The fundamentalist defence of Chomsky on Bosnia

November 27, 2009 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

Being prepared to debate issues with fundamentalists is hard. And the revisionists who seek to change our understanding of the war in Bosnia by focusing on the pictures of the camps in the Prijedor region are certainly fundamentalists. They have their story and they are sticking to it no matter what; their commitment to evidence and reason is, at best, very weak.

I’ve been reminded of this in the wake of three comments submitted to my web site during the last week responding to my post on Chomsky and the issue of how the Bosnian Serb concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje were reported in 1992. Exercising my freedom of expression, I moderate all comments to my site, and declined to accept these three. They added nothing to the debate on the substance of the issue. They were long on personal abuse and short on analysis, and one of them was sent via an organisation promoting Holocaust revisionism.

I’ll be more than happy to post the comments of a critic who wants to engage the details of the 1992 ITN reports with grounded arguments; for example, someone who has a reasoned response to my detailed 2002 study of the issue. But claiming “the ITN photograph was a contrived piece of crap” doesn’t really cut it, and betrays a studied ignorance of Penny Marshall’s and Ian William’s two lengthy reports.

The only substantive point two of these correspondents raised was my use of the 2005 Emma Brockes’ Guardian interview of Chomsky as one of the four sources for his comments on the ITN vs. LM case. Here is what I wrote:

In 2005, in his contested interview with The Guardian, Chomsky stated that “LM was probably correct” in its claims about the pictures and the camp, and that although “Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist…he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.” This is the first interview I cited in the email above, and the text comes from Chomsky’s own web site. Chomsky objected strenuously to this interview and The Guardian (wrongly in many people’s eyes) issued him an apology. However, his main objection related to his views on Srebrenica, and his list of objections is available here. Chomsky never cited the statement about LM or Vuillamy as being wrongly reported, so he has not previously viewed it as “the complete fabrication” he now calls it. Presumably he doesn’t want to retract his statement in the interview about freedom of speech, that “…in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous.”

I linked to the interview on Chomsky’s own web site (because The Guardian withdrew it), linked to his detailed objections about this interview also on his web site, and noted The Guardian’s apology. Neither Chomsky’s objections nor The Guardian’s apology touched on the quotes in the interview relating to the ITN vs LM case I drew attention to. However, despite that, and despite providing the context and the links to Chomsky’s site, this was regarded as lacking accuracy and honesty on my part. The problem arose, it was claimed, because I didn’t provide the links to the judgment’s of The Guardian’s readers editor and ombudsman in the ruling on Chomsky’s complaint that led to The Guardian’s apology. So let’s look at those links closely (here and here), and see if they make a difference to the point I was making.

The reader’s editor found in favour of Chomsky on three points in the interview – two relating to his view of Srebrenica, and one to the positioning of a letter from an Omarska camp survivor with Chomsky’s letter to the editor after the interview. In other words, none of the findings related to Chomsky’s remarks on the ITN vs LM case, because Chomsky raised no objection to the reporting of his remarks on the case. Secondly, the external ombudsman reviewed the process that led to the findings of the reader’s editor after a counter-complaint from a group who felt The Guardian should not have apologised at all to Chomsky. In his findings, which supported the reader’s editor, John Willis wrote:

the Terms of Reference from the Scott Trust to me made it clear that my task was to judge the adequacy and fairness of how the complaint was handled not the complex underlying historical debate which surrounds the Bosnian conflict.

Therefore, the respondent who felt the Willis review was an additional source of support for Chomsky clearly didn’t understand the role of the external ombudsman. Nonetheless, Willis makes a point at the end of his review that the revisionists never point to. In the wake of the controversy following the publication of the Brockes’ interview, The Guardian published a comment piece by the revisionist author Diana Johnstone, whose views about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia Chomsky was supporting. Willis concluded:

I am not convinced that the Guardian should have run the short comment piece by Diana Johnstone in the form it did. She was not the direct subject of the original interview and although comment and response pieces are part of Guardian culture, taken with the apology and correction letters and the Open Door article, this piece contributed to the impression that the newspaper may have over compensated for the original, albeit serious errors.

Ms Johnstone’s first paragraph referred to “some of the errors” being corrected which implied that there were more mistakes in the original interview than the substantial and clear apology from the Readers’ Editor had detailed and to that extent was not completely fair to Emma Brockes.

All this demonstrates my original summary of the Brockes’ interview, in relation to the issue I am concerned with – what Chomsky has said about the ITN vs LM case – was fair, accurate and more than reasonable. These further links simply confirm that, and in fact point to inconvenient details the revisionists never raise in their supposedly ceaseless pursuit of the truth. And remember – none of the people so keen to question the legitimacy of the Brockes’ interview have anything to say about the video I posted of Chomsky’s interview with Serbian TV where he repeats and expands on his unsupportable thoughts about the Trnopolje images.

Interestingly, the links to the findings of the reader’s editor and external ombudsman make clear that the widespread support for Chomsky in 2005 was whipped up by an organization called Media Lens. They have been busy recently too, with Edward Herman and David Peterson publishing a lengthy “critique” of Ed Vuillamy’s letter to Amnesty International in their own open letter to the organization, which has been republished on Counterpunch and Monthly Review. This piece covers a wide range of issues, and others have responded to it in some detail.

With regard to the ITN vs LM case, Herman and Petersen have much to say, though we have heard it all before because they simply recycle the discredited Thomas Deichmann and Philip Knightly allegations (just as Chomsky does). My original 2002 investigation picked those apart, so trying to debate the likes of Herman and Petersen is largely pointless because of the way they rely on their false and partisan sources and studiously avoid counter arguments. Indeed, by going back to the flawed Deichmann and Knightly allegations of 1997, Herman and Peterson are oblivious to the fact that Deichmann, and then LM editor Mick Hume, substantially revised and retracted their original claims about the ITN reports and the nature of the camps under cross-examination during the 2000 High Court trial. What that shows is they have never read the hundreds of pages of court transcripts from that trial to see how the revisionist arguments were challenged and changed. In contrast, I have reviewed all that material and it provides an important source for my 2002 study.

However, one point, by way of demonstrating the erroneous nature of Herman and Peterson’s claims, is worth highlighting. They feel they have a decisive point supporting the charge that the ITN reports were fabricated when they turn to the Serbian documentary Judgment for support. They write (in note 17 of their piece):

We strongly recommend this documentary. In Part Two, from roughly the 4:44 minute-mark on, the physical location of the British reporters and cameraman is unmistakable: They set-themselves-up inside the area enclosed by the chicken-wire and barbed-wire fence which, shortly thereafter, they would incorporate into their Fikret Alic images.

In my 2002 articles (part 1, p. 30, note 65) I dealt with this claim:

The RTS video Judgement maintains it has the clinching evidence: ‘Our crew filmed the ITN people as they manoeuvred into this area [the alleged enclosure] through a hole in the broken-down fence, then we followed’. The curious thing is that Judgment does not contain this supposedly crucial footage. If they filmed this manoeuvre, as they say, where are the pictures? Their absence testifies to the falsity of the claim.

I recommend, therefore, after viewing the complete Marshall and William’s video reports on my site, people follow Herman and Peterson’s invitation to watch this section of Judgment on YouTube, so here is the link. What is there is not what they claim. Indeed, there is nothing there – at the moment the narrator says the Serbian crew filmed the ITN crew stepping inside a supposed enclosure, we don’t see anything of the ITN crew ‘manoeuvring’ through a hole as alleged. Instead, there are various scenes in and around Trnopolje, similar to some in the ITN reports themselves. By the time we see an image of Marshall and her crew they are standing next to the fence that encloses the prisoners, filming a segment that would end up consuming only twenty seconds of Marshall’s seven minute report and even less of William’s.

This sums up the fundamentalist attitude of the revisionists – they see what they want to see, not what is actually there in the video. There are many other claims in the Herman and Petersen polemic that could be equally contested, and I have done so in my 2002 articles. But there are perhaps few claims more grotesque than their observation that,

…it is well established that Fikret Alic’s physical appearance—often described as “xylophonic” because his ribcage showed prominently through his extremely thin torso—was not representative of the rest of the displaced persons seen at Trnopolje by the British reporters on August 5, 1992.

Just watch the two ITN reports in their entirety. And look at the Ron Haviv photo in my earlier post. There were dozens, perhaps a majority, of men at Trnopolje whose physical condition exhibited signs of maltreatment like Fikret Alic. He was not exceptional. That is well established. What is exceptional is the revisionists’ unwillingness to see beyond their fundamentalism.

10 Responses to “The fundamentalist defence of Chomsky on Bosnia”

  1. In his article “Poison in the Well of History” (March 15, 2000) Ed Vulliamy wondered: “What does it take to convince people? The war ground on, the British foreign office and Living Marxism in perfect synergy over their appeasement of the Serbs while other, worse camps were revealed.”

    Vulliamy also observed that “The bench in The Hague issued its judgment on Trnopolje in 1997: a verdict that described the camp as infinitely worse than anything we reported – an infernal place of rape, murder and torture. Witness after witness confirmed this.”

    He was correct. In the Kvocka Trial Chamber Judgement, for example, “One witness testified that ‘during the night, terrible screams could be heard, moans, beatings, from practically all the rooms which served as the Omarska concentration camp’”.

    The Kvocka Trial Judgment confirmed that the Keraterm and Trnopolje camps functioned according to the model established by the concurrently operating Omarska camp. The pervasive brutality that took place in this concentration camp can only be explained in terms of hell on earth. The judgement confirms that people were burned alive in this camp:

    “Petrovdan, or St. Peter’s Day, is an orthodox religious festival that occurs on the 12th of July each year. It is customary to build bonfires on the eve of the holiday in celebration. In 1992, this tradition took on a terrifying aspect in Omarska. A huge fire was made in front of the white house from dump truck tyres. Former detainee Hase Icic described the events that followed:

    ‘At the time, the Serbs, on the eve of Petrovdan, had a real, all-out sort of manifestation rally of civilians and guards. … As night began to fall, they started to take the people out of the first rooms…
    Q. What did you hear after some detainees were taken out?
    A. I remember that, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life, the cries of women who were outside or in the first room. I’ll never forget their cries and screams. Then I smelt the stench of burning meat. You know when meat begins to burn, it has a specific smell, and this smell of burning flesh was mixed with the smell of the burning rubber from the tyres.’

    This witness heard from other detainees that their fellow inmates had been thrown onto the
    fire. This terrible incident was corroborated by Witness AM, who watched the massacre from a window. Ermin Strikovic was able to see people walking round a big fire from the small window in his detention room. He heard screams of pain, although he was not able to see the cause. Zuhra Hrnic testified that the following morning, on her way to the cafeteria, she saw a large ‘FAP’ lorry fully loaded with dead bodies parked in the Omarska camp.”

    Daniel Toljaga
    The Congress of North American Bosniaks
    Board of Directors (www.bosniak.org)

  2. There is method in their malevolence – focusing the attention on Trnopolje diverts attention away from Omarska and Keraterm. Once you understand the role of Trnopolje as a component in the Prijedor camp system it becomes impossible to pretend that it was only a refugee camp or an innocuous transit centre.

    Bosniaks from Kozarac were rounded and up and brought to Trnopolje. Some were separated and taken to Omarska and Keraterm. Prisoners from Omarska and Keraterm – where starvation was part of the inhumane conditions that caused many prisoners to lose 20 to 30 kg of body weight, some more – were brought to Trnopolje where some were killed and others shipped across the front lines in prisoner exchanges and for purposes of population transfer (hence references to the “transit centre” – as if this was a benign activity) .

    Trnopolje may have been, as Maggie O’Kane apparently wrote, “the best camp to be sent to”, but that designation should simply have alerted any conscientious investigator to consider what the places other people might be sent to were like. Knightley, Herman, Peterson, Chomsky et al. have no interest in opening up the analysis to see Trnopolje in its context, either as part of the Prijedor system or even simply as the less important of the two camps covered in the ITN footage. Herman and Peterson in their open letter even take Vulliamy to task for referring to camps in the plural rather than the one camp they want to concentrate on.

    Trnopolje was, like Omarksa, scene of the Petrovdan massacre to which Daniel Toljoaga refers, and Keraterm, whose starvation regime left Fikret Alic in the emaciated condition seen in the photograph, part of a network of systematic atrocity which was similar in function and severity to the Nazi-era concentration camps, as you have carefully established. When intelligent academics with an apparently extensive knowledge of source materials maintain that it wasn’t and pass over the existence and methods of operation of the rest of the system, one wonders why? Cui bono?

  3. In all the careful studies you have made were you aware that in the ITN libel case against LM the Court actually accepted that the journalists were surrounded by the wire at Trnopolje not the prisoners? This was reported by none other than Vulliamy’s own newspaper The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/mar/31/medialaw.media):

    [5th and 6th paragraphs extracted]
    The LM article, headlined The picture that fooled the world, accused ITN of deliberately misrepresenting an image that came to symbolise the horror of the Bosnian war. It showed an emaciated Muslim, Fikret Alic, apparently caged behind barbed wire at Trnopolje camp. In fact, the wire had surrounded the ITN reporters.

    Nevertheless, the jury accepted that the camp was – contrary to what LM had suggested – a prison, and therefore the ITN pictures had not misrepresented the truth.

  4. Brian;

    Yes, I’m very much aware of that claim — that ‘the court accepted the journalists were surrounded by wire, not the prisoners…’ Its a false claim, and here is why.

    The libel trial against Living Marxism for running the erroneous Thomas Deichmann story on Trnopolje was a jury trial. This means all determinations of fact, and the final judgment, was reached by the unanimous decision of twelve citizens, after they had heard all the arguments, listened to the cross-examination of all parties, and seen all the evidence, including all the video. So the jury verdict is the only basis on which to make a statement about what that ‘the Court’ did or did not accept.

    Nonetheless, the claim that the Court offered a view on the wire fence different from the jury verdict comes from a reading of a comment by the presiding judge, Mr Justice Morland, during the proceedings. Many people who want to continue to discredit the story of Fikret Alic and revise our understanding of Trnopolje call attention to the judge’s comment. Most people wanting to make this case have relied on a BBC news story about the libel trial that contained a paraphrase of the judge’s opinion — but this BBC story was subsequently found to be misleading and unfair by the Broadcasting Standards Commission. As for the Guardian article you quote, I read that as first summarising the Deichmann/LM allegation before reporting the jury verdict, but if you wanted to read it as endorsing the judge’s comment about the fence, then it is as mistaken and misleading as the BBC report the BSC ruled against.

    My 2002 articles (see links above) put everything in context and provide the detailed evidence. If you read part 1, pp. 20-21, you will see the judge’s comments quoted and discussed, and in part 1, p. 7, you will see the details of the inaccurate BBC story. The judge offered his personal view, questioning part of ITN’s account about the condition and location of the fences at Trnopolje. In the end, this was a minor and contested point that did not have any impact on the jury’s deliberation, its understanding of the camp conditions, and their unanimous decision. As a result, this false claim cannot be used to call the veracity of the Alic image and the full ITN report on Trnopolje into question. A full reading of my two articles demonstrates why that is a secure conclusion.

  5. David, thanks for your meticulous attention to detail. I wish other notable academics were as bothered!

  6. As well as the gap in the RTS crew’s film at Trnopolje omitting the claimed evidence of the ITN crew manoeuvring through the “hole in the broken-down fence”, there are some other rather significant omissions from the RTS footage at Omarska – in the canteen the gaunt, haunted-looking inmates filmed by ITN are nowhere to be seen and the ITN film of the guards refusing them admission to the hangar is also omitted. The comment from the inmate telling Penny Marshall that he cannot tell the truth is also missing. Comparison of the footage in Judgment with ITN’s raw and broadcast footage is a useful exercise, as you suggest.

  7. As far as the wire issue is concerned, the prisoners were contained, even if their compound was not completely enclosed by the barbed wire.

    As Ed Vulliamy subsequently observed ” I now know the compound in which these terrified men were held captive to have been surrounded on one side by recently reinforced barbed wire, on two sides by a chain-link fence patrolled by menacing armed thugs and on a fourth side by a wall. But so what? This was a camp — I would say a concentration camp — and they were its inmates.”

    And as Dr Merdzanic said giving evidence to the Milomir Stakic trial in reply to the question “What prevented people from leaving Trnopolje the camp? You said men were no longer allowed to leave unless their name was on a list.”,”Guards were posted around Trnopolje, all around Trnopolje. There were guard posts, and then there was this fence. One could easily jump over that fence, however. But apart from the checkpoints and the guards, even if only a simple line had been drawn on the ground, nobody would dare cross that line.”

    Watching both the Judgment and the ITN footages, looking beyond the ITN crew along the line of the fence and observing the way prisoners are lined up along it, the impression is not one of refugees walking around as they choose or that of a crowd clustered around the point at which something interesting is happening. These are people lined up along a fence that contains them.

  8. its amazing,people in times of war looking rather emaciated.If you watch the video the wire was attached on the side where the muslims were not on the other side .That would be rather stupid if your intent was to imprison people.Also just as you can see the rather skinny fellow you can see some pretty well fed people.Anyone that views the video”judgement” can see the truth and how it was intentionally maneuvered to instigate images of concentration camps circa 1944.I implore people to not submit to the regurgitated propaganda that lead to this manufactured war but investigate,read from many sources.
    As one of the commentors here(daniel toljaga)stated in another article that nasir oric and his merry band of cutthroats didnt kill innocent civilians.This is rather fantastic considering oric showed videos of his massacres to Canadian journalist Bill Schiller without remorse or trepidation .
    Please let us not forget these are the same propagandist who supplied us with {hundreds of thousands murdered,50000 women raped,rape camps et etc}Open your eyes and minds.Visit the website “the real srebrenica genocide”

    • Dragan: your comment is offensive in its disregard for the victims of war, and deeply ironic in its call for open minds and eyes while repeating claims that have been demonstrably and irrevocably shown to be without foundation. I have accepted this comment to remind myself and others concerned with the story of the camps in the Prijedor region that revisionism is alive and well. If you want to engage the substance of the story then read my two articles “Atrocity, Memory, Photography” on this site. You will see how arguments which invoke the detail of the wire, and the fatally flawed video “Judgement”, are just repeating myths that fly in the face of evidence.