By: David Noack
Forced exodus of press leaves reporters at a distance
Western reporters, accustomed to witnessing the human tragedy and physical destruction of war, find themselves largely on the sidelines in this latest conflict, relying on official statements and tales of terror from refugees fleeing Kosovo.
Some of the country’s major news organizations, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY, The New York Times, Baltimore’s The Sun, and The Associated Press, are all scrambling to get the latest news from the front lines, where the action is taking place.
But a hostile government, which has kicked out many American journalists and is imposing strict press restrictions on the few that remain, has made reporting on the war that much harder. When the fighting broke out on March 24, government officials rounded up 29 Western journalists in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and expelled them from the country.
Since then reporters have been trying to get back into the country. Late last week, reporters for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Knight Ridder News Service, who had been ejected from Yugoslavia and were making their way back by car, were again forced out by authorities.
Most reporters are stationed in surrounding Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia, where refugees from Kosovo are heading to flee the fighting.
Philip Bennett, the assistant managing editor for foreign news at the Washington Post, says both of the paper’s staff reporters, Peter Finn and R. Jeffrey Smith, were arrested and expelled. The paper is relying on a stringer in Belgrade.
“This is what happens. Obviously, Smith was on a list that they were looking for. ? It’s because of what he’s written, and we are going to continue to write the story as we see it, and this is the price you sometimes have to pay,” says Bennett.
Matt Storin, editor of the Boston Globe, says there is a stringer in Belgrade, but no staff reporters.
Storin says Susan Milligan, the paper’s Hungary correspondent, had moved down from Budapest to Belgrade the day before the bombing began and was one of the reporters rounded up by the government, taken with other journalists on a convoy to Hungary.
“She then made her way back to Albania by way of Frankfurt. ? She says the correspondents travel together for safety and economy,” says Storin, who adds that Kevin Cullen, a London-based correspondent, was punched by demonstrators.
Jefferson Price, foreign editor at the Sun, says that London-based correspondent Bill Glauber, who was in Kosovo prior to the bombing and moved to Belgrade when the shelling started, was also expelled.
“On the night of the bombing he was among the 29 reporters that were taken into custody. When he got out early the next morning, I told him to get out of Yugoslavia. He went to Hungary, then he went to Budapest, Frankfurt, Rome, took a boat to Albania, and now he’s in Albania at the Kosovo border,” says Price.
He says the lack of access to the fighting, where reporters can independently verify and confirm what’s going on, has hampered coverage.
“I think [readers] are getting as accurate a picture as they can get. I mean there are two sides to the story, and we try to give them both sides. In this case there are about 12 sides to the story, and we’re fairly cautious about the stories coming out about the atrocities and so forth, although there is certainly so much precedent for that sort of thing in that region. I tend to credit people who are coming out,” says Price.
AP spokeswoman Tori Smith says that with Western reporters being expelled and generally barred from re-entering the country, news coverage is continuing on a number of different fronts and angles. In Belgrade, the AP has a couple of reporters and a video cameraman.
“This is the kind of story where you want to and need to cover it from as close to the action as possible, but it is possible to cover it in other ways. We’ve got people just about everywhere around Kosovo.
Lisa Carparelli, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, says there are five reporters in the region, with Steve Erlanger filing from Belgrade. In addition, there is a staff photographer in Albania and a stringer in Macedonia.
“Covering this war in Yugoslavia is entirely different from covering the war in Iraq. It is a much more confined conflict, and information is sparse and access has been restricted,” says Carparelli.
USA TODAY deputy editor John Simpson says the paper got an exclusive story when its chief Pentagon correspondent, Steven Komarow, accompanied the first wave of B-52 bombers that lead the assault. Simpson is responsible for foreign coverage and the editorial content of the international edition of the paper.
“The bottom line right now is that we had fantastic access initially with the U.S. military. That was a major exclusive to get a guy on one of the planes that was bombing. We don’t have anybody in Yugoslavia right now. We are examining whether we can get him [London-based bureau chief David Lynch] back in. There are two things we are concerned about: the first is safety of the person. The second issue is if we got him in how much real access they could get,” says Simpson.
He says comparisons made to the access reporters had during the Gulf War is probably more fiction than fact.
“In the Gulf War I think we were deluded into believing we knew what was going on because everyone was trotting out all this miraculous film footage, and we were so in awe of the high-tech explosions that we saw on television that I think we thought we knew what was going on. I think that sometime after the fact we scratched our heads and said ‘Golly, maybe we didn’t have it quite right,'” says Simpson.
Storin agrees that Gulf War coverage was tightly controlled. “The Gulf War included carefully controlled pool reporting with U.S. forces. There were many complaints from reporters at the time. I suspect if we move to a U.S. ground war, the same would apply. Obviously we are limited in Belgrade and virtually blacked out in Kosovo, though cell phones and e-mail are providing some information,” says Storin.
?(Matt Storin)[Matt Storin]