Bombs and Bombast in the NATO/Yugoslav War of 1999: The Attack on Radio Television Serbia and the Laws of War

By Eko, Lyombe | Communications and the Law, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Bombs and Bombast in the NATO/Yugoslav War of 1999: The Attack on Radio Television Serbia and the Laws of War


Eko, Lyombe, Communications and the Law


"There is no dictatorial type of warfare as opposed to a democratic type."--Hans Speier. (1)

At dawn on April 23, 1999, NATO fighter-bombers attacked the Belgrade headquarters and broadcasting studios of Radio Televisija Srbije (Radio Television Serbia (RTS)), Serbia's state-run radio and television network. Serbian authorities claimed that at least sixteen civilian media personnel were killed and scores of others were injured in the attack. (2) NATO's bombing of the Serbian broadcast facility was one of the most controversial military actions of the post-World War II era. (3) International human rights advocates, environmental activists, antiglobalization and peace activists, media watchdog groups, and free speech campaigners around the world denounced the bombing. (4) A Russian parliamentary commission and several international human-rights lawyers complained to the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that NATO's bombing of Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and other civilian facilities amounted to war crimes. (5)

The Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, told the U.N. Security Council that she had reviewed all complaints and allegations against NATO and was satisfied that, although NATO had made mistakes during the war, (6) there was no deliberate targeting of civilians or any unlawful military activity by the alliance during Operation Allied Force. (7)

Radio Television Serbia's national network was targeted because it had become the propaganda mouthpiece of the regime of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. As such, it is alleged to have fomented and fanned the flames of ethnic nationalism and hatred that consumed the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Indeed, the bombing of RTS was the culmination of an intense propaganda and communications war within the wider military conflict, code-named Operation Allied Force, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), led by the United States, unleashed on the Serbian-led Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from March 26 to June 10, 1999. (8) The war also was one of the last chapters in the bloody history of post--Cold War Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia whose violent break-up had given the world both the ominous term, "ethnic cleansing," (9) and detention centers reminiscent of Hitler's concentration camps.

How did NATO, an organization that had been created as a collective political and security bulwark against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, end up fighting against the rump of the collapsed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and bombing its mass media infrastructure back to the pre-radio age? The answer lies in the dynamics of the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the role that the mass media played in the various ethnic conflicts and massacres that accompanied the country's demise.

This article is a case study of the role of mass mediated propaganda in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s as well as the NATO-Yugoslav war of 1999. The study (10) was carried out within a public communication and international humanitarian law perspective. It aimed to determine (1) the role of the mass media in the various Balkan conflicts that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, and (2) whether NATO's attacks on Serbia's civilian communication and broadcasting facilities were intentional and, if so, whether these attacks and the loss of life they occasioned were lawful under international humanitarian law or the laws of war. In other words, was the bombing of the national network of Radio Television Serbia (RTS) the result of mistakes (collateral damage in Pentagon/NATO jargon) as concluded by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, (11) or was the bombing deliberate and intentional? …

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