Changing the Channel in Belgrade
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 24, 1999 When the U.S. Air Force developed its very first target list to attack Iraq, barely seven days after the invasion of Kuwait, Baghdad's main television station was the number one priority in the command, control and communications category.
Attacking radio and TV, the top secret plan said, would "rupture [Saddam] Hussein's link to [the] people and military." Stations taken off the air would be "replaced by coalition broadcasts delivering the message that the Saddam Hussein regime was the objective of the attack and not the Iraqi people," said Col. John Warden, the initial architect. Propaganda directed against military forces in Saudi Arabia and Arab neighbors would also be stopped.
In all, 36 broadcast transmitters were attacked in the ensuing air war. Yet despite early and extensive bombing, Baghdad managed to stay on the air. With or without its own stations, the Hussein regime also conducted an increasingly exasperating campaign to focus world attention on civilian deaths and damage.
An Instrument of Propaganda
Attacks on Iraq's propaganda apparatus were probably ineffective, but hardly a soul protested the bombing. So as the battle for hearts and minds was joined in Operation Allied Force, no one anticipated the controversy that would surround the bombing of state-run Radio and Television of Serbia (RTS).
"Serb radio and TV is an instrument of propaganda and repression," a NATO spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby, declared on April 8. "It is ... a legitimate target in this campaign."
A Legitimate Target?
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending the right of journalists worldwide, immediately wrote to NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to protest.
"NATO's decision to target civilian broadcast facilities not only increases the danger for reporters now working in Yugoslavia but permanently jeopardizes all journalists as noncombatants," CPJ wrote. "While CPJ understands the alliance's concerns about the role of RTS in Milosevic's propaganda campaign," they said, "we believe hate speech and propaganda is best countered with increased objective reporting, not with violence."
After 15 were killed and 30 were injured in a follow-on attack on the Belgrade headquarters of the RTS on April 24, thousands of Yugoslavs marched in protest. Bombing of radio and TV transmitters throughout Yugoslavia did not cease, but it became clear that a few bombs under a political and public microscope would not permanently drive the Milosevic machine off the air.
As in Iraq, bombing has failed to silence propaganda.
This month, Human Rights Watch further condemned the bombing of civilian broadcast facilities as a violation of international humanitarian law. "While stopping ... propaganda may serve to demoralize the Yugoslav population and undermine the government's political support," Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote to Solana on May 13, "neither purpose offers the 'concrete and direct' military advantage necessary to make them a legitimate military target."
The legal standard Roth cites is the Geneva Conventions Protocol I, which allows civilian objects to be targeted only if they make "an effective contribution to military action" and their destruction, "in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage."
An Air Force View
How does the military weigh such considerations? Col. Charles Dunlap, staff judge advocate for the 9th Air Force, says he "vigorously disagrees" with Human Rights Watch and the CPJ.
Dunlap is the first military lawyer to speak on the record about Allied Force targeting. He stresses that he is speaking only for himself.
"Except for pure 'terror' bombing, which this is not, affecting the psychological state of the adversary's civilian population is a proper military objective," Dunlap says. "We have to remember that in its essence war is a contest of wills, and diminishing an adversary's will to continue fighting is directly related to the information flow."
Bombing Serb radio and TV, Col. Dunlap continues, "will save lives of all the parties, and that is clearly an objective worth risking collateral losses."
"The law of armed conflict does not prohibit the targeting of dual-use facilities," he continues. "It is, of course, true that the military advantage sought must outweigh the anticipated collateral damage, and that is a fact-specific calculation."
Dunlap, stressing that he does not have any specific information on the subject, speculates "it is likely" that broadcast facilities are also being used for military communications. As for the civilian casualties, he says that "civilians who make themselves directly part of the war effort in this case ... the propaganda machine can be properly targeted while they are performing such 'combatant' activities."
Another Blow to Information Warfare
The experience now in two major wars suggests that controlling what people know domestically and internationally entails far more than bombing.
The protests over bombing Yugoslav media are yet another challenge to the military's "information warfare" focus. For Dunlap and other information warfare aficionados, information dominance means attack, psychological operations, and deception efforts. Military doctrine and policy increasingly seek to integrate electronic and information warfare into a single information campaign.
Until Allied Force, military planners did not have to contend with an evolving public consciousness of general protection for state-run media. Serb radio and TV maintain enough sporadic capability because, like Iraq, they are neither fragile nor dependent solely on Yugoslav facilities to communicate.
Nevertheless, official Serb media remain relevant in the battle for hearts and minds, not because they haven't been bombed, but because NATO governments have ceded virtually all of the telling of the air war story to the regime in Belgrade.
William M. Arkin, author of "The U.S. Military Online," is a leading expert on national security and the Internet. He lectures and writes on nuclear weapons, military matters and information warfare. An Army intelligence analyst from 1974 to 1978, Arkin currently consults for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, MSNBC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company