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Richard Holbrooke is the US Special Envoy to former Yugoslavia. He was speaking at ‘Between Past and Future’ a conference held at the Central European University, Budapest, 26-28 March this year
- Richard Holbrook

Bosnia had a storyline, a very clear storyline, and as a result of that storyline the press, led by the New York Times and CNN had an amazing impact on policy in the United States; I think there was comparable coverage in Europe. Let’s be clear: the reason the West finally, belatedly intervened was heavily related to media coverage. The reason Rwanda did not get the same kind of attention was heavily related to media coverage – or the lack thereof.
Just a week ago, I was on a panel at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York where Christiane Annanpour was challenged by a panellist who said, ‘You did a great job in Bosnia, why didn’t you go to Rwanda where far more people died?’ Her answer was astonishing: politely but firmly ‘I was in Rwanda. I did cover it. I know what was happening but the O J Simpson trial was on and I couldn’t get on the air for CNN.’
One million people died in four months in an organised genocide that has been matched only a few times this century. But CNN was too busy. The Bosnia coverage really made a difference.
Let me move quickly to the current situation, to Kosovo. In Kosovo, the storyline re-emerged very dramatically. And it has had a huge effect on policy in the last year. A year ago, 13 months ago today, the Kosova Liberation Army was unheard of. In less than a year, more rapidly than any other liberation front in history, it has imposed itself as an international factor in policy-making. Castro, the Viet Cong, the PLO: no similar organisation ever moved that fast.
And that is what the media has done. You can like it or dislike it. Milosevic’s view on this is well known: he thinks it’s a media plot. I think the journalists have done their job. They’ve reported an important political fact. But 10 years after the Wall, as we now fac.e the most serious crisis that NATO and the US, our NATO allies and the EU have faced since the end of the Cold War, the media is playing a central role. For policy- makers, what is reported and what isn’t matters profoundly.
Now perhaps the policy-makers spend too much time trying to shape the reporting on the first day and then over reacting to it the next day. That would be my view: they should do less spinning and then less overreacting but that’s something one can’t change, it’s inherent in the nature of Washington. And we’re just going to have to live with it. But if the press had not been in Suvereka in September with those extroardinary pictures of 13 people who had been massacred; and again in Racak in January with the 45 people who had been massacred, everything would have been different. Those events – the inexcusable slaughter of innocent people by Serbian security forces – were not without precedent: many similar things throughout the region in the last decade had gone unreported. [This time] it was the media coverage that drove first the events that lead to my October mission which resulted in a temporary agreement which was constrained by the fact that it had no enforcement provisions and we had no ground troops; and the second set of negotiations which have now run their course and led to the inevitable.
Milosevic’s decision to take the course he chose has made the bombing inevitable and unavoidable; in effect, he pulled the trigger on himself. This process was profoundly, centrally affected on a day by day basis by the coverage in the press. I do want to stress how central their role has been.

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