A Letter to the BBC World Service
by from Vladimir Lojen, a former employee
My name is Vladimir Lojen and I used to work for the Croatian Section of the BBC World Service. My contract with the BBC expired last month and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to share my experience of the World Service and my views on its output with you. I hope that you will find a spare moment to read this letter or at least forward it to whoever in Bush House is in charge of programming (as opposed to accounting).
The source of my concern is the World Service coverage of events on the territory of former Yugoslavia and particularly the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I do not refer here to the South Slavonic Section, which more or less managed to steer clear of other Departments' incompetence, but to the World Service as a whole. I had ample opportunity to observe the World Service output on that topic, since my tenure lasted almost four years from January 1992.
It is my strong belief that during that period the BBC World Service, and its Newsroom in particular, failed to provide credible and independent coverage of the events in former Yugoslavia. The BBC's own guidelines have often been pushed aside or forgotten, common sense has been stifled and competent advice from both the Croatian and the Serbian SectÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ`ions has almost invariably been ignored. If one were to take the BBC World Service as the only source of information, the result would not be a credible and truthful picture of the war on the territory of former Yugoslavia.
How could it be, when the BBC uses sentences like 'all three warring sides agreed to call a halt to aggression 1 in Bosnia? Who, besides the BBC World Service, describes a legitimate, internationally recognised government as a mere warring faction and its actions as aggression? Well, there are those who do that, but they do not claim to be a 'credible, unbiased, reliable, accurate, balanced and independent 2 broadcaster.
Accurate it is not, when the Bosnian government and Army are referred as 'the Muslims' or 'Muslim forces'. Credible it is not, when in June 1995 a news story contains the following sentence: 'Targeting of residential districts of Sarajevo with mortars and rockets, apparently fired from Bosnian Serb positions, is a relatively new development'.
'Apparently'?? 'New development'??
Let's face it: the BBC World Service and its Newsroom in particular have been far too diffident (to use the mildest available word) towards the Serbs. The BBC World Service has always sought to find a symmetry between the Serbs and the victims of their aggression, even if no symmetry existed on the ground.
Reporting about the conditions in a Bosnian prison where Serb prisoners were held, one news story said that 'little evidence' was found to support Serbian claims of torture. The original source (the reporter who visited the prison) in fact said 'no evidence'. Why this strange transformation?
If you think that this is just nitpicking, consider this. In August 1995 dispatches and agencies quote an American official as saying: 'The vast majority of ethnic cleansing since 1992 can be attributed to the Bosnian Serbs.' He goes on to say that Moslem and Croat forces in Bosnia were responsible for isolated atrocities, but 'the ethnic cleansing actions of the Bosnian Serbs are unrivalled in scale and intensity.'
How does that translate into a World Service news story? 'An American official said that Croatian and Muslim forces had also carried out atrocities.' Not a word about the distinction which, after all, made all the point of the original story!
But the BBC's great quest for balance continues! When the no-fly zone over Bosnia was introduced in 1993 for all unauthorised aircraft, to prevent the Serbs from using their air power which made them superior to the Bosnian government (which at that time had no aircraft at all and still does not have any fixed-wing aircraft), the BBC World Service reported that the UN Security Council had banned all three sides in Bosnia from using their air forces. The wording came from the Defence Correspondent, who during our conversation justified it by the fact that British intelligence sources suggested that the Bosnian Croats had two helicopters!
'British intelligence sources'! The same sources who after the fall of Srebrenica suggested that its defenders simply gave it up - an idea that found its way straight into BBC World Service news and dispatches. That the UN had impounded the defenders' heavy weapons two years ago was somehow forgotten to be mentioned.
The sad fact is: Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office briefings have been seeping in an undiluted form into the World Service programmes. If this trend persists, it would be more appropriate to follow the example of our colleagues at Voice of America, who preface their commentaries with: 'The following reflects the official view of the Government of USA' instead of saying 'And now an analysis from our Defence or Diplomatic or whichever Correspondent.'
When in March 1993 the UN said that the planes which bombed the Srebrenica enclave had not been formally identified, but were seen flying off in the direction of Serbia, the BBC chose to replace this version with: 'British sources saÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ`y checks are being made to determine where the planes had come from.' As if any other side in the conflict had any planes at all at the time!
The effort to obscure the obvious, question the indisputable and balance the unbalanceable is one of the cornerstones of our coverage of the war in former Yugoslavia.
When in June 1995 the Serbian authorities round up Serb refugees from Croatia and send them to fight in Krajina, when every imaginable UN agency describes this as forced conscription, the World Service finds it its duty to include this most preposterous explanation in a news story: 'The Serbian interior ministry has acknowledged that non-registered refugees have been expelled to prevent crimes, but has denied any enforced mobilisation.' Does 'balance' mean just repeating whatever anybody has to say, or does it include a sober and competent evaluation of information?
Unfortunately, it seems that in the BBC World Service the latter is not the case. When a particularly nasty bomb, which provoked massive NATO bombing raids against the Bosnian Serbs, hit a Sarajevo street in August 1995, we carried a news story saying that UN experts had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the shell came from Serb positions. But we also garnished it with a Serbian denial. In the face of the facts! Against common sense and, sadly, contrary to moral sense.
In the days after the fall of Srebrenica, when refugees were coming through the Serbian lines with harrowing accounts of mass killings and atrocities, our Newsroom consistently ran the stories with the comment that their reports had not been corroborated, and even that the Bosnian Serbs had denied them. Which is, of course, true on the face of it. But have we been so consistent in mentioning in all those news stories that thousands of Muslim men from Srebrenica are unaccounted for?
No, we have not. Did we ever mention that the Dutch peacekeepers just out of Srebrenica have been ordered not to reveal what they saw because of fear of Serbian reprisals against the remaining Dutch units in Srebrenica?
No, we did not. Did we pick it up when it found its way into the British press?
No, we did not. Instead we remarked in an internal briefing that we were not happy with the way the story was presented in a British newspaper.
A remarkable example of cautious constraint! Were we always that cautious in broadcasting claims of atrocities? Well, actually not.
In May 1995 we broadcast a news story about the UN spokesman in Zagreb, Chris Gunnes, quoting EU monitors who had reported the mistreatment of Serb prisoners in Croatia. Did we mention in that story the Croatian government denials, as we so merrily do when denials come from Pale or Belgrade?
No, we did not. Did we note that the EU monitors, the very source of that report, had emphatically denied it?
No, we did not. So what did we do? We just broadcast a story sourced solely as 'Gunnes by phone'. The UN retracted the claim later that day, but we could have avoided the whole episode if we had just awoken to the sober reality (which seems to be crystal clear to just about everybody except the BBC World Service) that the UN in former Yugoslavia has become just another side with its own vested interest. And that we have in many ways become just a 'Voice of the UN'.
I do not count myself among this 'we' any more. But maybe I should have stopped doing so in the late summer of 1992, when Malcolm Brabant sent one of the first reports ever of the mass rape of Muslim women in Bosnia. The rest of the BBC (domestic radio and television) carried the story, but we at the World Service knew better. So what did we do?
First, the news story was removed from the core, then the dispatch was put on hold, and finally it was 'killed' by the Newsroom. Explanation? The claim of mass rape sounded just too implausible to the Newsroom to be included in the programme. At the time the claim really sounded extraordinary.
But on that very same day, in the 'also available/regional' section of the European news core, we cÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ`arried a statement by Radovan Karadzic in which he strongly denied that his forces were shelling Sarajevo. Now, how's that for implausible?!
But the story does not end there. Brabant's dispatch was later used by a World Service training course as an example of bad journalism!
A course in which the incessant transmitting of Serbian denials would be described as bad journalism still has to be held in the BBC World Service. The same organisation which only three months ago heeded the request of the Pale authorities not to broadcast the details of a bomb impact because the information could help Bosnian sources! The same organisation which sometimes broadcasts news stories sourced only on SRNA and TANJUG, once (in 1993) even despite Reuters claiming just the opposite of what TANJUG had said!
The same organisation which in May 1995 broadcast a talk about Croatian history, by an alleged specialist on the subject, which said that the memory of Jasenovac, the concentration camp in which thousands of Serbs, Jews and communists were killed by the Nazi-installed regime in Croatia, was systematically suppressed in post-war Yugoslavia, thus provoking frustration among the Serbs. As anybody with even the slightest familiarity with ex-Yugoslavia knows, building a museum and a sky-high monument on the site, putting it in the primary school curriculum, and organising countless pilgrimages to the camp which could not be avoided by anybody living within the day-trip radius of Jasenova, even if one wanted to, can hardly be described as systematic suppression.
Just as the BBC World Service coverage of the events in former Yugoslavia can hardly be described by the words from ' World Service Objectives' quoted above.
The examples mentioned here do not prove anything by themselves. They are just a small fraction of many similar cases that I encountered in the past four years. They serve not as a proof, but as an illustration of a trend that is unfortunately all too present in the BBC World Service output. It may be wrong to say that the BBC is pro one side or anti another. But its persistent attempts to elevate the flaws of the Bosnian and Croatian governments and to obscure the blatant acts of aggression of the Serbian forces, its unrelenting quest for a non-existent balance in former Yugoslavia, make the BBC World Service a non-credible. unbalanced and unreliable broadcaster.
I hope that you have read this letter in good faith, just as I wrote it. I also hope that you will find time to address the questions that I raise and that it will benefit both the World Service and its listeners.
Vladimir Lojen worked for the BBC throughout the first three and a half years of war in Bosnia. When his contract came to an end in September 1995 he chose (for a number of reasons, mainly personal) not to apply for its renewal. Having left the BBC, he sent this letter to the four senior executives and editors under whom he had worked.
The Letter was addressed to:
Mr Sam Younger, Managing Director BBC World Service
Mr Andrew Taussig, Head European Directorate
Mr Mark Brayne, Editor European Directorate
Mr Bob Jobbins, Head News & Current Affairs
At the time Bosnia Report goes to press, three weeks after Mr Lojen wrote this letter, he has still not received a reply (or even an acknowledgement) from any of the four BBC officials to whom he sent it.
1) Here, as in other quotes, words are quoted verbatim from World Service news, dispatches and talks.
2) World Service Objectives, 8 January 1981.