Members of the international press corps, particularly photojournalists, often define themselves as “objective observers,” not participants or instruments in a conflict, just witnesses. But as the events in the Balkans have shown, this has not always been the case.

For five years the West has been bombarded with images of brutality in the Balkans, most of it attributed to one side, the Serbs. By focusing on particular events or interpretations of them, the common conclusion is that the Serbs were indeed the culprits. U.N. Secretary- General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (quoted by Peter Brock, Foreign Policy, Winter 1994), hinted at the problem when he said, “Today, the media do not simply report the news. [The media] has become part of the events it covers. . . . Public emotion becomes so intense . . . the problem may become simplified and exaggerated.”

Understanding the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the role that foreign powers and the media played requires a deeper understanding of the complex regional history and recent events than that portrayed in the mass media. During the late 1980’s, the United States diplomatically maneuvered for the breakup of Yugoslavia. Croatia seceded in 1991 and persecuted ethnic Serbs. When ethnic Serbs further seceded and were assisted by the Yugoslav military, only the Serbs were labeled as “aggressors” for “attacking Croatia,” not Croatia for seceding or the United States and Germany for assisting in the U.N.-member nation’s demise. Subsequently, only the Serbs were isolated from the world by sanctions and embargoes, which included embargoing information. Across the border in Bosnia, Islamic fundamentalist A Bosnian Serb soldier leaves his family for the front. Family mourns Serb soldier killed in Battle of Vukovar, East Slavonia. Bishop Lavrentije of Sobac performs holy liturgy at St. Lazar’s Chetnik Church, near Bosnian border. leader Alija Izetbegovic pushed for independence. The Bosnian Serbs refused, fearing Muslim domination after “100 years of brutal Ottoman rule and the genocide of Serbs supporting the Allies during World War II.

In 1992, the EU sponsored peace talks with the leaders of Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups to avert a looming civil war. An agreement was reached: the Cutilheiro plan would cantonize Bosnia into ethnic majority areas under a confederation, much like Switzerland. When Izetbegovic returned to Sarajevo, the American Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, reportedly told him to renege on the agreement.

Izetbegovic quoted Zimmermann as saying, “Why sign it if you don’t like it?” Izetbegovic reneged. Civil war broke out.

Much of the blame, therefore, lies not with the Serbs but with Izetbegovic, who goaded by America’s regional agenda rebelled against the international community. Why is it that any traditionally Serb areas (some 64 percent of Bosnia, and almost 40 percent of the populace) were called “Serb-held,” “so-called,” or “self-styled Republic” and “rebel Serbs,” by a press that claims objectivity, but which legitimized the creation of an ethnocentric regime of the most extreme elements of one plurality?

The constant Serb shelling and sniping of Sarajevo was brutal, and inhuman. So was the Muslim government’s shelling and sniping of Serb suburbs, a provocation which was often overlooked. On the other side of any frontline area around Sarajevo, countless Serb civilians have had family members killed by snipers or mortars. Along the famous Kasindolska Street, the vast majority of Serbs I spoke with had a family member killed in their own home, sometimes two. Is their suffering not worthy of a voice from a supposedly neutral press?

There is also the question discussed by seasoned observers of how much of the suffering in Sarajevo was caused by Serb shelling, and how much from the Muslim government’s own policies, to create siege-like conditions to evoke Western sympathy and intervention. According to four-star USAF General Charles G. Boyd, formerly the Pentagon’s number-two man in Europe, the Muslim government prevented water from being pumped into the city’s water mains, both to create a stark image of residents lining up for water under sniper and mortar fire and to enable local officials to resell U.N. fuel donated for water distribution.

Moreover, according to General Boyd, the UN. reported only 324 violent deaths in Sarajevo in 1994, while the Muslim government alleged “continuing genocide.” Indeed, many have been killed by Serb actions, but what accounts for the thousands of grave markers around Sarajevo? Perhaps investigating the human—wave offensives of the Bosnian Muslim government against heavily entrenched Serb machine-gun and mortar positions might give a clue. Journalists were banned from these offensives, but the Muslim government acknowledged heavy losses. Serbs told me of mowing down thousands in the three-and—a—half-year conflict.

Muslim forces regularly shelled the Sarajevo airport and shot at relief flights to halt humanitarian aid and to increase black market prices. Most fire was blamed on the Serbs. (The role of the black market in continuing the war should not be underestimated, nor its control by the highest levels of administration on all sides, to the detriment of the populations they claim to lead). The Muslim government was supposed to demilitarize “safe areas” such as Sarajevo, under UN. resolution, but Muslim forces often fired mortars and sniped specifically from civilian buildings and areas, to draw Serbian fire. When the Serbs responded, either to knockout the position or in retaliation (and in great excess, as was their policy), the international press and a ready-made bloodbath for which the government’s press releases could flaunt as proof that they were forever the “victim of Serb genocide and aggression.”

Even more grotesque was the Muslim government shooting at its own people when Serb fire was not available, particularly at crucial times when the international community was making policy decisions for the region. High-ranking military and diplomatic officials and UNPROFOR personnel from several countries reported that the Muslims were sniping from the Kosovo Hospital, Bosnian Parliament building, and other locations: Was it coincidence that reporters and photographers were so often at hand, or has the press become an unwitting player in a new, media-wise warfare?

Several of the highly publicized incidents, including the assassination of journalist David Kaplan, the “breadline massacre,” the sniping on a refugee bus filled with toddlers, and the Markale market massacres of February 5, 1994, and August 28, 1995, upon further investigation have been found to have possibly, or in some cases certainly, been committed by Muslim forces, often against their own people. But the results of these investigations are seldom publicized. What matters are first impressions. Many of these staged events yielded the desired results for the Bosnian Muslim regime: condemnation of the Serbs, and outside military intervention.

Manipulation in using images to support one side’s claims has been significant, and throws into question the integrity and independence of the visual news media. I have had Serbs in East Slavonia show me photos of family members slaughtered by Croatians, and when Serb journalists sold videotape to a major network of the bodies and carnage left when the Croats were routed by Serb forces, it was broadcast as Croats murdered by Serbs. Similarly, Serb funerals around Sarajevo have been filmed and photographed under Muslim fire, only to be captioned as Muslim funerals under Serb fire. One would think that the abundance of crosses and the presence of an Orthodox priest could be differentiated by such a seasoned press corps, or perhaps some of the changes have, from the beginning, been at the editorial level.

The atrocities in the Balkan conflict well documented by U.N. personnel and more objective journalists—are probably close to even. That Serb brutality was exacerbated by Croatian and Bosnian Muslims’ initial ethnic cleansing of Serbs is hardly irrelevant. As some Serbs said to me, the more the West demonized them, the less reason they saw for restraint. If the international press corps wishes to maintain a veneer of objectivity and credibility with a confused and skeptical public, perhaps they should equally investigate the human rights violations and atrocities inflicted on those deemed as “unworthy victims.”

For much of the Western public, the Balkan conflict seemed confusing and complex. Perhaps this is due to the lack of regional experience among foreign correspondents. Covering the conflict “forced reporters to act as scouts without compasses in a completely unknown terrain,” wrote Sylvia Poggioli of National Public Radio. “Reporters have had to wade through the complex cultural, historical and political geography [of this conflict],” she said, and “very few had the necessary instruments.” Poggioli concludes: “Journalists . . . need new compasses if they are to be a reliable link between facts on the ground and public opinion.”

This is not a vindication of the Serbs’ cruelty; it is a clarification of culpability, calling a spade a spade. We are entering an age of sophisticated propaganda, both from technology and strategy, beyond the “good vs. bad” scenarios of newsreels a half-century ago. We are not photo-journalists when we take pictures of brutality; we are merely photographers whose images can be used in any manner to further a party’s geopolitical goals or economic agenda. With media mergers, and consequently less real diversity of opinion in the mainstream American press, journalists of all stripes will have to be more aware and educated about the regions they cover.

A complex truth cannot be captured in a soundbite or visual image. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but often it has proved just rhetoric. And when editorial policy allows itself to be co-opted by a national agenda, both democracy and freedom of the press are at risk.