and inter-ethnic cooperation'. The report, stating in general a point it goes on to make in more detail for each of Kosovo/a (their usage), Vojvodina, Sandzak and central Serbia, calls these rights 'central issues for stability in the region; they are not peripheral issues' (p. 3).

The report prefaces an examination of the minorities in the different regions of Yugoslavia, and of the constitutional guarantees available to them through with an explanation of the nationalist's path to 'the creation of a unitary and ethnocentric state - Greater Serbia' and place particular emphasis on the regime's role in sowing fear and hatred through the media. Briza is explicit in emphasizing the distinction between minority rights de jure and de facto, and makes concrete recommendations to this effect for both the Federal government and the international community. While not advocating military intervention, Minority Rights Group is certain that the act of helping Serbia to achieve democracy, establish civil society and the rule of law is a positive one.

While Degraded Capability is a useful reminder of the ideological nature of much of the news available to us in the west, there can be little doubt that the privileging of liberal values over autonomy inherent in the Minority Rights Group approach has been less a destruction of the state of Yugoslavia than an attempt to save it.

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