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Hague’s Website Uses Controversial Photo in Subtle Propaganda Bid

February 17, 2006

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Although they are small, for students of propaganda the images that emerge when one selects various topic headings on the Hague Tribunal’s official website speak volumes about the international court’s slick PR and ingrained biases.

The overall perception one gets from the selection of photos is that of a rock-solid institution, presided over by learned and morally unassailable judges, trying war criminals who are little more than modern-day Nazis. As such, the Hague’s reputation as the sober, dispassionate arbiter of genocide is upheld.

By far the most flagrant of these photos, and the one underpinning them all, is however, a controversial and still potent piece of propaganda work, a picture which more than any other fed Western bloodlust for intervention- and still serves as a subtle justification for the international court’s very legitimacy, 14 years after it was taken.

When one selects the “latest developments” heading on the top, up flashes an image of ITN’s infamous 1992 Fikret Alic “concentration camp” picture- an image which has been called one of the greatest media hoaxes of the Bosnian War.

The photo, of an apparently emaciated refugee caged behind barbed wire, was printed on the front pages of media worldwide as proof of Serbian genocidal tendencies. They did not mention, however, that the man had a physical condition that affected his appearance and that the cameramen were inside a small fenced-in enclosure, and the “prisoners,” on the other side, were free.

The comprehensive original article challenging the conventional wisdom has been ignored, nevertheless, by the Hague, which slyly reifies the outcome of the propaganda – that when you think of a war criminal, you’re thinking of a Serb.

As Znet put it, “this hugely dishonest photo was featured everywhere in the West as proving a Serb-organized Auschwitz, was denounced by NATO high officials, and helped provide the moral basis for the creation of the ICTY and its clear focus on Serb evil.”

That’s not the way the Hague sees it, of course. When we asked the tribunal’s media relations department to comment on the inclusion of the controversial photo, Liam McDowall from the ICTY Registry ignored the question, brushing it off as “cavalier” and “uninformed.” Predictably, he dismissed the original article exposing the fraud as “shrill,” while not even trying to disprove the facts laid out in the article. After all, when you are the law, it’s very easy to live in the rarified airs above it.

Further, Mr. McDowall attempted to deny the validity of the query in a devious, sideways manner by recommending “some of the judgements issued by the Tribunal’s Chambers in cases related to Prijedor and the detention centres operated in northwestern Bosnia where non-Serbs were held against their will.” He failed to mention, as the above article does, that some of these cases were informed by testimony that later turned out to be false.

True to form, the spokesman also sought to discredit critics of ITN and its dubious photo by referring to this story on the libel case the network successfully launched against the magazine that had originally brought the issue to public attention with the above article.

Nevertheless, after a follow-up message, Mr. McDowall failed to comment on the fact that the case was won – no matter how it was spun by the winners – less on its merits than on the way British libel law is stacked against the defendant (incidentally, the prime reason why paragons of human morality such as Richard Perle are so fond of threatening libel lawsuits in the UK).

It is interesting to note that the tribunal spokesman’s instinctive reaction to our request was to justify the use of a picture that was at very least highly controversial, simply by inferring the former existence of “concentration camps” in Bosnia. In other words, no matter what was the real story with the dubious photo, the subject was irrelevant because there was sufficient external evidence that a photo very much like it could be real. (This is the sort of logic, by the way, that is also the trademark of the tribunal’s character assassination approach to justice).

And this has been precisely the problem with the whole sorry history of Western media coverage of the Balkans: no specific image or account has to actually be true when it can at least resemble numerous other similar ones. Thus we enter a Baudrillardian world populated by copies of copies, simulations of simulations, image-driven imitations of reality propelled and validated by their own proliferation.

All philosophical interjections aside, when considering the issue solely in terms of public policy and the responsible working of an allegedly impartial court of international justice – after all, this is the United Nations we’re talking about here, not a political party – why should an emotive and evocative image such as the Fikret Alic photo, with all of its accumulated “history” and connotations, be displayed on the front page of the tribunal’s website?

As could be expected, we received no answer to this question from the Hague. Indeed, Mr. McDowall was silent again when we brought up the fact that the website of the Hague Tribunal for Rwanda, itself based on the exact same vaunted principles of universal justice and human rights, has no comparable visuals on its own homepage.

Other photos on the Yugoslav tribunal’s website are equally telling and serve their own subtle propaganda uses for the purpose of upholding the Hague’s desired self-image. For example, on the far left, under “ICTY at a Glance,” the reader sees black and red-robed judges standing in ceremonial formation, almost like academics from some prestigious university at an honorable event. The caption refers to the court as an institution; the photo infers authority, sagacity, and collective righteousness (indeed, who could ever doubt such a group of well-attired justices?), marking the court itself with a stamp of august credibility.

Under “ICTY Cases and Judgments” in the middle, a more close-up photo of the same bunch working away in the courtroom is provided. The inference again is of a legitimate and hard-working set of judges (multi-ethnic too, it appears) endeavoring so that justice be done.

While the “ICTY Publications” photo is not particularly interesting, the remaining two – accompanying “Basic Legal Documents” and “Practical Information” – are. They both show rock-solid buildings, presumably the tribunal’s; the subtle message is that the Hague itself is set on solid philosophical foundations, grounded on the “rule of law,” impressive, imposing, an entity unto itself.

Considering the infinite possibilities the Hague’s website designers had at their disposal, this home page topography cannot be considered accidental. The specific selection of images assembled on the Hague website only reinforces the view that the international war crimes tribunal is less about justice, and more about deception, petty politics and slick PR.

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