Chomsky’s Bosnian shame


Following on from the controversy surrounding Noam Chomsky’s October 2009 Amnesty International lecture in Belfast (see here), I have been receiving new information on interviews Professor Noam Chomsky has given in recent years where he discusses, amongst other issues, the 1992 ITN television reports of the Bosnian Serb camps at Omarska and Trnopolje.

My correspondence with Noam Chomsky:

I’ll say some more about these interviews below, but one thing I have always wondered was whether Chomsky was open to evidence that these TV reports were in fact an accurate portrayal of the Prijedor region camps. So, having written the most detailed study available on this issue – Atrocity, Memory, Photography, a two-part academic article – last week I decided to write to Professor Chomsky and ask if he had, or was willing to read, my two articles, and if so, what he thought about them. He did reply, and the reply is revealing.

Here is the verbatim exchange:

To: Noam Chomsky <>
Sent: Thursday, November 12, 2009 1:30  PM
Subject: Bosnian camp photos – the true story of ITN vs LM

Dear Professor Chomsky

In 2002 I published two lengthy, refereed academic articles in  the Journal of Human Rights on the controversy surrounding the ITN news reports from the Bosnian Serb camps in 1992. These articles (attached as PDFs) were the result of two years research using many primary sources, and they have been freely available on the web for the last few years.

I am aware that you have made a number of statements repeating and endorsing the substance of the Thomas Deichmann/Living Marxism critique of the ITN reports.  I am referring to two items available on your web site, namely the 2005 interview with The Guardian ( and the 2006 interview with RTS (

In light of my research, I find those statements very disturbing. I believe if you examined the empirical details of the case you would recognise that the Deichmann/LM position is without foundation when it comes to the accuracy of the original TV reports and the meaning of the camp at Trnopolje.

I hope you will read my work, and I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

David Campbell

Within hours, Chomsky responded:

On 12/11/2009 19:13, “Noam Chomsky” <chomsky@MIT.EDU> wrote:

Thanks for the reference.  I’ll look it up.  I doubt that I’ll have any comments, unless you raised the matter of freedom of speech.  On the camp and the photo, I’ve barely discussed it, a single phrase in an interview, in fact, which didn’t say much.  I realize that the Balkans are a Holy Issue in England, far more sensitive than Israel in the US, so perhaps it is not surprising that a single phrase in an obscure interview, which said virtually nothing, would arouse utter hysteria, as it has.

As for the sources you cite, one of them (the Guardian interview) was known at once to be a complete fabrication, so ridiculous that the Guardian ombudsman quickly issued an apology and it was withdrawn from their website (over my objection — I think the antics of the media should be exposed).  As for the other, I said almost nothing about the photo and the camp, apart from repeating Knightley’s conclusions about what was probably the case.   I presume you agree that he is a credible source, whether right or wrong.  I’ll be happy to send it to you if you haven’t seen it, along with his bitter condemnation of British intellectuals for their shameful contempt for freedom of speech.  In the interview to which you referred, that is what I discussed.  If you disagree with him, you should write to him, not me.

I am well aware that the concept of freedom of speech is not regarded highly in England, so even this shameful escapade passed with virtually no criticism, in fact with euphoria.  I’ll be interested in seeing how you handled it in your articles.  I don’t see anything at all disturbing in my comments, except that they were perhaps too mild in condemnation of British intellectual practices.  I do, however, think you might consider your own reaction, and ask whether the words “very disturbing” might be appropriate.

Noam Chomsky

This wasn’t exactly an invitation to intellectual engagement (“I doubt that I’ll have any comments…”). And he doesn’t hesitate to conclude with an attack (that my concern about his statements is itself “very disturbing”). Given this, I didn’t bother with a direct reply. But a public reply is warranted given the seriousness of the issue, so I intend to examine in detail Chomsky’s response.

Let’s skip over the question of whether the Balkans are a “holy issue” in England; whether calling attention to his statements is evidence of “utter hysteria”; and his claim that freedom of speech is “not regarded highly in England” and that “British intellectual practices” are to be condemned tout court. I am neither English nor British, but the more important point is that Chomsky has said all these things many times before, and the repetition of these charges suggests he keeps a stock answer for enquiries such as mine. Engaging with the challenging views doesn’t seem to interest him. Of course, If Professor Chomsky decides to debate the substance of the two articles I sent him in a future reply, I will post his response and correct anything below should he demonstrate anything I’ve written is incorrect.

What Chomsky has said on the photographs of the Bosnian camps

Lets instead look at what Chomsky, in his own words, has actually said about the issue of ITN news reports, the photograph of Fikret Alic, and the Bosnian camps.

  • From the outset Chomsky has viewed the issue as one of free speech above all else, and thus lent his support to LM’s case against ITN and its reporters. However, after the jury verdict found against LM, Chomsky was quoted in The Guardian (Media supplement, 21 February 2000, p. 9) as saying that it was “evil” if LM’s reporting “dishonoured the suffering of those in the Bosnian war.” That was the high point of Chomsky’s concern for the human rights of those in the Bosnian camps.
  • In the 2003 Swedish controversy surrounding Diana Johnstone’s revisionist book, as discussed in the previous post, Chomsky endorsed the statement that said this book was “an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.” Johnstone’s book quotes and endorses the LM critique of the Bosnian camp stories (see pages 72-73). Given that it was published after the High Court trial found the LM case to be totally without merit, Chomsky is indirectly claiming the reiteration of falsehoods counts as “an appeal to fact and reason.” He goes further in his letter to Swedish friends when he states the case of Living Marxism “is important” and that Johnstone “argues – and, in fact, clearly demonstrates – that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.”
  • 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’ll return to the significance of that claim below).
  • The second interview I cited in the email to Chomsky was one he gave Danilo Mandic of Serbia’s RTS on 25 April 2006. It covered a range of issues, but does include a significant exchange on the Trnopolje pictures. Despite saying in his email to me that “I said almost nothing about the photo and the camp…”, here is the relevant section (starting at 01:40 in the video):

NC: …However, but if you look at the coverage, for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man [‘in the concentr…’] behind the barb-wire.

DM: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

NC: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and ‘we can’t have Auschwitz again.’ The intellectuals went crazy and the French were posturing on television and the usual antics. Well, you know, it was investigated and carefully investigated. In fact it was investigated by the leading Western specialist on the topic, Philip Knightly [sic], who is a highly respected media analyst and his specialty is photo journalism, probably the most famous Western and most respected Western analyst in this. He did a detailed analysis of it. And he determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted and, near the thin man was a fat man and so on, well and there was one tiny newspaper in England, probably three people, called LM which ran a critique of this, and the British (who haven’t a slightest concept of freedom of speech, that is a total fraud)…a major corporation, ITN, a big media corporation had publicized this, so the corporation sued the tiny newspaper for lible [sic]….”

Perhaps that is ‘saying almost nothing’ to Chomsky, but it contains a number of untrue claims and is consistent with his earlier views. Indeed, in describing the pictures of Fikret Alic at Trnopolje as the ‘thin man behind barbed wire’ photographs, Chomsky is using Diana Johnstone’s phrasing to repeat Thomas Deichmann’s erroneous allegations. Most importantly, the RTS interview shows that he accepts the interviewer’s declaration that “the photograph of the thin man” – which Chomsky starts to say is in a “concentration camp”, but corrects himself to say just “behind the barb-wire” – is “fraudulent.” That is a major claim, and one that is demonstrably wrong.

Examining Chomsky’s source: the flaws in Philip Knightley’s argument

In his email reply to me, Chomsky maintained that his RTS interview simply repeated Phillip Knightley’s conclusions about the case. I accept that Knightley has written some credible things on war reporting generally, but in the case of the Bosnian camp photos his analysis, such as it is, is filled with errors and wrong in its conclusions. I have a copy of the Knightley analysis, so let’s examine the document that Chomsky continues to draw on for his understanding of this issue.

The main elements of Philip Knightley’s statement on the case can be found here. I have a longer document written by Knightley (and circulated recently by Chomsky) that incorporates this but has some other details.

Those details make clear Knightley’s document dates from 1998-99, and consists of a statement Knightley gave to Helene Guldberg, who was then the publisher of LM and one of the three named defendants in the libel action brought by ITN. Although it is claimed that Knightley presented this statement to the High Court in London during the trial, the transcripts of the libel trial show Knightley did not testify, and there is no record of the role, if any, his statement played in proceedings. It seems, therefore, to have been a background briefing for the LM defendants as they prepared their defence.

The chronology of Knightley’s interest in this case is worth noting. He says he first came across the still image taken from the ITN reports when he was researching an article on female war correspondents for the Australian magazine The Independent Monthly. Knightley says this was in October 1994, but in fact the article appeared in the October 1993 issue (I have a paper copy). This reveals that, although he casts himself as the authority on war photography and reporting, he does not trace his memory of the Trnopolje pictures to their original broadcast and publication more than a year earlier.

Knightley then makes the interesting claim that on his first, albeit delayed, encounter with the photograph of Fikret Alic that “I was immediately struck by the fact that the image was too good to be true.” This judgment – or, more accurately, pre-judgment – then colours the remainder of his analysis.

Knightley says he examined the ITN report frame by frame, but given his summary conclusions and the lack of any detailed analysis in his statement we have to wonder how much attention he paid to the specifics of the report. Knightley writes:

I have no way of knowing what the ITN team members said or decided when they were compiling their report after their visit to Trnopolje. But I know enough about television war reporting to be able to say that once they saw the image their camerman had captured of an emaciated Fikret Alic with the stand of barbed wire across his chest, that image then drove and dominated their report. Their words were chosen to fit the image whether the facts justified them or not.

This conclusion is unsupported on two counts. The first is that the ITN reports (both Penny Marshall’s ITV story and Ian Williams’ Channel 4 story) concentrate at the outset by what the reporters found at Omarska rather than Trnopolje. Indeed, it is revealing that throughout this controversy LM and its defenders studiously ignored this fact and carefully avoided discussion of the larger camp at Omarska. Yet Omarska was the subject of the first half of both these television stories. The second half of each deals with Trnopolje, but the sequence of Fikret Alic at the barbed wire fence runs for 20 seconds in Marshall’s story and a mere five seconds in Williams’.

The claim that the image of Alic behind the fence “drove and dominated” these reports is, therefore, simply wrong. The best way to see that is to do something that Knightley did badly and I doubt Chomsky has done at all – actually view the reports in their entirety. Anyone can see them here.

Of course, if Knightley wanted an insight into what the ITN team members said or decided when compiling their report he could have interviewed them, as he interviewed Thomas Deichmann to get the details of his charges against ITN. After the High Court trial he could also have revisited the issue, because in testimony that very discussion was probed (see my article, part 2, p. 148), revealing that the ITN team decided against using the term ‘concentration camp’ to frame their report, thereby ensuring that the Alic images played a minor role in their coverage.

There are two other elements in Knightley’s flawed analysis that are worth highlighting. The first is his claim that, although ITN was right to report that Alic and others were detained at Trnopolje, the camp “was not a concentration camp in the Second World War sense.” This is also part of Chomsky’s statement to RTS (that the Alic pictures lead everyone to assume the camp was like Auschwitz), is what drives much of Diana Johnstone’s views, and was absolutely central to the whole LM campaign against the ITN coverage. The issues here are complex (and are discussed in detail in my article, part 2, pp. 145-52).  Trnopolje is not like Auschwitz. But the important point is that the line of argument which says ‘Trnopolje cannot be a concentration camp because it is not the same as Auschwitz’ betrays an impoverished historical knowledge about the phenomenon both of concentration camps generally and the vast Nazi system of labour, concentration and death camps that made up the Final Solution.

The second and final feature of Knightley’s flawed analysis I want to draw attention to is his claim that the image of Alic behind the barbed wire “changed the course of the war” in Bosnia. It is a view Chomsky repeats in his RTS interview where he states that the Alic photo was “one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion.” Both these statements are unfounded. Knightley alleges that the Bush administration of 1992 changed its policy to Serbia within 20 minutes of the ITN story being shown on American television, and that an emergency British cabinet meeting immediately agreed to send 1,800 ground troops to Bosnia. Neither thing happened as claimed, as I make clear in my article, part 2, pp. 158-59.

It seems that Knightley has taken the view about US policy changing quickly from a Sunday Times report in 1992 which made just this statement, something that demonstrates the shallowness of Knightley’s analysis. In fact, what then President Bush said was, having seen the report, he was personally outraged and would press for a UN Security Council resolution to ensure humanitarian relief convoys reached needy civilians. At no stage was there ever a suggestion of US ground troops being dispatched to Bosnia to intervene in the war. Indeed, the only US ground forces that made it to the region did not arrive until 1996 when they were part of the international mission overseeing the Dayton piece agreement, which partitioned Bosnia and rewarded the Bosnian Serbs for their ethnic cleansing. Equally, no British forces were dispatched in the wake of the report, and the only ones that made it to Bosnia were UN ‘peacekeepers’ sent to supervise relief convoys. They weren’t given a war fighting mandate and had to stand on the sidelines watching ethnic cleansing operations being carried out. The idea that the picture of Fikret Alic paved the way for the rapid deployment of western military forces to fight is a fiction of the revisionists’ imagination – and a forlorn desire of those Bosniaks who at the time were desperate for such action.

What about free speech in this case?

What unites Chomsky and Knightley in their outrage at ITN is the view that this whole issue is about freedom of speech above all else. When ITN decided to take legal action against LM for its claims about their reporters and the August 1992 story, many British commentators (in a challenge to Chomsky’s anglophobia) were opposed to the idea that a major media corporation would sue a smaller (albeit well produced and generously funded) publication. I discussed these issues in my original study (part 2, pp. 160-66).

There are important issues relevant to freedom of speech in Britain’s peculiar laws of libel, and many people want to see these laws overhauled. Indeed, only this week Index on Censorship and English PEN have released a major report as part of the Libel Reform Campaign that details the needed changes. This demonstrates, contra Chomsky, that there are many significant British voices concerned about freedom of expression. I support this campaign for libel law reform and support the recommendations of IoC and English PEN.

However, in the case of the Bosnian camp photos we need to separate a number of different strands. Questions about the veracity of the ITN coverage and details of the conditions at Omarska and Trnopolje need to be considered apart from the issue of whether it was right that ITN was able to sue LM. This is where Chomsky, Knightley and others fail so spectacularly. It would have been quite possible for Chomsky to say LM should be able to publish what it wanted without any repercussions even though what they published in this case was both wrong and offensive. In his first comment on the case, Chomsky adopted a position something like this. However, since then he has folded his freedom of speech concern into a series of claims that support the substantive details of LM‘s untrue allegations, while at the same time disingenuously claiming he is not taking a position on the merits of the case. As a result, Chomsky, Knightley and their supporters refuse to see the different dimensions here, prioritise an absolutist view of freedom of speech, and then make revisionist arguments designed to belittle the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in order to buttress their outrage at what one media company did to another. In so doing, they choose to regard ITN as simply a corporation, and overlook the way the individual reporters pursued the story despite military censorship by the Bosnian Serb authorities. Indeed, at no point in this controversy have Chomsky and others been concerned about the freedom of speech of those reporters.

I also think that, as strange as existing British libel law is, it had an important and surprisingly beneficial effect in the case of ITN vs LM. The LM defendants and Thomas Deichmann were properly represented at the trial and were able to lay out all the details of their claim that the ITN reporters had “deliberately misrepresented” the situation at Trnopolje. Having charged ‘deliberate misrepresentation’, they needed to prove ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. To this end, the LM defendants were able to cross-examine Penny Marshall and Ian Williams, as well as every member of the ITN crews who were at the camps, along with other witnesses. (That they didn’t take up the opportunity to cross-examine the Bosnian doctor imprisoned at Trnopolje, who featured in the ITN stories and was called to testify on the conditions he and others suffered, was perhaps the moment any remaining shred of credibility for LM’s allegations evaporated). They were able to show the ITN reports to the court, including the rushes from which the final TV stories were edited, and conduct a forensic examination of the visuals they alleged were deceitful. And all of this took place in front of a jury of twelve citizens who they needed to convince about the truthfulness of their allegations.

They failed. The jury found unanimously against LM and awarded the maximum possible damages. So it was not ITN that bankrupted LM. It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist. Their freedom of speech has thus not been permanently infringed.

Concluding thoughts on Chomsky and the Bosnian camp photos

According to Alexander Cockburn, “Chomsky’s enemies have often opted for these artful onslaughts in which he’s set up as somehow an apologist for monstrosity, instead of being properly identified as one of the most methodical and tireless dissectors and denouncers of monstrosity in our era.”

I am not an enemy of Noam Chomsky. But I am a strong critic of his position on the Bosnian camp photos because his repeated statements of purported fact indicate that – in this instance – he is an “apologist for monstrosity” rather than one of its “tireless dissectors and denouncers.” Although he says he only speaks about the freedom of speech issues implied by this case, he has to this day consistently made and repeated substantive claims about the status of both the visuals of Fikret Alic and the camp in which he was interned, while trying to elide the fact of those statements. Chomsky’s insistence on seeing Alic and the reporters who witnessed Omarska and Trnopolje as pawns in a story that puts an absolutist notion of freedom of speech above the issues of human rights and historical accuracy is, to repeat, very disturbing. In fact, it is worth than that – it is shameful.

In writing that the words “very disturbing” might be an appropriate description for my concern about his statements on the Bosnian camp pictures, Chomsky demonstrated he sees no need to engage with the substance of arguments that contradict his views. For one regularly praised as an important intellectual of his time, that stance is a problem. In the words of Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland representative, “we all have a responsibility to stand up for justice and to stand against those who would take away the human rights of the most vulnerable.” In this particular case, that means we have to stand against Noam Chomsky’s revisionist and unfounded claims about what happened and was reported at Trnopolje in August 1992.

(I began drafting this post on 14 November 2009 – hence the URL date – but did not complete it or publish it until 16 November 2009).

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29 Responses to “Chomsky’s Bosnian shame”

  1. alex thomson

    Thankyou. Writing the truth never goes out of fashion. In Ian Williams and Penny Marshall it would be hard to find two less, hysterical reporters – two people less likely to big u-p what they saw or make more of it than what was plainly there. Shame on these ego-academics who never, ever get their shoes dirty going to see it and tell it as it is.

  2. Owen

    David, I don’t see why you should constantly be having to face this uphill struggle against revisionists like Chomsky. Back in 1994 Cherif Bassiouni’s report to the United Nations used the expression “concentration camp” to describe the Prijedor camps.


    Throughout the report on Prijedor reference is made to the concentration camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje.

    As far as the justification for describing them as “death camps” is concerned, PART ONE – VI CONCENTRATION CAMPS AND DEPORTATIONS states at para. 22:

    “22. As the “informative talks” or interrogations basically took place in the Omarska and Keraterm camps, it can be concluded that more than 6,000 adult males were taken to these concentration camps in the short period they existed (from the end of May to the beginning of August 1992). Since only 1,503 were moved on to Manjaça camp according to Mr. Drljaça, a limited number transferred to the Trnopolje camp, and almost none released, it may be assumed that the death toll was extremely high, even by Serbian accounts. The concentration camp premises were sometimes so packed with people that no more inmates could be crammed in. On at least one occasion, this allegedly resulted in an entire bus-load of newly captured people being arbitrarily executed en masse. Some 37 women were detained in Omarska, whilst no women were kept over time in Keraterm.”

    Shortly after, at para. 27, under VII THE STRATEGY OF DESTRUCTION there’s an explanation of the purpose of the concentration camps – the reason why the camps were used to “concentrate” key members of the Muslim and Croat communities.

    “27. Despite the absence of a real non-Serbian threat, the main objective of the concentration camps, especially Omarska but also Keraterm, seems to have been to eliminate the non-Serbian leadership. Political leaders, officials from the courts and administration, academics and other intellectuals, religious leaders, key business people and artists – the backbone of the Muslim and Croatian communities – were removed, apparently with the intention that the removal be permanent. Similarly, law-enforcement and military personnel were targeted for destruction. These people also constituted a significant element of the non-Serbian group in that its depletion rendered the group at large defenceless against abuses of any kind. Other important traces of Muslim and Croatian culture and religion – mosques and Catholic churches included – were destroyed.”

    The .pdf version can be downloaded from

    More information about Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje can be found in PART TWO – VIII. THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS (paras. 337-505).

    This was published in 1994.

  3. Caspar Behrendt

    My English is not as good as it could be, but i wonder if you don’t misinterpret the last sentence in Chomsky’s reply to you?
    As I read it, he doesn’t claim that your reaction is disturbing, but that you, if you give it a second thought, may not see his statements as disturbing either.

    Interesting post, though.

  4. Daniel Toljaga

    Phillip Knightley never visited Trnopolje concentration camp and therefore he is not a reputable authority to judge what happened there. Considering Knightley’s involvement in the case of ITN vs LM (Living Marxism), he is far from being an objective source. He is “one of those” conspiracy theorists fully convinced that the mainstream media is somehow inherently evil and out to demonize people like Slobodan Milosevic.

    As a side note, Living Marxism was the journal of the British Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). It was later rebranded as LM Magazine. In practice, Communism is a form of brutal dictatorship (variant of totalitarianism). What kind of reputation/credibility do people who advocate this type of ideology have?

    Of course, Knightley never examined a role of Serbian media in the Yugoslav wars. For that purpose, I highly recommend the expert report of Professor Renaud De la Brosse, Senior Lecturer at the University of Reims, France, titled: “Political Propaganda and the Plan to Create ‘A State For All Serbs:’ Consequences of using media for ultra-nationalist ends.”

    Noam Chomsky’s offensive allegation that this torture camp was somehow a “refugee camp” where “people could leave if they wanted” is far from any reality. Chomsky never spent a day at the Trnopolje concentration camp, how would he know?

    According to the testimony of Idriz Merdzanic, the Trnopolje camp was not a centre for people driven from their homes, but an internment camp where people were tortured, raped and murdered. Merdzanic was the doctor interned in Trnopolje who had risked his life to photograph badly beaten inmates.

    Dr. Merdzanic testified that upon arrival to the camp, men would be separated from the women, with most of the men being held in the school building, while the women and children were put in the community center. People slept on the floor; camp authorities provided no food. Guards were posted around the Trnopolje camp, and it was surrounded by a fence. There were machine guns in various locations, and they were pointed towards the camp. Serb soldiers would select women and girls they like and then rape them.

    Doesn’t look like a “refugee camp” after all, does it?

    Daniel Toljaga
    The Congress of North American Bosniaks
    Board of Directors (

  5. duckrabbit

    Chomsky’s response is pathetic and shows him on this issue at least to be living in an ivory tower of his own making.

  6. Owen

    David, I’ve assumed that Knightley’s evidence was presented to the court on the basis of Alexander Cockburn’s comment in Counterpunch “Here, by way of conclusion, is Philip Knightley’s discussion of the famous concentration camp photos. He made it to the court, back in 1998.” Reference to 1998 seemed a bit odd, so I wondered whether this was some early stage on the proceedings – unless Cockburn meant “for the court” rather than “to the court”.

  7. David Campbell

    Owen – the daily transcripts of the court case, which I have, show no evidence of Knightley appearing or his document being used, so I don’t see any evidence in those transcripts for Cockburn’s statement. In addition, Knightley’s document, although it refers to the court in its text, is actually addressed to one of the LM defendants, so appears to me to be a background briefing for them rather than a formal submission.

  8. Owen

    Thanks for drawing attention the “chronology” of Knightley’s interest in the case. I found it odd too that he hadn’t come across the picture before his research into women reporters and Maggie O’Kane’s reporting of the war in Bosnia.

    In his statement Knightley drew attention to his credentials as an expert on the way wars have been reported, photographed and filmed. If Knightley considered that the image had had sufficient impact to change the course of the war, why was it so long after the rest of the international public that he first came across the picture of Fikret Alic?

    As far as I know you’re the first person who’s raised that question. He doesn’t seem to offer any explanation.

    Chomsky presents himself to RTS Online as an authority on the “fraudulent photograph”. He justifies himself with vague references to Knightley. He has a deep structure of suspicion that generates an infinitie

  9. Kemal

    I had a dozen of close and distant relatives being imprisoned in that camp. Only one of them made it out alive. He lives in California now. Mr. Chomsky is an intelligent man, no doubt. However, he should refrain from stupid comments like this just to be different from others. He is either totally misinformed, or he is deliberately making malicious statement only to elicit a negative and emotional response from those who lost relatives when Serbs committed these atrocities back in the ’90s. He should go and live in Serbia…

  10. Jim Hicks

    Thanks — another valuable addition to the syllabus for my “War Stories” course. I particularly admire the care you demonstrate in regards to Chomsky’s legimate concerns (free speech, British libel laws, etc.) and the general importance of his work, which Cockburn does properly identify. And I don’t much like Chomsky’s charge of hysteria as a description of your — or my own in the classroom, for that matter — attempts to set the record straight. Like the issue of British libel laws, a concern with competition between underreported stories and (purportedly) overreported stories is legitimite, but a side issue.
    My question is whether you could perhaps do a bit better with your discussion of the ITN v. LM verdict. When you state that what was charged, and what thus had to be proved, was “deliberate misrepresentation,” you are no doubt correct. But this conflates two issues, intention and truth. The verdict could, I suppose, have been that there was misrepresentation, but that it wasn’t deliberate. Your previous writing on this subject, if I remember correctly, also makes the point that, not only did ITN not deliberately mislead, they also got it right. That bears repeating here, I’d say.
    Jim Hicks

  11. David Watson

    David, your commentary earlier and this post were eloquent, succinct, and crucial. I am a great admirer of your two earlier essays and have recommended them to many people. They, and this, will endure in the tradition of authentic truth-telling and demystification.

    I have not had had time to follow up on the Cockburn citation of Knightley, but if he simply fabricated it no one should be surprised. He has been one of the most virulent deniers of Bosnian Serb nationalist war crimes in Kosova and Bosnia, and actively promoted a variety of deniers to claim that the Bosnians bombed themselves, etc. and ad nauseam.

    To throw doubt on the reports of Serb atrocities during the 1999 war over Kosova, Cockburn smugly repeated Karadzic’s canard that “the Bosnian Muslims”—a formulation misrepresenting the multiethnic Bosnian government in the same way that cynical Western diplomats and UN bureaucrats do—“kept Western sympathies aflame with contrived incidents, culminating—almost certainly—in the lobbing of that shell into that marketplace” in Sarajevo in 1994 (“The Progressive’s War,” The Nation, May 10, 1999). In a subsequent column, he reiterated his claim that the 1995 market massacre, and two other similar shelling massacres—and presumably many more—were contrived, and expressed surprise that fellow Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, who had challenged him, would “affect such outrage at the notion that the Bosnians would have engineered these lethal provocations.” After all, the Bosnians “wouldn’t be the first to decide that the higher good—in this case, NATO intervention—justified the sacrifice of some of their own. The fate of the Lusitania and Pearl Harbor testify to that.” Cockburn cites a previous Nation article by former New York Times reporter and well-known Serb nationalist apologist David Binder (“Bosnia’s Bombers,” The Nation, October 2, 1995). Though Binder’s seriously misleading article only treated the second and third shelling incidents, Cockburn continued to insist that there is “no shortage of serious sources” that suggest the first also was also a Bosnian government job (“Those Marketplace Bombings,” The Nation, June 21, 1999).

    Of course, Cockburn was only following a family tradition of willingness to bend the truth for the cause. His father, Claude Cockburn, who was a correspondent for the English weekly The Week and the Communist Party Daily Worker during the Spanish Civil War, wrote as an open supporter of the Spanish Republic and particularly the party, and was not averse to fabricating stories for the cause, for example reporting on a completely fictitious battle to present the Republic in a positive light. He also slandered as fascist fifth-columnists the anarchists and others (including the independent Marxist party with which Orwell had fought as a volunteer) who resisted the Stalinist-engineered counterrevolution against the workers collectives in Barcelona in May 1937, backing up his calumny by citing the fabricated confessions from Stalin’s infamous Moscow Trials—thereby helping to ensure that those honest militants who stood in the way of Stalinist power in Spain would suffer the same fate as the people executed in the Soviet Union.

    In an argument with another correspondent over whether readers had a right to know the truth about the war, even if it looked bad for the side they supported, the elder Cockburn retorted, “Who gave [them] such a right?” And here another level of irony: according to Phillip Knightley’s, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), “Cockburn remained unrepentant,” arguing later, “There seem to be two pieces to this problem … The extent to which I myself totally believed what I said, and the extent to which I was, more or less consciously, trying to get other people to believe it. But I don’t think there is really such a clear line of division” (192-97). (See Kevin Keating, “Like Father, Like Son?,” Alternative Press Review, Spring/Summer 1999.) For Spain, see Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and his later essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish War”; for the 1937 “May Days,” see Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (Freedom Press, 1972).

    The fascists on the right and the commissars on the left lied about Spain. In many ways familiar to us all, the catastrophe in Yugoslavia and particularly in Bosnia was similar to the Spanish revolution and civil war, with many terrible consequences, both for world politics, and for the fundamental questions of justice and truth.

    For Cockburn junior, who has written at times admirably about other issues, there is apparently no such clear line between truth and propaganda either—only a willingness to lie. This makes everything he writes suspect. In this case, however, the result is much worse, because he is lying not to defend the victims but to exonerate the executioners.

  12. Roger M. Richards

    I never visited those camps while they were in use but had close friends who were allowed in to photograph them. My encounter with the horror in those camps happened when I was present as the inmates of Manjaca were released and bused to Karlovac in Croatia. Upon their release that morning my translator and I went about speaking to several of the men who were just freed. The things we were told that were done to the inmates of Manjaca by their Bosnian Serb captors caused my translator to weep openly. Person after person related similar stories.

    The distorted and revisionist version of the facts of what took place have to be continually challenged. There is a whitewash under way, led by dishonest intellectuals.

  13. KP

    Dear Jim,

    Lets talk about the truth.

    Please invite me to speak to your students about my war experiences, free speech, British libel laws, etc. I am sure I can do it better than you. I am not being malicious, I mean it as a friend. I have lived it and learned lessons from it.

    I survived one of those camps called Omarska, mainly because of the story reported. Now then, how can anyone in their right mind put an issue of a particular ‘image’ before the lives of the very people behind that ‘image’? Don’t my fellow humans beings want to know who those people were, and why they were in there, who brought them in there, and what happened in there? Aren’t those lives more worthy than the ‘image’ itself, and what it may or may not ‘represent’. Isn’t that the real issue? We are talking about human beings, family people, innocent civilians. There were no court trials in Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje. There were brutal, cold blooded, summary executions. And I have known most of those executioners personally for most of my life. We once shared school desks. Why don’t people want to know about that? Where does the issue of freedom of speech fits in here? We are talking about murder. We are condoning murder. What’s wrong with us?

    By (ab)using the smokescreen of the freedom of speech all those denialists turn my guts upside down every single time. Why? Because I am just human. When will they realise that their callousness easily matches the one displayed by my torturers. They dehumanise me all over again.


  14. Owen

    Thanks for speaking out, Kemal. I have listened to you speak and I have listened to Chomsky and I know which of the two of you understands what the word “truth” means.

  15. Mirsad

    Thank you so much for taking the side of truth in what seams to be an attempt to revise the history of crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

  16. A Critical Chomsky Reader « Untitled

    […] wars, along with refutations of each statement. I also recommend Professor David Campbell’s e-mail exchange with Chomsky, which links to Campbell’s detailed study of the concentration camps in Bosnia, […]

  17. Herbert Walter

    Mr Campbell,

    thanks very much for this post. You have done a great service to the public through your research.

    And, you are right, Chomsky’s position is indeed profoundly disturbing. He is making it still worse by sarcastically referring to Bosnia as a “holy issue” in Britain.

  18. Mr. VanBilderass

    I think you may be overreacting a little bit, at least as far as this email exchange is concerned. It seems to me that Chomsky’s interest and comments regarding the photo and libel suit were in the area of free speech issues. His other comments seem to address the hypocrisy of applauding oneself as being a great proponent of human rights for intervening in the former Yugoslavia while at the same time supporting atrocities elsewhere in the world that were arguably (especially when percieved in their totality) far worse and these provide the context for which he made the offending remarks. Your main complaint against him DOES in fact seem to be that he took Knightley to be a credible source. Also, he did thank you for your articles. Perhaps you are being a little bit hysterical after all. Anyway, I am glad to hear you don’t consider yourself an enemy of Mr. Chomsky. He has worked tirelessly, and made an enormous contribution to the political discourse, but no one is perfect.

  19. David Campbell

    Mr. VanBilderass – your comment basically repeats Chomsky’s position. Did you look, for example, at the Serbian TV video interview and other sources via the links above? As my post clearly demonstrates, Chomsky spoke repeatedly on the substance of this issue. The idea that his only interest was the ‘free speech’ dimension of the case is demonstrably wrong. And if you go back to my original research articles on this topic, my concern is the way Chomsky, Knightly et al simply repeat the false arguments of Thomas Deichmann. I do have to smile though when you suggest Chomsky is a reasonable man on this issue because he thanked me for the articles! What you overlook is the fact he has no intention of engaging the substance of that research even as he persists in repeating falsehoods about this case. Indeed, I found out recently that he was sent my articles back in 2005 before, for example, he did the Serbian TV interview. What disturbs me is the fact he has had plenty of opportunity to contest the key findings of my research yet shows no desire to do so, preferring to maintain his flawed position while dispensing a range of ad hominem attacks (like, critics tend to be hysterical…). Of course no one is perfect, but Chomsky has demonstrated in this case that he is not always the tireless intellectual driven by engagement with substantive arguments and evidence.

  20. Tom Jacobson

    Chomsky’s position is extremely feeble. Evidently, he has zero expertise on the subject.

    If he does not want to be reminded of embarrassing interviews he gave in the past, then he should not give them in the first place. His professed concern about “free speech” is non-sensical. Why should people who deny horrendous crimes deserve our special consideration?

    It’s the usual Chomsky. Just as he made the most naive and bizarre statements about Cambodia in 1977, he again makes strange comments on a time and place he has no knowledge about. And again, when confronted with in-depth research, he rambles on incoherently and cluelessly to defend a fundamentally indefensible position.

    But it won’t matter to his community. His followers’ thinking is so streamlined that they swallow almost any level of irrationality as long as it is pronounced by their master.

  21. Andrew prince

    @Tom Jacobson
    its worth taking a look at Christopher Hitchens essay ‘the chorus and Cassandra’ ( available on the internet )
    which sheds a lot of light on professor Chomsky’s position on Khmer rouge which has been misrepresented to death.
    Yes I’m aware Hitchens is no longer the big fan of Chomsky that he was , but the essay still stands.

  22. Mike


    If you’re concerned about the well-being of Alic and people like him, it’s not that you shouldn’t tell his story. While you tell it (and correctly, as you have documented), you should recognize that the reason the West is telling his story is to demonize one side of the conflict.

    The Time Magazine article that used this picture of Alic on August 17, 1992 clearly demonized the Serbs: “murdering babies,” “hatred…consuming Serbs,” “the world sitting by as Adolf Hitler marched into Austria.” The article then tempers the claims (both sides are probably guilty parties) but asserts the Serbs are the worst and suggests that the great humanitarian West intervene. As you probably know already, Croatians committed extensive war crimes and ethnic cleansing (e.g., Tudjman in Krajina). (,9171,976238,00.html)

    Where is the outrage and atrocity? As you are surely aware, Bush destroyed our ex-buddy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, targeting civilian infrastructure. You are surely aware of the Turkish campaign the US funded against the Kurds and our support for Suharto and countless other dictators. Our participation in ethnic cleansing, indirectly via diplomatic and material support and directly at times throughout the Twentieth Century, is an American Holocaust itself, scattered across the world.

    Perhaps you agree with this, perhaps you don’t. But you are indeed being hysterical about Chomsky’s comment. The point is unequivocally that the media used this picture to conjure up images to make the situation look worse than it is, alluding to Hitler and demonizing the Serbs in order to suggest intervention. And that’s the point Chomsky is concerned with.

    • David Campbell

      There is no doubt that many media outlets in the UK and the US used the August 1992 ITN story of the camps to support their simplistic black and white reporting of the war in Bosnia. However, to make that point Chomsky et al offer a mirror image argument, denigrating the documented suffering of those in the camps by peddling the utterly false claim that the ITN reports directly or indirectly fabricated the truth. The ITN reports conveyed the situation as it was and did not make it appear worse than it was – as you can see by viewing the videos on this site.

      There is nothing hysterical about pointing out, in this case, the intellectual failings of a well-known commentator who continues to insist on something about the production of those images that cannot be supported. That is the primary focus of my concern, which I’m sure you appreciate if you have read the research articles that support this post. And, as I show in those articles, even the repeated use of Alic’s image by other media did not lead to the intervention that is so often claimed.

      What is needed in reviewing this situation is an understanding of history and a commitment to evidence. Simplistic Hitler analogies with regard to the former Yugoslavia are as inappropriate as speaking of an “American Holocaust” with regard to US policy, even if the continued US support of authoritarian regimes must be opposed.

      • Mike

        Speaking of an American Holocaust is entirely appropriate. The term Holocaust is not exclusive to Jews. The saturation bombings in Indochina, the destruction of the East Timorese (which would not have happened without US approval and support), and the starvation of several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians are indeed a Holocaust, unless you have so much contempt the mass slaughtering of “innocents” that you cannot allow yourself to see this. That’s a Holocaust, friend.

        Regarding Trnpolje, Chomsky said Knightley was “PROBABLY” right about the camp and that the major issue was a large corporation burying a tiny news agency. Edward Vulliamy wrote that “Trnopolje cannot be called a ‘concentration camp’ and is nowhere as sinister as Omarska: it is very grim, something between a civilian prison and transit camp.” Penny Marshall wrote that “British newspapers were calling for military intervention; within 20 minutes of the [ITN] report being re-broadcast on American television, George Bush promised to press for a United Nations resolution authorising use of force” and Time made a similar call for intervention, as quoted above.

        It doesn’t matter that this didn’t lead to an immediate NATO intervention. The question is, why does the media publish this picture and not others? For example, why not publish a picture of a starving baby in Iraq, skin-and-bones, and call it “atrocity and outrage” over US-imposed sanctions on Iraq. Why not publish photos of human rights abuses from refugee camps in Krajina? If you want a fair comparison, it’s more the recent Time publication of an Afghan woman named Aisha, with a subtitle “What Happens if We Leave Iraq” is an apt comparison. This comes from a nation that supported the Taliban when they throwing acid in the faces of women two decades ago and is now sending $60bil to an Islamic fundamentalist oligarchy who won’t let women drive on their roads.

        This is the point, and maybe you get it, maybe you don’t. There’s no humanitarian motivation. There is no “mirror image” to this and if you really cared about people in Serbia, you would pay attention to the way imperialism works, which is what denigrates Serbs and the world’s people, who are being starved to death as slaves by the world’s richest people.

        – Mike

        • David Campbell

          I’m happy to debate people on the topic of the ITN reports from August 1992 if they are prepared to focus on the issues and engage the lengthy, thoroughly researched articles I’ve published on the topic. Its clear from your latest comment you haven’t read those pieces, because each of the points you raise about the specific images from the ITN reports has been dealt with in those articles.

          Your overall frame is a perfect mirror image argument; everything is pro-Serb or anti-Serb. I’m not interested in that limited frame and have not written anything that fits it. My concern is with the veracity of the television reports from Trnopolje and Omarska in August 1992. Those reports don’t fit that frame either, as you would know if you had watched them.

          I’m also not interested in your tendentious claims about what you think I think about the atrocities you mention. If you want to run the bombing of Indochina, East Timor and Iraq together as though they were the same formation of violence in the Nazi genocide, go ahead. I’m interested in understanding how things are specific to time, space and politics, something which does not in any way diminish the horror of those events or the culpability of major powers. I know none of that will give you pause for thought as you have your framework and certainties, so I think we’re done here.

  23. » A Critical Chomsky Reader A Rough Guide To The Dark Side

    […] wars, along with refutations of each statement. I also recommend Professor David Campbell’s e-mail exchange with Chomsky, which links to Campbell’s detailed study of the concentration camps in Bosnia, […]

  24. Konsten att förneka krigsförbrytelser « Bosnienbloggen

    […] David Cambpell ; Chomsky’s Bosnian shame […]

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