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September 19, 2014
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Current Concerns  >  2007  >  No 13, 2007  >  How the Public is Led into Wars [printversion]

How the Public is Led into Wars

Book review of Jörg Becker/ Mira Beham. “Operation Balkan: Werbung für Krieg und Tod” (“Operation Balkans – Propaganda for War and Death”)

by Tobias Salander, historian, Switzerland

One of the prerequisites for a functional democracy supported by its free and responsible citizens is the availability of appropriate, differentiated and balanced information. Without a certain level of education and information, it is very hard to take decisions which serve the common good and provide a peaceful living together of citizens as well as of peoples, ethnics and states.

80 percent of all news come from PR offices

Studies commissioned recently by the Swiss Federal Office of Communication prove that this is less and less the case (cf. “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, February 2, 2007). These studies point to an increasing if not dramatic dependence of journalists on PR companies controlled by certain interests. Already in the mid-1980ies, Barbara Baerns in Germany and René Grossenbacher in Switzerland proved that almost two thirds of all media reports came from outside the media which means that they had not been investigated independently but designed by public relations agencies. And 80 percent of all news relied on a single source – also localized in the office corridors of clever PR agencies. In the study “Operation Balkans: Propaganda for War and Death” reviewed in this article, Jörg Becker and Mira Beham speak of a factual “colonisation of the media by the PR industry” (p. 16). Most prominently this comes to light in the concept of “embedded journalism” during the Iraq war: “One lies in bed together – blithely, publicly, blushless” (p. 16).

Relation between journalism and PR: “prostitution”

Today, the PR sector is growing much faster than the journalism sector: In the beginning of the 1990s, there were 120 000 journalists in the US, but 160 000 PR specialists. The TV reporter Thomas Leif pointed out in 2001 that the relation between journalism and PR should be called “prostitution” and that this fact favours the following trends in media coverage: “Increase of noise (unimportant facts), information dilution, personalization, lack of seriousness, stress of circumstantial details, deliberate omission of important facts, staging of permanent entertainment” (cf. Becker/Beham, p. 16). This is a finding which every media consumer cannot but confirm.
It is the merit of Jörg Becker, Professor for political science at Universities of Magdeburg and Innsbruck and of Mira Beham, Balkans expert, author and OSCE diplomat from Vienna, to have documented in their meticulously researched study – presented on the basis of the wars in former Yugoslavia - how the mechanisms described above work in times of war.

PR tricks in order to homogenize public opinion

Forestalling the findings of Becker and Beham, the Balkan wars of the 1990s have shown that “War governments can convert their propaganda into trustworthy messages through the filter of PR agencies and their various channels of communication. This results in a strong homogenization of public opinion in the US and the West in total.” (p. 35) Various PR agencies have succeeded in transmitting the propaganda of the ex-Yugoslavian, non-Serbian war parties such that an “almost identical interpretation of the Balkan wars” has consolidated in public, that is: all peoples except the Serbs are peace-loving peoples, but the Serbs are aggressive. The organizations and individuals that moved inside this rigid horizon of interpretation are: “The US government, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the United States Institute of Peace, the Soros Foundation, liberal intellectuals and a wide range of conservatives, the United Nations, journalists, but also the governments of Zagreb, Sarajevo, the leaders of the Kosovo Albanians and the UÇK”. (p. 35)

A unique US law: the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)

Starting point of the fascinating study of Becker/Beham is a world-wide unique US law which forces foreign governments, groups and individuals to declare openly their PR work in the US: the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The FARA, passed in 1938 as a protection against Nazi propaganda in the US and substantially extended in 1966 demands that any American PR company declare openly to the US Department of Justice, for whom it exerts which propaganda, for which compensation and for how long. The statements are openly available – also for research. FARA does not aim at preventing propaganda for foreign institutions in the US, but wants to make it transparent. Even though critics in the US point out that the US government, by a laxer or stricter interpretation of the law’s rules, can push or suppress certain foreign topics in the domestic media. (p. 18) PR commissions of the US government itself are not touched by the law. Also there is, of course, no information about activities of the large non-American PR agencies like Havas and Euro-RSCG in France, Dentsu in Japan or Saatchi&Saatchi in England.

Have a good image in the US public and reach your war goals

Becker/Beham’s research into the US Department of Justice’s files produced 157 half-year contracts between ex-Yugoslavian customers and 31 different PR agencies and nine individuals for the period of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia between 1991 and 2002. The researchers suspect, however, that this is only the tip of the iceberg (p. 18). While the Serbs’ war opponents (Croatia, Kosovo-Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia) spent $7.5 million, the Serbs spent only $1.6 million, less than a quarter of this sum. While the Serbs’ opponents were able to hire renowned, globally acting US companies, the Serbs had to resort to smaller companies more distant from the centres of US power.
Both sides pursued two goals with their PR activities: they wanted to ensure a good image in the US public and to reach their own war goals.

Anti-Serbian PR goal: “Equate the Serbs with the Nazis”

According to Becker/Beham, the PR agencies which were not working for Serbian clients declared the following goals in their FARA documents:
•    Acknowledgement of the independence of Croatia and Slovenia by the US,
•    Perception of Slovenia and Croatia as advanced States of Western European description
•    The characterization of Serbs as suppressors and aggressors,
•    The equation of Serbs and Nazis,
•    The drafting of a political program for the Kosovo Albanians,
•    The exclusive characterization of Croatians, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians as innocent victims,
•    The recruitment of NGOs, scientists and think tanks for the realization of their goals,
•    The interference of the United States with events in the Balkans,
•    The characterization of the conquest of the mostly Serbian Krajina by the Croatian army as legitimate and legal,
•    Maintaining the UN sanctions against Serbia,
•    A favourable decision regarding the Bosnian town Breko,
•    A charge for genocide against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague
•    Negotiation outcomes in Rambouillet favourable for the Albanian side,
•    A charge against Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,
•    Favouring US investments in the successor states of Yugoslavia,
•    The secession of Montenegro from Belgrade.
(p. 28)

Serbian PR goal: “general improvement of the bad image”

PR agencies working for Serbian clients declared the following goals:
•    General improvement of the bad image,
•    Improvement of the image of the Bosnian Serbian Republic,
•    The recruitment of NGOs, scientists and think tanks for the realization of their goals,
•    Favouring US investments in Serbia,
•    Improvement of relations with the United States after voting out Milosevic,
•    The lifting of UN sanctions.
(p. 29)

You can also rent a private army: example MPRI

Becker/Beham show that the non-Serbian group succeeded much better in selling its propaganda. The large PR agencies whose services they bought, “The Washington Group”, “Jefferson Waterman International” and “Ruder Finn”, often had former senior government officials among their top level executives, among them CIA veterans. In the opposite direction, top-level PR specialists succeeded often in being enrolled in a government office. A real insider merry-go-round which, broadened by representatives of arms manufacturers and the Pentagon, in many cases also delivered mercenaries through private military companies for the wars which the propaganda had drummed up. As an example, Becker/Beham mention the activities of MPRI (Military Professional Resources Inc. of Alexandria/Va.) in case of“Operation Storm”, in which order of events the Serbian inhabitants of the Krajina were expelled.

Kosovo War: 11,000 deaths instead of 500,000

The wars in ex-Yugoslavia were bloody and cruelties were committed on all sides. The number of deaths was recorded precisely by the UN – for example in the Kosovo war: There were no 500  000 dead Kosovo Albanians, as the US State Department circulated in 1999 directly after the NATO aggression, nor 100 000, a number mentioned by US Secretary of Defence Cohen in Spring 1999, nor 44 000, an early UN estimate, nor 22 000, a later UN number, but 11 000, which is the number that the UN finally reported (p. 43). Of course these are 11 000 lives too many, but these are the facts. 11 000 deaths, among them many Serbs, Sinti and Roma and others, aside from the Kosovo Albanians. And what was it that the war propaganda wanted to make the public believe? They told us it was about preventing a new Hitler, a new Auschwitz, a new Holocaust!

Ruder Finn’s bluff: the wondrous metamorphosis of Tudjman

It is a tough fact that it was the PR agency Ruder Finn that committed this belittlement of the Holocaust. Tough, because co-founder David Finn always pointed out his Jewish origins to underline the high ethical standards of Ruder Finn. Its representative James Harff boasted in an interview of how they had succeeded in turning history upside down and to sell the Jewish public in the US the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, an avowing anti-Semite, as the good guy, but to demonize the Serbs – the Serbs, who had helped their Jewish compatriots like no other people occupied by the Nazis (p. 40). They did not even shy away from re-publishing Tudjman’s revisionist and anti-Semitic book under the title “Horrors of War” (German title: “Irrwege der Geschichte” – “Errors of History”) in a version cleaned for the US market. The disputed passages, however, were only deleted from the US edition.

Rudder Finn uses Auschwitz against Serbia

Rudder Finn man James Harff commented on this achievement in that blunt, arrogant directness that is so typical for many PR strategists: “Bringing the Jewish organizations on the side of the Bosnians into play was a great bluff. In the public opinion we could immediately equate the Serbs with the Nazis […] At once, a noticeable change of the linguistic usage in the media turned up, accompanied by the use of terms, which had a strong emotional charge, as for instance ethnic cleansing, concentration camp etc., and they all evoked a comparison with Nazi Germany, gas chambers and Auschwitz. The emotional charge was so powerful that nobody dared to contradict in order not to be accused of revisionism. We had hit the bullseye.” (P. 41)

Even Jewish voices could no longer help Serbia

Such chutzpah catches our breath when reading the analysis of Becker/Beham; however we have to ask ourselves at the same time, to what extent were we turned on by this manipulation and became the idiots and dance bears of crafty PR strategists. Even representatives of the Jewish community such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel could not make their voice heard: “The pursuit of the Albanians, as terrible as it might be, is no Holocaust”, Wiesel pointed out in 1999, and the Jewish World Review reminded their readers that in Nazi Germany no Jewish underground army had existed, which defended its own Jewish state on German soil. He also said that Jews would never have attempted to assassinate German policemen and soldiers, in order to provoke their counter actions by force which would have taken its toll on the population as well – but this exactly had been done by the Kosovo Albanian UÇK. Besides it was stated that even during the NATO bombardments in Northern Serbia and in the area of Belgrade 200 000 Albanians had been able to live safely and comfortably – which would never have been the case in genocide. (p. 44)

Making PR orders more transparent in one’s own country

Becker/Beham succeeded in sharpening the readers’ senses for current procedures in the media world, when suddenly, like a coincidence, accumulated reports emerge and occupy a field like a campaign, canalize opinions and try to steer the public into a certain direction.
It would be desirable that other states passed a law similar to the FARA – and why should the citizens of all countries not demand that the PR orders of their own governments are to become declarable? In particular, if their own tax funds are dissipated and abused in order to misinform the citizens instead of following the assignment for information? From that point of view the Becker/Beham study should not only gain prevalence, but it deserves an enlarged discussion among citizens – just as in Switzerland where this process was initiated for instance by the people’s initiative “People sovereignty instead of institutional propaganda”.

Becker, Joerg/Beham Mira, Operation Balkan: Werbung für Krieg und Tod. (Operation Balkans – Propaganda for War and Death) Baden-Baden 2006. ISBN 3-8329-1900-7.