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Spanish journalists in the last war"
Felipe Sahagún, International Press Institute, IPI.

Between the conferences of Rambouillet and Paris, a few weeks before the Nato bombings of Yugoslavia started, I met with Nato Secretary General, Javier Solana, in a Madrid coffee house and asked him his opinion about the information reported by the media. "Any similarities between what is being reported and reality are purely coincidental" he answered. "What most amazes me is not that they report on things that do not happen, but that the media almost always ignores the most important facts".

On 16 July, five weeks after the end of the bombings, one of the Spanish diplomats who was most active during the crisis confessed to me in Madrid that: "Spanish official information during this war has been disastrous". As a matter of fact the government forbade Spanish military personnel and diplomats from talking to journalists. This decision created a vacuum of official information, which was very difficult to fill and affected the work of the main Spanish media decisively.

The presence of a Spaniard, Javier Solana, at the head of Nato, and the information blackout imposed by the government of José María Aznar, were decisive factors in determining the handling of information on the conflict from the beginning. The fact that Solana is a Spaniard and a socialist appeased the critics of the less pro-Nato sectors of the media and political parties. At the same time it made it easier, for all the good and bad that it did, to access official Nato information in Brussels. The fact that the Aznar government opted for a low profile, substantially reduced official Spanish information and forced the media to fill this void in other ways. The easiest way was to fill the daily news programmes with reports on the Kosovo-Albanian refugees.

It is too soon to be able to compare what was reported to what actually happened in Kosovo, but from first provisional assessments of the conflict and from the testimonies of journalists that covered it, one can draw some preliminary conclusions.

There was not just one war, but two: the air war of Nato against Serbia and the ground war of the Serbs against the Kosovo Albanians. As in the Gulf war in 1991, Nato attacks were covered by two main sources: the daily briefings by the Alliance and two of its members, the UK and USA; and the communiqués and images issued by the government in Belgrade. No Spanish media, be it the printed press, radio or television were opposed to Nato intervention, although they all have important differences in shading.

None of the media backed Belgrade, but they all criticised with different degrees of harshness errors and collateral damage caused by Nato. The following media stood out in order of the intensity of their criticism: El Mundo, El Periodico, La Vanguardia, Diario 16, El País and ABC.

Because of the lack of information about the effects of the bombings and about Serb reprisals against the Kosovo Albanian population, the majority of information was dedicated to that which was easiest: the refugees, inexhaustible sources of testimony, and to the analyses of experts. Because Spanish military personnel and diplomats were not allowed to talk to the media, the analyses published in the Spanish press were dominated by academics, intellectuals and columnists, as well as by foreign military personnel and diplomats.In general, reports from the correspondents in Belgrade were less critical of Milosevic and the ones from correspondents in Brussels were more favourable to Nato. However, the fervent support of a military intervention by El País corespondent in Brussels, Xavier Vidal-Folch, drew the attention of other Spanish correspondents. "All that was missing was for him to don a Nato uniform and to throw himself into battle in an F-18" was the comment by one of his colleagues. Except for El Mundo – a thorn in the side of the socialists because of their corruption scandals in the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s – no other Spanish media dared to judge Solana’s actions harshly before, during and after the crisis.

"Having learned their lesson from what happened during the Gulf war, the Spanish correspondents tried to maintain a less compromising, more independent position at all times" is the comment by Juan Montes, correspondent of Radio Nacional de España in the Belgian capital.

"There was a lot of confusion in reports by TVE" says José Antonio Guardiola, correspondent in Kosovo in January-February and in the refugee camps in May-June. "TVE tried to inform every day from various fronts and the result was that instead of clear and comprehensive information, there was a huge cacophony".

Juan Antonio Sacaluga, Head of the International Department of TVE for many years, sees an even graver defect: "Too much importance was given to secondary topics, such as the refugees and collateral damage, Nato errors were exaggerated and hardly anything was said about what was actually happening in Kosovo and Serbia", he says.

Another veteran correspondent from the same network, Vicente Romero, who covered Northern Albania during the first month of the bombings, shares Sacaluga’s opinion and explains why: "When we were barred from entering Kosovo, most of us limited ourselves to recording the testimonies of Kosovo Albanian refugees who were arriving at the border on a daily basis. It was evident that the numbers were blown up and that the opinions were impossible to verify, but they were accepted because they had journalistic impact and were convenient for Nato and the refugee organisations".

In contrast to EFE, El País and El Mundo, who counted on correspondents in Belgrade during the duration of the crisis, RTVE sent no one. The Yugoslav Embassy in Madrid even offered visas for their correspondents Vicente Romero and Alfredo Urdazi, anchorman of the most important daily news programme, which is televised at 9.00 pm, but the network bosses did not authorise their trip. So what happened in Yugoslavia was covered with the daily images received from Eurovision and with edited texts from the various news agencies.

The Spanish government, headed by José María Aznar, which has a decisive influence on state run media, such as RTVE and EFE, forbade military personnel from making any statements to the media. This was quite different from the Gulf War and from what was reported on the war in Kosovo in countries such as Great Britain and USA.

It was quite clear from the first day on that the Aznar government wished to keep a low profile, in accordance with the meagre Spanish participation in the war – only 6 combat planes – and the exclusion of Spain in the Committees that directed, decided and negotiated during the conflict: the so-called Contact Group and the G-8.

The news agency EFE actually reduced the information coming from their envoy in Belgrade, Juan Fernández Elorriaga, the Spanish correspondent who has spent the most years in the Balkans and who is most knowledgeable about the situation in the region, because his bosses, appointed by the government, considered it to be excessively pro-Serbian. The daily El País, the largest circulation newspaper in Spain, went even further and, in the midst of the conflict, replaced their veteran correspondent José Comas with another correspondent much more critical of Serbia.

A quick look through the Spanish newspapers shows that the military reality of the conflict had little or nothing to do with the reality transmitted by the press. Paul Beaver, from Jane’s Defence Weekly, travelled throughout Kosovo in the weeks following the bombings to verify damage caused by the attacks. "I only saw one destroyed Serb tank and one which was seriously damaged" he says. During the last weeks, Nato kept telling us that 200 tanks had been destroyed, while the Pentagon had the figure at 120".

Every newspaper and Spanish broadcasting organisation faithfully picked up these numbers, day to day, as if they were the word of God.

Beaver has attributed these apparent mistakes to five possible causes: the many decoy tanks and targets which the Serbs had spread out, a lesson they had learned from Iraq; the lack of independent information about the territory; misinformation on the side of the Alliance, unavoidable in any conflict; and Nato’s lack of resources in providing the media with better information. "My opinion is that the press in general defied the official version", adds Beaver. "Not only did they try to contrast the information, but they never accepted as a given fact the official communiqués from any of the belligerent parties. Where Nato is concerned, I think they gave the best information they had. The problem is that they did not have much".

Paul Watson, correspondent with the Los Angeles Times, summarised in this way, 14 days after the bombings ended, what he saw and lived through in Kosovo: "As the only North American reporter in Kosovo for most of Nato’s 78 days of airstrikes, I lived through a three-way war that, as most conflicts do, took truth as its first victim". He added: "At war’s end, when I had expected to celebrate my own survival, I only felt more empty. Many of the answers I needed so badly – if only for the sake of justice and my own sanity – were obscured by the fog of war. I could find no heroes".

For a lack of better information of their own, the main Spanish newspapers used reports like that of Watson, translated into Spanish, to compensate for the absence of first hand material from correspondents within Kosovo.Felipe Sahagún, editorial writer with the daily El Mundo, Madrid, and Professor of International Affairs at the Universidad Complutense.

Felipe Sahagún, editorial writer with the daily El Mundo, Madrid, and Professor of International Affairs at the Universidad Complutense.