When the BBC’s Martin Bell was sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to report on the war that broke out in 1992, it was the story that dominated the television news, as viewers watched with sadness and disbelief as armed hostilities broke out on European soil.
But as the conflict kept grinding onwards and the months passed, control of the media narrative became increasingly important as the warring forces sought to maintain international attention on their cause or deflect condemnation.
Bell, who won awards and was honored by the British government for his reporting, believes that there are similarities between the three-and-a-half-year war in BiH and the current conflict in Ukraine, which has been going on for six months.
”Certainly in the Bosnian war for three-and-a-half years, I would say the war of words and images was as important as the clash of arms,” he said in an interview.
He also believes that the media battleground is currently being dominated by Ukraine: “I think the Ukrainians’ information war is going very well, and the Russians’ is definitely not,” he said.
”You could see this in the sinking of the flagship of their fleet in the Black Sea. They just wouldn’t admit that it had happened when it had obviously happened. I think that because the censorship is so strong in Russia, a lot of people are not aware that they’re being told a pack of lies. But never underestimate the power of social media – people are able to find alternative sources of information.”
-Fighting war story fatigue
Reflecting on his experience during the protracted war in BiH, Bell points out that Ukraine faces a potential problem in maintaining its narrative in the mainstream Western media as the conflict continues with no end in sight.
”From the time the war began in Bosnia in April 1992, there was very intense interest. This continued throughout the summer of 1992, and by October, UN troops were involved, including a British battalion, and that, from the BBC’s point of view, made it easier to get stories on air. But I noticed in the second year of the war, it got harder and harder to get material on air,” he recalled.
For a while, up until the Srebrenica massacres in July 1995, “there was an element of fatigue, not least I think among the editors in London, who thought we weren’t producing anything new”.
When faced with waning interest in straightforward news reports of battlefield incidents, Bell would try alternative angles and propose “oddball stories” in an attempt to circumvent viewers’ and editors’ “war fatigue”.
“For example, there was a bear chained in a cage in an abandoned restaurant on the front line in the town of Vitez, in central Bosnia. And it was rescued by British UN troops, using army rations to lure the bear into a trap they set for him so they could take him to Split and ship him to a safe forest somewhere in Northern Europe,” he explains.
But this wasn’t just a ‘soft news’ tale of an animal rescue, he insisted: “The story raised interesting questions – why is the UN ready to use resources to save the life of a bear when hundreds of people in the area around are being killed and the UN mandate doesn’t seem to cover their defense?”
-“There is more savagery”
Bell’s coverage of the siege of Sarajevo made him one of Britain’s most famous journalists, but it also put his life in danger. Although he was wearing, as he says, his ‘lucky’ white suit, he was seriously injured by shrapnel while reporting from the capital of BiH in 1992.
Bell said he believes that war reporters are more careful and protect themselves better today than their predecessors did in the 1990s and that the use of drones has enabled camera operators to reduce the risk of injury while getting dramatic pictures.
But he also pointed out that the heavy weaponry being used in the Ukrainian war is much more powerful and devastating than the military hardware that was deployed on the battlefield in BiH three decades ago. Several of the journalists who have died in Ukraine have been killed in rocket attacks that targeted populated areas. “I think there is more savagery and intensity in the fighting in Ukraine as you have more heavy weapons being used,” Bell said, DetektorDetektor reports.