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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

Debunking the Lies:

PR Firms Create an Appearance of "Genocide"

by Mitchel Cohen, Red Balloon Collective,
& Brooklyn Greens, Green Party of New York

To sidebar below: Atrocities: Fact, Fiction, and Hyperbole

In April 1993 Jacques Merlino, associate director of French TV 2, interviewed James Harff, director to Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs, a Washington DC-based public relations firm that had been hired by the Republic of Croatia, the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the parliamentary opposition in Kosovo. (Because of the sanctions placed against the government of Yugoslavia, the Milosevic government there has not been allowed to hire a public relations firm.)

Merlino asked Harff how he used a file of several hundred journalists, politicians, representatives of humanitarian associations, and academics to manufacture public opinion. Harff explained: "Speed is vital ... it is the first assertion that really counts. All denials are entirely ineffective."

In the interview, Merlino asked Harff what his proudest public relations endeavor was. Harff responded:

"To have managed to put Jewish opinion on our side. This was a sensitive matter, as the dossier was dangerous looked at from this angle.[Croatian] President Tudjman was very careless in his book, Wastelands of Historical Reality. Reading his writings one could accuse him of anti-Semitism. [Among other anti-Semitic statements, Tudjman claimed that "only" 900,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust, not six million—MC.] In Bosnia the situation was no better: President Izetbegovic strongly supported the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in his book, The Islamic Declaration.

"Besides, the Croation and Bosnian past was marked by real and cruel anti-Semitism," Harff continued. "Tens of thousands of Jews perished in Croation camps, so there was every reason for intellectuals and Jewish organizations to be hostile toward the Croats and the Bosnians. Our challenge was to reverse this attitude and we succeeded masterfully.

"At the beginning of July 1992, New York Newsday came out with the article on Serb camps. We jumped at the opportunity immediately. We outwitted three big Jewish organizations-the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Congress. In August, we suggested that they publish an advertisement in the New York Times and organize demonstrations outside the United Nations.

"That was a tremendous coup. When the Jewish organizations entered the game on the side of the [Muslim] Bosnians, we could promptly equate the Serbs with the Nazis in the public mind. Nobody understood what was happening in Yugoslavia. The great majority of Americans were probably asking themselves in which African country Bosnia was situated.

"By a single move we were able to present a simple story of good guys and bad guys which would hereafter play itself. We won by targeting the Jewish audience. Almost immediately there was a clear change of language in the press, with use of words with high emotional content such as ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, etc., which evoke images of Nazi Germany and the gas chamber of Auschwitz. No one could go against it without being accused of revisionism. We really batted a thousand in full."

Merlino replied, "But between August 2nd and 5th, 1992, when you did this, you had no proof that what you said was true. All you had were two Newsday articles."

"Our work is not to verify information," said Harff. "We are not equipped for that. Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us, to aim at judiciously chosen targets. We did not confirm the existence of death camps in Bosnia, we just made it widely known that Newsday affirmed it. ... We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to moralize."

—Jacques Merlino, "Les vérités yugoslaves ne sont pas toutes bonnes à dire" [The truths from Yugoslavia are not easy to report], Paris: Editions Albin Michel S.A., 1993. Quotations reported by Sara Flounders in "NATO in the Balkans," 1998, International Action Center, New York.

Atrocities: Fact, Fiction, and Hyperbole

Serbian forces have been brutal in suppressing the movement for Kosovo independence. But is repression of political dissidents the same as genocide? In evaluating the crimes of Serbia and the crimes of NATO, it is necessary to separate actual atrocities from those which have been exaggerated or even fabricated.

Two incidents which were important in rallying support—including that of Green Parties—for NATO's military action were the alleged "Racak massacre" and the murder in Goden of 20 teachers in front of their pupils. Both must be viewed with skepticism.

In mid-January the alleged massacre of 45 Kosovars at Racak was a major media event. After the powerful first impression of the "massacre" reached the public mind, questions began popping up. French TV stations and newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro questioned the absence of shell casings or blood where the bodies were found and the fact that no eyewitnesses turned up, even though Racak had its share of journalists.

The American diplomat who publicized the "massacre" was William Walker, a war crimes investigator. It came to light that William Walker had been involved in the "Iran-Contra" affair with Oliver North. Walker apparently had years of experience in covert operations in Latin America before being assigned to Kosovo. Rollie Keith, who was a Kosovo Verification Monitor during February and March of 1999, wonders if Walker was assigned to assist the KLA in staging the massacre in order to help prepare the public for military intervention. The Los Angeles Times asked if the massacre had been faked by the KLA putting civilian clothes on the bodies of their own military dead before William Walker contacted the press.

The other incident was reflected in a April 29 report by Reuters that 20 teachers had been murdered in front of their students in the Kosovo village of Goden. Skepticism mounted with the information that Goden had 20 houses and a population of 200. Few 200-person villages have 20 teachers. A report from the Guardian of April 9 had told a slightly different story: Serbs had came into Goden, lined 20 men (including 2 teachers) against a wall, and told women and children to leave the village. One woman who fled told reporters "We don't have the slightest idea whether our men are alive, dead or massacred!"

This would certainly constitute a criminal act by Serb forces. But the press wasn't satisfied with a story that "20 Kosovo men were probably killed after their families had been driven out." Thus, the released version described 20 teachers being murdered in front of their pupils.

Retired Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie, who commanded UN troops during the 1992 Bosnian War, believes that governments have learned the value of hiring PR firms to put the right spin on military actions. In an April 15 story in the Vancouver Sun, he reported that "One Washington-based firm continues to brag on its Web site that it successfully introduced the hot terms 'holocaust, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and concentration camps' to the lexicon of journalists covering the war."

—Don Fitz, Green Party of St. Louis/Gateway Green Alliance

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