Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.



Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.










photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.18: Ratko Mladic and the limits of visibility



This photograph of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic after his arrest was (as Tom Keenan observed on Facebook) too long in coming but nevertheless still satisfying.

In many ways its hard to equate the pathetic visage on display here with the barbaric deeds Mladic’s forces committed in the Bosnian War between 1992-95, with the genocide at Srebrenica the most appalling. For anyone who doubts the enormity of the crimes committed under the leadership of Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the prosecutor’s indictment in Case No. IT-95-5/18-I should make salutary reading (thanks to @martincoward for the link). Mladic deserves a fair trial, and whatever the limitations of the ICTY in the Hague, the trial he will receive there will be infinitely fairer than the vengeance he wrought on thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in the former Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian War was something that preoccupied me for much of the 1990s, and I researched the issues it raised for years before publishing a book, National Deconstruction, on the subject in 1998. I subsequently conducted a detailed investigation of the controversy surrounding the media coverage of the Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps in the Prijedor region, which was published in 2002. It is the case that all sides in the conflict committed war crimes, but I have no doubt that the nationalist programme of Karadzic and Mladic – backed by Milosevic in Belgrade – resulted in the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. (To those who might want to redirect responsibility for the atrocities in comments, don’t bother, they won’t be posted. I’ve done my time trying to debate revisionists who want to diminish the suffering inflicted by those who partitioned Bosnia, and I’m no longer willing to engage people who are impervious to evidence).

The Bosnian War was a seminal event in the photographic visualization of atrocity, and one that exposed the limits of visibility. Because it took place on Europe’s border, was shown nightly on television, and widely pictured in the press, you might think that the abundant images of innocent victims would have provoked a major response from either Europe or America. The war was certainly a major media story. And there was much diplomatic activity and many grand statements by concerned leaders. But the fact is that no amount of visual evidence form the siege of Sarajevo, and the destruction of other cities, moved countries to offer more than under-equipped UN forces distributing inadequate care packages. When NATO did eventually act with limited air power towards the end of the war, it only secured the partition of Bosnia along lines that rewarded ethnic cleansing.

The idea that photographers, broadcasters and journalists could produce a just political response through the power of their imagery came up short in Bosnia. We still have much to learn about how pictures work and the nature of their relationship to change. In the meantime, I will take some belated satisfaction that we get to see the portrait of a man whose violent past has caught up with him.

Photo credit: Politika, via Reuters, from the PhotoBlog

photography politics

The fundamentalist defence of Chomsky on Bosnia

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.

photography politics

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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photography politics

Karadzic, photography and revisionism

The trial of Radovan Karadzic for genocide in Bosnia has begun in The Hague despite the accused’s boycott of the proceedings.

Amidst all the legitimate issues this trial will provoke, one problem stands out – the Karadzic trial has already become another plinth upon which the revisionists who seek to deny the systematic ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in Bosnia can parade their prejudices. And in this pernicious denial, the claims about the alleged fabrication of pictures from Bosnian Serb concentration camps continue to circulate and play a role.

Last week, BBC Radio 4’s “Moral Maze” hosted a discussion on the Karadzic trial and war crimes generally. On the panel was Claire Fox, and interviewed as “expert witnesses” were David Chandler and John Laughland. (Thanks to Gary Banham for the pointer to this programme). What was never disclosed during the discussion was Fox’s and Chandler’s earlier association with the infamous attack by the Revolutionary Communist Party’s journal Living Marxism on journalists who in 1992 reported on the Bosnian Serb concentration camps in the Prijedor region of Bosnia.

Ron Haviv, Bosnian prisoners, Trnopolje, 1992

Photo: Ron Haviv, Bosnian prisoners, Trnopolje, 1992. Source:

As I have detailed extensively in my investigation “Atrocity, Memory, Photography,” a network of individuals originally associated with the RCP used the fundamentally flawed 1997 article “The Picture that Fooled the World” to claim the western media (especially ITN) fabricated images of emaciated victims in Bosnia in order to legitimize US military intervention in the region. The simple fact that the 1992 reports did not lead to any such response, and that the claims about the journalists have been proven wrong, has never deterred them from persisting with the argument – as in this April 2009 article by Edward Herman.

Herman, of course, is a sometime co-author of Noam Chomsky’s, and last week also saw Chomsky’s role in the perpetuation of this revisionism revisited. Chomsky gave the Amnesty International lecture in Belfast on 30 October. AI’s Patrick Corrigan said Noam Chomsky’s message is as relevant for people in Belfast as it is for those in Beirut, Baghdad or Beijing:

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.

But not Bosnia, it seems. The Balkans are something of a blind spot for Chomsky, for he has become directly and indirectly associated with the revisionists. As I write in the second part of “Atrocity, Memory, Photography,” Chomsky lent his support to Living Marxism’s case against the journalists on the grounds of “free speech.” Although on one occasion he later back-pedalled by saying he wouldn’t have supported LM if its campaign dishonoured those who suffered in the Bosnian War, he nonetheless maintained that the journalists who witnessed the Bosnian Serb camps in 1992 “happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true,” and that “LM was probably correct”. Under the guise of an absolutist defence of free speech, then, Chomsky has taken a particular, partisan and unethical stance on the conduct of the Bosnian War and its victims. For the oft-praised intellectual who bases his arguments on “fact” these statements are nothing short of shameful.

This background lead Ed Vuillamy, The Observer journalist who was at Trnopolje and other camps in August 1992, to write an outraged open letter to Amnesty protesting the organisations failure to hold Chomsky to account for these views and for giving him another public podium in the name of human rights.

Chomsky certainly gets an easy ride from sympathetic media. On 7 November, Seamus Milne wrote a hagiographic paean for The Guardian to the man he described as “the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar.” Milne concluded his story by declaring that “in the Biblical tradition of the conflict between prophets and kings, there’s not the slightest doubt which side he represents.”

Such adoration is prompted by their shared antipathy to US foreign policy. As far as it goes, there’s nothing wrong with a critical approach to American security strategies, but when the opposition to “US imperialism” becomes its own absolute and distorts any other considerations, then we have entered the terrain of political fundamentalism. And when fundamental opposition to any policy associated with the US leads individuals to sympathise with the policies of Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic in the name of a progressive politics, then we are in very dangerous territory.

In Milne’s report there is no mention of Bosnia or Karadzic. Perhaps that is because Chomsky and The Guardian have clashed previously on his attitude to the war in the Balkans. In 2005 Emma Brockes interviewed Chomsky after he was nominated as the world’s leading intellectual. Brockes commendably asked some tough questions of Chomsky including his apparent endorsement of Diana Johnstone’s book Fools Crusade, which has a revisionist chapter on Srebrenica.

Chomsky objected to the way the interview was written up, and his supporters endorsed his concern. That interview is no longer available on The Guardian after the paper apologised to Chomsky for its presentation, though it can still be read here. And it deserves another read in order to understand Chomsky on the Balkans.

In the subsequent controversy, Chomsky sidestepped the issue of what he really thought and said about Bosnia with the same freedom of speech defence he used in relation to LM. As The Guardian’s readers’ editor wrote in upholding his complaints, “Both Prof Chomsky and Ms Johnstone…have made it clear that Prof Chomsky’s support for Ms Johnstone, made in the form of an open letter with other signatories, related entirely to her right to freedom of speech.”

This is not a full and fair statement, as “freedom of speech” for Chomsky masks what appears to be a much deeper commitment to the revisionist account of the Balkan wars.

Chomsky’s original involvement came about after an interview with Diana Johnstone, discussing her book’s claims about the Balkans, appeared in the summer 2003 issue of the Swedish magazine Ordfront, illustrated with the famous photograph of Fikret Alic at Trnopolje. That interview prompted a media storm in Sweden (including the resignation of the magazine editor and an apology to survivors of the war), a seemingly partisan account of which can be read here. I cannot comment on the details of the whole issue – except to note that this document on the Swedish debate also takes LM’s position with regard to the Trnopolje pictures – but in relation to Chomsky we can see two things from this. First, Chomsky signed a statement that said:

We regard Diana Johnstone‘s Fools‘ Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.

This “outstanding work” calls the truth of the Srebrenica massacre into question, and continues to recycle the canard about the pictures from the Bosnian Serb camps originally published by LM (Oliver Kamm has more details here). The letter Chomsky signed did go on to say “but whatever opinion one may have of that book, there are more fundamental issues at stake, namely freedom of expression and the right to express dissenting views.” Nonetheless, it is clear Chomsky thinks highly of Johnstone’s book. In a letter to Swedish friends, Chomsky engaged the substance of the debate in that country to defend particular points in Johnstone’s book, amongst which he includes further favourable references to LM. In general Chomsky concludes:

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.

This is a long way beyond defending people’s right to speak even if they are wrong.

If you think this is all passé, then remember that the veracity of a 17-year-old picture remains the foundation for revisionist accounts of the Bosnian War. It is a curious testament to the power of imagery, but one we should never let pass without critical comment.

Although Chomsky and allies claim the mantle of progressive politics for their critiques of their Balkans, they are in partnership with British conservatives and Eurosceptics such as John Laughland, who has detailed his primary concern for the plight of the Bosnian Serbs here, or Daniel Hannan (see here). This replicates the alliances between the LM crowd and the libertarian right in the US.

Although these individuals argue in terms of the threats to “free speech” they are in privileged positions from which they contribute regularly to the mainstream media, frequently appearing on the BBC, writing columns for national newspapers and contributing to on-line journals with the time and space to peddle their disinformation. The voices that go unheard most often are those who were photographed in the Bosnian Serb camps of the Prijedor region. It is their freedom and speech progressives should be most concerned about, and if the Karadzic trial can contribute to that goal, it will have been worthwhile.

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