A review and analysis of war propaganda during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s are generally seen as regional and ethnic conflicts, but from a geopolitical perspective, they were about restructuring Southeast Europe after the end of the Cold War.
The overall American strategy was to break up Yugoslavia into its constituents and to drive back the influence of Serbia – a historical ally of Russia – in favor of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Slovenians, and Kosovo Albanians. To this end, the United States repeatedly prevented diplomatic solutions and even secretly deployed Islamist combatants, with whom it had previously fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and whom it would later call “Al Qaeda”.
The political and media propaganda concerning the war on Yugoslavia has been well researched and documented by now. Interestingly, however, many commentators are still trying to uphold the official propaganda narrative of the time, in notable contrast to the later war on Iraq, for example.
There may be various reasons for this tenacity. On the one hand, the propaganda in question dates back to the early days of the Internet and is therefore generally less well known to the public. On the other hand, the implications, especially for Europe, are particularly far-reaching in this case.
From today’s perspective, it is a rather trivial statement that most Western media outlets supported the US/NATO war on Yugoslavia, but at the time even critics believed in a “media failure”, especially because the influence of foreign policy groups on media reporting was not yet broadly known.
The following sections provide an overview of propaganda in the war on Yugoslavia as well as references to further literature and documentation. Please note that the analysis does not call into question regional aspects of the conflict or any actual war crimes on any side of the conflict.
1. The Serbian “Death Camps” (1992)
One of the most notorious cases of propaganda concerns the alleged Serbian “death camp” of Trnopolje in Bosnia. The story began in August 1992, when three British TV journalists visited a refugee camp whose inmates stressed that they were being treated very well (see video below).
The journalists, however, went inside a fenced-in storage area right next to the refugee camp and filmed the men on the outside through a barbed wire fence, making it appear as if the men were imprisoned, which in fact they were not (see site map below). The journalists then asked a man emaciated from illness or war-related malnutrition to take off his T-shirt.
The resulting photograph – carefully cut to size – landed on the front pages of most Western media as “proof” of Serbian “death camps”, which in turn served as justification for NATO’s subsequent intervention in Bosnia, starting with a no-fly zone.
The Trnopolje death camp deception was exposed by a German journalist in 1997. A British magazine republished his article but got sued for libel by the three British TV journalists. The British magazine eventually lost the case and had to file for bankruptcy because it couldn’t prove their intent.
The head of an American PR agency that helped spread the false death camp reports later explained: “We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to be moral.”
In 2003, shortly before his death, even former Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegociv, admitted in an interview: “I thought that my revelations could precipitate bombings. () I tried, but the assertion was false. Whatever the horror of these places may have been, there were no extermination camps.”
- Article: The picture that fooled the world (Thomas Deichmann, Novo, 1997)
- Documentary: Yugoslavia: The Pictures that Fooled the World (TENC, 30 min., 2000)
JBS Video, 2003)Video: The “Serbian death camp” deception (2 min.,
2. The Sarajevo “Marketplace Massacres” (1992-1995)
Another well-known case of propaganda concerns the so-called marketplace massacres during the four-year siege of Sarajevo, in particular the so-called bread line massacre of May 1992 and the two so-called Markale massacres of February 1994 and August 1995.
These incidents allegedly took place by mortar fire from outside of the city and often happened shortly before important political consultations at the UN or EU. They ultimately led to a direct military intervention by NATO – the first in its history – and thus to a turnaround in the Bosnian war.
In the cases mentioned above as well as some others, investigations by officers of the UN protection mission came to the conclusion that these incidents may have been carried out by the Bosnian side itself, perhaps to influence Western public opinion (so-called false flag attacks).
The relevant UN reports, however, were kept secret. Instead, American media — notably CNN — and the US government usually claimed without delay that the respective attack had probably been carried out by the Serbian side (see video below).
Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie, commander of the UN forces in Sarajevo, wrote about the 1992 incident: “Our people told us there were a number of things that didn’t fit. The street had been blocked off just before the incident. Once the crowd was let in and had lined up, the media appeared but kept their distance. The attack took place, and the media were immediately on the scene.”
About the 1994 incident, a BBC journalist noted with surprise how “television crews were on the scene, filming within seconds of the blast”, while UN officers and even doctors were prevented from entering the site, and all of the alleged 197 victims were carried away within 25 minutes. Others pointed out that the market was in fact closed at the time of the incident (see video below).
Regarding the 1995 incident, the London Sunday Times later revealed that British and French UN ammunition experts had concluded the Serbian side was “not guilty”, but they were then “overruled by a senior American officer”, and NATO air strikes began within less than 48 hours.
US professor Yossef Bodansky, the longtime director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, later described these incidents as “expertly-staged spectacle of gore” that included the use of “corpses of Bosnian troops recently killed in action”.
Twenty years later, the Bosnian Markale massacres of 1994/95 were recalled when alleged poison gas attacks during the Syrian war turned out to be questionable and the results of UN and OPCW investigations were again suppressed to justify military strikes by NATO countries.
The following list provides the most important articles written by journalists who were able to study the unpublished UN reports or talk to officials involved in writing them.
- Bosnia bread queue massacre was propaganda ploy, UN told (Independent, 1992)
- Dateline Yugoslavia: The Partisan Press (Peter Brock, Foreign Policy, 1994)
- Anatomy of a Massacre (David Binder, Foreign Policy, 1994, about Markale I)
- Bosnia’s Bombers (David Binder, The Nation, 1995, about Markale II)
- “Serbs not guilty of massacre” (Hugh McManners, The Sunday Times, 1995)
- Senior official admits to secret U.N. report on Sarajevo massacre (DPA, 1996)
- 2004: Sarajevo massacre remembered (BBC; see quote by General Michael Rose)
- Videos: AP footage of the 1994 market incident and the 1995 market incident
Video: The staged 1994 Sarajevo “Marketplace Massacre” (1 minute, BBC, 1995)
Images (18+): Markale I (1994) and Markale II (1995)
3. The “Srebrenica Genocide” (1995)
The alleged “Srebrenica genocide” in July 1995 is regarded as the sad climax of the Bosnian war. According to the official Western version, supported by the “International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia” in The Hague, more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb forces.
But according to Phillip Corwin, the highest-ranking UN civilian official in Bosnia during the war, the Western account of events in Srebrenica is part of a “disinformation campaign”. Late US political scientist Edward Herman called it a “gigantic fraud”, and former CIA officer Robert Baer, who was operating in Yugoslavia during the war, spoke of a “manipulation” and “political marketing”.
Indeed, independent investigations have contradicted the official Western account.
During the Bosnia war, the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, close to the Serbian border, was a supposedly demilitarized “safe area” protected by UN forces. In reality, Bosnian Muslim forces, led by commander Naser Oric, remained active in Srebrenica and committed dozens of massacres in nearby Bosnian Serb villages, killing about 1,500 civilians between 1992 and 1995. Moreover, the US military was using so-called “black flights” to secretly deliver arms to Bosnian Muslim forces.
Yet in early July 1995, Bosnian Muslim forces and males of military age (16-60), about 12,000 men in total, suddenly left Srebrenica – leaving behind women, children, and elderly – and tried to escape, through Serb-controlled territory, to the Muslim-controlled city of Tuzla, about 80 kilometers to the northwest. In response, Bosnian Serb forces, led by General Ratko Mladic, took control of Srebrenica and safely evacuated the Muslim families, about 20,000 people, to nearby UN refugee camps, as AP footage shows and as several supervising UN officers confirmed.
However, during their 80 kilometer breakout from Srebrenica to Tuzla, the armed Bosnian Muslim column was repeatedly ambushed and attacked by Bosnian Serb forces and lost about 4,000 men. In addition, Bosnian Serb forces took about 3,000 members of the Muslim column captive, a few hundred of whom were later exchanged for Bosnian Serb captives. But according to independent investigations, about 2,000 Muslim captives were indeed executed by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, including several hundred non-combatant males or conscripted reservists (see table below).
These figures are consistent with the results of the very first US report, based on satellite images, from August 1995. Bosnian Serb forces appear to have considered these illegal executions of prisoners of war as “reprisal killings” for previous massacres committed by Naser Oric. The bodies of many execution victims were then moved from primary graves to secondary graves that already held war deaths, which further complicated the distinction between the two categories.
The former Srebrenica chief of police and other Muslim officials later stated that Bosnian Muslim leader, Alija Izetbegovic, had privately informed them in 1995 that the sudden evacuation or “sacrifice” of Srebrenica was part of a deal with US President Bill Clinton. According to these statements by Muslim officials, later denied by Izetbegovic, Clinton argued that a NATO military intervention could only occur if the Bosnian Serbs were induced to kill at least 5,000 Muslims at Srebrenica.
Indeed, the media coverage of “Srebrenica” was used to initiate a large-scale NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb forces in September 1995 that led to the US-imposed Dayton agreement in November 1995. In addition, “Srebrenica” was used to divert attention from the massacres committed by Naser Oric’s Muslim forces against Serb civilians as well as from the US-supported operations by the Croatian Army in May and August 1995 that displaced a quarter million Serbs from Croatia and killed several hundred – the largest ethnic expulsion in Europe since World War II.
Later, the “International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia” in The Hague, largely funded and staffed by the United States, tried to enshrine the official Western version of events in Srebrenica and the Yugoslav wars while mostly disregarding evidence contradicting this version. In some countries, there were even lawsuits against researchers questioning the official Srebrenica story.
Yet even events with a very high number of reported victims should always be critically examined. This was already shown, for example, by the “Timisoara Massacre” of 1989 with allegedly 4630 dead, which later turned out to have been a media deception to help launch the Romanian revolution.
For further details on Srebrenica, please refer to the following articles and documentaries:
- Video: Srebrenica: A Town Betrayed (Norwegian documentary, 60 minutes, 2010)
- Article: The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre (Edward Herman, GRC, 2005)
- Article: Srebrenica Revisited (Diana Johnstone, Counterpunch Magazine, 2005)
- Book: The Srebrenica Massacre: Evidence, Context, Politics (Edward Herman, 2011)
- Research report: INCOMFIS Srebrenica (Professor Gideon Greif, 2021)
Srebrenica statistics according to the study by professor Gideon Greif (2021, page 407).
Video: Srebrenica: A Town Betrayed (Norwegian documentary, 60 min., 2010)
4. Kosovo: The “Racak massacre” and more (1999)
After the separation of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia from Yugoslavia, the US and NATO started another war in 1999 against the remainder of Yugoslavia to additionally separate the province of Kosovo from Serbia. This war, without a UN mandate, again had to be justified by propaganda and disinformation.
In particular, politicians and the media discussed alleged Serbian plans of ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and massacres, which later turned out to be fabricated or questionable. Examples included the alleged “Operation Horseshoe” and the alleged “Racak massacre”.
In the case of the supposed “Racak massacre”, Finnish forensic experts later concluded that the bodies of Albanian KLA fighters killed in action had been moved, redressed, and presented as civilian victims of an execution. The place of the supposed massacre was then visited by an OSCE delegation led by US diplomat, William Walker, and shown to international media (see images below).
In the case of “Operation Horseshoe” – a supposed Serbian plan to expel Albanians from Kosovo – retired German brigadier general Heinz Loquai later found it had been fabricated by the German Ministry of Defense. Indeed, Albanians started fleeing only in response to the NATO bombings.
After the war, the head of American PR firm Ruder Finn, which had produced many such dubious stories about the situation in Kosovo, stated in an interview for a Dutch TV documentary: “To be honest, when NATO finally attacked in 1999, we opened a bottle of champagne.”
During the 78-day attack against Serbia and its capital Belgrade, led by US General Wesley Clark, the US used highly toxic depleted uranium ammunition, bombed the Chinese embassy, the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia, a passenger train, civilian infrastructure and several power plants and chemical plants, which caused widespread environmental contamination.
As a result of the NATO war against Serbia, Serbian troops withdrew from Kosovo and NATO troops (KFOR) moved in. The United States established Camp Bondsteel, one of the largest US foreign military bases, in Kosovo. Over half of the Serb population was expelled from Kosovo, and in 2008 Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence as a country.
In 2000, then-President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, was overthrown by a US-sponsored “color revolution” led by the “Otpor movement”. In 2001, Milosevic was arrested and extradited to the US-initiated “International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia” in The Hague. The five-year trial ended without a verdict when Milosevic died of a heart attack in his prison cell in 2006.
For further details, the German TV documentary “It Began with a Lie” from 2001 will be shown below (English subtitles available). The documentary explores how NATO and Western governments deliberately published false information in order to legitimize the war.
- Meet Mr. Massacre (Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, The Exile, 2000)
- The hoax that started a war (Peter Worthington, Toronto Sun, 2001)
- Serbian ethnic cleansing scare was a fake, says general (Sunday Times, 2000)
- German politician Willy Wimmer on the US strategy in the Balkans (GRC, 2008)
- Video: The Racak Massacre Revisited (Graham Phillips, 15 min., 2021)
Video: Kosovo War: It Began with a Lie (German TV documentary, 40 min., 2001)
Annex: The “Broader Truth”
In 2018, former Guardian journalist Melanie Phillips explained how The Guardian had published lies as truth because they contributed to the “broader truth”, that is, the official narrative. (2 min.)
- Documentary: Yugoslavia – The Avoidable War (George Bogdanich, 165 min., 2002)
- Video: French General on Western strategy in the Balkans (Pierre Gallois, 2009)
- Article: The Dismantling of Yugoslavia (Edward Herman and David Peterson, 2007)
- Book: Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Diana Johnstone, 2003)
- Book: Media Cleansing. Journalism and Tragedy in Yugoslavia (Peter Brock, 2006)
- Report: US Senate report discussing US strategy in the Balkans (Larry E. Craig, 1997)