journalists in the last war"
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
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
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
Every newspaper and Spanish broadcasting organisation faithfully
picked up these numbers, day to day, as if they were the word
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.