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  •   An Invisible Air War on the Web

        Bill Arkin
    By William M. Arkin
    Special to washingtonpost.com
    Monday, July 19, 1999

    By now, the Internet's role in Operation Allied Force has gotten more than its fair share of glowing ink: record Web traffic, an explosion of specialty sites and discussion groups; maps, interactivity and applications galore; e-mail from the other side, and government propaganda battles waged via homepage.

    Felicity Barringer, writing in the New York Times, says the net provided a profusion of "perspectives" on Kosovo from any angle one could want: "Serb, Albanian, Republican, Democratic, from the depth of the BBC to the passionate nationalism of the Belgrade-based newspaper Politika."

    Perspectives is the key word.

    While the print press provides ample coverage to the phenomenon of Internet media, it continues to insist that the Web is both unreliable as a news source and derivative of conventional journalism. Web contrarian Jon Katz observes in Brill's Content that for all of the hype about the first Internet war, "the Web [made] little difference in a story like this, except to underscore that more traditional media – TV in particular – remain far more significant."

    The First Casualty


    To be frank, the old guard's Yugoslavia reporting hardly inspired Pulitzers. Internet or not, despite 78 days of bombing, we still do not have a clear understanding of the air war over Yugoslavia, how it unfolded, when specific decisions were made, what was the thinking behind what was being bombed, and what were the effects.

    Much of the attention that has been devoted to Kosovo and the Web has focused on the refugee story, the atrocities of the Yugoslav government, and the "common man" perspective afforded by e-mail and personal homepages. The pro-Serb, Yugoslav-government viewpoint on the Web has been treated by most as a curious "perspective."

    This is a mistake. Though clearly propaganda, there is a bounty of information on the effects of the NATO bombing campaign available at Yugoslav Web sites – photographs, chronologies, dispatches. It is information that is just not available anywhere else. And though some reporters in particular raise questions about the authenticity and the reliability of the material, the truth of the matter is that the mainstream media never delved enough to separate the novelty from authentic reporting

    A Picture is Worth Nothing if No One Sees It


    A picture is worth a thousand words as they say, and by my estimate there are thousands of pictures on Yugoslav Web sites showing damage from NATO bombing:

  • Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) maintains the grand-daddy of photo galleries, organized by city and town.

  • The Serbia Unity Congress has a photo archive, including gory documentary evidence of civilian casualties.

  • An archive of professional Tanjug News Agency photos with Serbia captions is also available.

    Whatever one thinks about the air war, two things are clear from these photographs: First, there was a lot of material about the war that hardly made it into the American media. And second, for those who would dismiss the Yugoslav material as lies, the story told is of civilian damage inside Yugoslavia that seems to be sparse enough to allow a fairly comprehensive exposition.

    That is not to say that any conclusions can yet be drawn regarding whether Allied Force was in fact the "smartest war in history" as Secretary of Defense William Cohen likes to refer to it. My reading of the photographs would at least tend to suggest that Deputy Secretary John Hammer's statement earlier this month that there were only "30" incidents of "collateral damage" in the war is dead wrong.

    Propaganda is News


    To supplement the photography, there are countless chronologies of attacks and events in Yugoslavia, and hundreds of special reports and dispatches that cover the air war on the ground:

  • The most comprehensive is the constantly updated narrative for different cities posted at theWar Against Yugoslavia site.

  • Beograd.com, the "Yugoslavia Site for Support Against NATO," compiled a minute-by-minute blow-by-blow for the capital.

    Other major Yugoslav cities also had their own Web sites, including:

  • Nis

  • Novi Sad, which reported attacks, often with detailed information about buildings and homes hit and civilian damage.

    On the Yugoslav government side:

  • The Yugoslavian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a regularly updated bulletin, with statements, special reports, and the usual government fodder. During the latter part of the war, the Ministry put out a daily summary of NATO attacks from the previous day that is invaluable.

  • Similarly, the Press Center of the Yugoslav Army Supreme Command Headquarters and the Serbian Ministry of Information offer their own constant stream on the evils of NATO attacks.

    Portals, Portals Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Drink


    Sure there is a clear and unabashed element of propaganda here. The breadth of material, nevertheless, suggests that something different really did happen here in terms of the use of the Internet. And yet both the media and the community of special interest organizations, think tanks and military analysts treated the Yugoslav position on the Web as novelty and never really found a way to fully exploit the material.

    Thus we may have seen the first instance where contemporaneous reporting, even highly biased government reports were available in abundance from the other side, but these riches did not inform print, radio or television reporting about the war. Like it or not, the Yugoslav government and Serb-sympathizers were providing valuable information that Washington and other NATO governments refused to discuss.

    A revolution occurred, but for a variety of reasons – news media bias against the Web, fear of Belgrade propaganda, lack of resources on the part of the mainstream media to process the abundance of Web material – an opportunity was missed to tell a fuller story of what was going on in the war.


    William M. Arkin can be reached for comment at william_arkin@washingtonpost.com

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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