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  •   Serbs Ridicule TV Atrocity Reports

    Belgrade, Reuters
    People walk across a bridge near Belgrade while smoke looms over the Yugoslav capital from a NATO air strike. (Reuters)
    By Michael Dobbs
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, April 19, 1999; Page A1

    BELGRADE, April 18 It is seven o'clock in the evening, time for the Marinkovic family to catch the latest news on the Western satellite TV stations that are widely available in Belgrade. First up, CNN with a report alleging that 3,000 ethnic Albanian refugees have been murdered during the Yugoslav military offensive in Kosovo and more satellite pictures of what NATO officials say could be mass graves.

    "It's propaganda, a fabrication," says Aleksandr Marinkovic, a engineer who runs a closed-circuit television business. "I could believe in a small percentage of these stories, but the great majority are fiction."

    A picture of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright flashes across the screen. "The only thing that woman lacks is a broom," murmurs Marinkovic's wife, Biljana, who adds that she does not believe any of the atrocity stories.

    Over on the British-owned channel, Sky News, a reporter in the Albanian town of Kukes is talking about a new flow of Kosovo refugees crossing the border 30,000 in recent days. "I am going to step back so you can see some of them," the reporter says. There is laughter in the Marinkovic apartment in downtown Belgrade as the camera pans across no more than a dozen or so forlorn-looking ethnic Albanians.

    In the United States and much of Europe, images of distraught refugees pouring out of Kosovo have galvanized public opinion against the Serb-led Yugoslav government and fed demands for decisive military action to end the humanitarian catastrophe. But here in Serbia Yugoslavia's dominant republic the public reaction has been very different. Preoccupied by their own problems and the destruction wrought by the NATO bombing campaign, many Serbs seem indifferent to the sufferings of the Kosovo Albanians.

    This lack of concern is shared even by Serbs critical of the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The Marinkovics, like most of their friends, are contemptuous of Milosevic and mistrustful of much of what they hear on state-run television. They regard themselves as pro-American. "It is very difficult for us to hate America," says Aleksandr Marinkovic. "We have always aspired to an American way of life, not a Russian way of life." The fact that the United States is bombing their country shocks and bewilders them.

    A prominent Belgrade journalist compares the popular reaction here to reports of atrocities in Kosovo to the stock reaction of NATO spokesmen when talking about civilian casualties resulting from NATO bombs: "Regrettable but unavoidable."

    "A lot of people probably know deep down that terrible things are happening in Kosovo, but they don't much care," the journalist said. "They figure that NATO is bombing us on behalf of the [ethnic] Albanians, so why should we worry too much" about what happens to them.

    Such attitudes can be explained only in part by lack of information. Operating under strict censorship, Yugoslav and Serbian media have paid scant attention to the refugee crisis in Kosovo. When television mentions the refugees, it usually blames their plight on NATO bombing. But many people here have access to independent information about what is going on in Kosovo. Belgrade, a city of 1.5 million, boasts more than 100,000 satellite dishes and an equivalent number of Internet connections. One in every three Belgrade residents is believed to watch Western TV stations, such as CNN or Sky News, on a fairly regular basis.

    Watching does not necessarily mean believing, however. Many Serbs say that Western television coverage of the Kosovo conflict has been as biased as coverage by Yugoslav state television. Everyone can cite a long list of Western "misinformation," or instances in which they say Western reports turned out to be wrong. These include claims that a soccer stadium in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, was being used as a concentration camp for 20,000 ethnic Albanian men; reports that two Yugoslav pilots had been captured by NATO troops in Bosnia; and the suggestion last week that Yugoslav planes, and not NATO aircraft, had attacked a refugee convoy in southwestern Kosovo.

    "The propaganda is more sophisticated from the Western side, but it is still propaganda," said Goran Gogic, a computer expert who spends much of his time these days firing off e-mail to the United States to protest the bombing campaign. "If our authorities had any sense, they would put Sky News on our official TV; they are so biased it is counterproductive" for the West.

    Like many others here, Gogic is struck by the contrast between the saturation coverage now being given to the exodus of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo and the lack of similar outrage over the flight of a quarter-million Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia in July 1995.

    Croatia, part of the old six-republic Yugoslav federation, was convulsed early in the decade by warfare between Croatian security forces and heavily armed Croatian Serb nationalists backed by the Serb-led Yugoslav army. A truce left the Serbs in control of large tracts of southern and eastern Croatia the Krajina until the Croatian military grew strong enough to retake the territory, including some land that Serbs had held for centuries.

    Although the United States condemned the expulsion of the Krajina Serbs four years ago, it gave a green light to the Croatian military offensive that brought about the mass deportation. Washington also provided assistance to the Croatian army, which it saw as a convenient counterweight to Serbian aggression in neighboring Bosnia.

    At the Internet Cafi in Belgrade's cobblestoned Skadarlija district this week, Belgrade travel agent Dragan Kojic brought up the suffering of Croatia's Serbs in an ongoing discussion about the crisis that he's having with an Ohio couple he met in an Internet chat room.

    "HappyCouple" has been trying to persuade Kojic that the United States was right to intervene in Kosovo to prevent further persecution of ethnic Albanians. "Americans do not believe in a peace-at-any-price philosophy," they wrote, suggesting that the bombing campaign is the only way to stop the Milosevic government.

    Kojic is unimpressed, even though he too opposes Milosevic. "I say that America should have helped us four years ago, when the Serbs were expelled from Krajina," he said. "They say that America was not ready then."

    The Kosovo conflict has brought booming business to Internet providers here. At the cafe, people line up to pay $2 an hour to surf the Internet. Clients hop from chat rooms devoted to the Kosovo crisis to the Web sites of Western news organizations to official U.S. government sites.

    A 32-year-old student who gives his name only as Dima says that he, unlike most other clients at the cafe, is inclined to believe at least some of the atrocity stories from Kosovo, although he thinks there is a great deal of exaggeration and misinformation. Scanning a CNN report headlined "Refugees Tell of Systematic Rape," he says: "Something like this could have happened, but I don't think it was systematic."

    Across the table, aviation enthusiast Mario Hrelya is busy downloading the Canadian Armed Forces manual from the Canadian Defense Ministry Web site. He plans to go through it in detail to see how Canadian air force pilots have violated their own rules of engagement.

    Next to Hrelya, a student named Sasha Svetanovic, 22, is busy composing an e-mail to her boyfriend Marko, who is working on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. He says he is ready to come home in the event of a ground war with NATO to battle "the aggressor." Svetanovic who wears a Harley-Davidson motorcycle jacket, drinks Coca-Cola and smokes Lucky Strikes tells her boyfriend that CNN is no better than Yugoslav TV.

    Asked if she visits Web sites of Western news organizations for information about Kosovo, she shakes her head. "No, I don't believe in their information, so why should I upset myself?"

    In Washington, debate continued over whether NATO should bomb Yugoslav and Serbian television and radio transmitters, which alliance spokesman Jamie Shea has denounced as part of "Milosevic's war machine." So far, NATO has refrained from striking media facilities because some NATO members regard them as civilian targets.

    Asked about this today on the ABC News program "This Week," Albright said that "clearly the television and the propaganda machine there is despicable." But she ducked a question about bombing it, saying she was "not going to discuss targeting."

    Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman in Washington contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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