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Battling the media by Mark Laity

Battling the media
(© Mark Laity)

Mark Laity describes and analyses the media policy that has underpinned NATO's conflict-resolution work in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.*

From NATO Review, Winter 2002

"I mean come on let's get real& Such imaginative constructions as I have just heard should be consigned to the comics; it is certainly not the work of a serious journalist."
NATO spokesman at NATO press conference, Skopje, 4 September 2001

Such blunt criticism of the media is not usually a recommended tactic to get your message across. The fact that such shock tactics were needed shows just how difficult a job NATO's media team had last year at a critical time for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* After six months on the brink of civil war, the main political parties had just signed a controversial political deal, and NATO was deploying thousands of troops to collect weapons handed over by fighters of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA). But at this turning point for the country, hardliners were using their media domination to launch massive criticism of NATO and the peace agreement.

NATO's fear was that the hardliners' disinformation campaign could undermine our ability to do a job that depended on consent and cooperation rather than force. Success relied on the willingness of ethnic Albanian fighters voluntarily to hand over weapons, which was in turn linked to ethnic Macedonian parliamentarians voting through radical political changes many disliked. Our presence was at the request of a deeply divided government and the impact of the media's reporting on a fearful ethnic Macedonian public already suspicious of NATO, and willing to believe the worst, could not be underestimated. In such circumstances, the media were key players, and at this stage we were losing the public relations battle.

But a year later the NLA has been disbanded, and the August 2001 Framework Agreement is law. Political violence has drastically declined, and free and fair elections have now been successfully completed. Much remains to be done, but the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* has turned a corner. This is, above all, a success for the people of the country themselves. But the international community also emerges with much credit. Indeed, international intervention in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* is already being seen as a classic (and rare) example of successful pre-emptive diplomacy, and some of that success can be attributed to the turnaround in the media.

Media campaign

NATO's media campaign in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* became a very different kind of operation to those in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Those NATO missions were more narrowly military and reflected the powerful role of the international community. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* NATO's mission was more political while the Skopje government was proudly sovereign. NATO was and is a partner to the government, and can only operate with its full consent.

The original NATO media operation was relatively small. It was responsible for the public relations activities of the logistical support to KFOR in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the so-called KFOR Rear, which had no role within the country itself, but controlled the transit of KFOR supplies from Greece to Kosovo. As NATO became more involved in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the media operation became increasingly overloaded.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* had been sliding into civil war since the emergence of the NLA in spring 2001. But it was the appointment that summer, at the request of the country's president and prime minister, of a NATO official, Pieter Feith, to make contact with NLA leader, Ali Ahmeti, which catapulted NATO into the heart of media controversy. By that stage, the European Union had brokered a grand governing coalition of the main ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian political parties. It was the only way to get agreement on the painful political changes needed to avoid civil war, but it also imported into government many bitter divisions and rivalries.

That disunity focused on the clash between hardliners and moderates over handling the fighters of the NLA. Hardliners wanted a military solution and regarded the NLA as terrorists to be fought, while moderates accepted that a political agreement was needed to meet legitimate ethnic Albanian political aspirations and take away the reasons for any further conflict. Western militaries regarded the state security forces as incapable of winning a guerrilla war, while diplomats saw a political deal as the only alternative to a civil war and partition.

In such a situation, Mr Feith's contacts with Mr Ahmeti, to seek a cease-fire and the NLA's disbandment, put him at the centre of the media storm. His contacts were at the specific request of the government, but in such a disunited government that did not protect NATO from criticism. The hardliners were very public in their attacks on NATO, but even the ethnic Macedonian ministers who accepted the necessity of speaking to Mr Ahmeti found it hard to defend in public, what was for them, such a distasteful course.

This was all made worse in June when NATO organised the withdrawal of NLA fighters from the town of Aracinovo near Skopje. Military attempts to drive out the NLA had totally failed, and, as the military and political situation rapidly deteriorated, NATO and Mr Feith were asked by the Skopje government to persuade the NLA to leave. It was a tough and risky task but they succeeded, although only at the price of a government crisis and a massive media backlash. The public was told NATO had saved the NLA from defeat, not defused a crisis, while hardliners in the government criticised actions they had in fact agreed to.

When powerful hardliners started to argue that NATO should not have daily press conferences, we knew that our public relations efforts were having the right effect

It also gave NATO the dilemma it was to wrestle with throughout the coming months - how to respond to criticism which often came from elements within the government that had asked NATO to be there and do exactly what it was doing. Meanwhile, hardline media were fanning the flames of ethnic hatred and whipping up war fever. A European Commission report concluded: "Media coverage during the 2001 crisis significantly contributed to worsening the political situation."

Over the summer, NATO faced regular accusations of active military cooperation with the NLA, including providing helicopters to supply and transport them. The official government spokesman routinely accused NATO officials of "abusing their trust" and "brutal behaviour" as part of a deliberate coordinated campaign to cause war. It is a huge tribute to the courage of many in the Skopje government that despite the pressure they themselves were under, they still managed to agree the Framework Agreement in August. Despite the reservations of their own public and in the face of such media criticism, they made many tough decisions.

Until Task Force Harvest deployed in September 2001, NATO had rarely sought the media limelight. The Feith team's contacts with Mr Ahmeti, like so much crisis diplomacy, relied on discretion to succeed, but their self-imposed low profile had made NATO vulnerable to disinformation. NATO was both misunderstood and unpopular with much of the ethnic Macedonian public. The arrival of several thousand NATO troops produced a wave of media attention and hostility that swamped the existing public relations team, despite the excellent work of the existing military spokesman, Major Barry Johnson.

Our low point came with an early September visit by the Secretary General to coincide with the display of the first tranche of weapons collected from the NLA, completed well ahead of schedule. It should have been a good-news story, but it went wrong. Despite an overwhelming preponderance of good serviceable weapons, we managed to put all the dirtiest and oldest weapons closest to the media. The Secretary General's press conference at the weapons site descended into chaos as journalists broke away and mobbed him. Local media said the process was a sham, and international media predicted failure.

Turning point

It proved a turning point, as the media team was extensively upgraded and re-organised, and the decision was made to take a far more forceful public approach to combat the lies and distortions. The most obvious difference was the appointment of a civilian spokesman, myself, to answer the highly political questions and criticisms that a military spokesman could not.

For the media it was a shock. The worst media had interpreted our reactive and low-key response as a manifestation of weakness and lack of confidence in our own case, and polite rejections of outrageous allegations were brushed aside. Our previous refusal to engage on political issues had also been seen as weakness by journalists who did not understand the limitations of what Western military officers can say. Suddenly, they themselves were challenged, and because NATO's daily press conferences were the media highlight of the day, they had little choice but to report what we said. Every night the NATO press conference took up huge chunks of television airtime.

Much of the analysis was still distorted, but NATO's messages and agendas were being heard in a way they had never been heard before, and many of the worst of the outright fictions disappeared. It was never easy, but when powerful hardliners started to argue that NATO should not have daily press conferences, we knew that our public relations efforts were having the right effect. Direct confrontation with hardline ministers was avoided, but the key messages included constant reminders that our presence was at their request, and therefore their responsibility.

Mark Laity at a press conference
(© Mark Laity)
The theatre of the daily conference was only part of the media strategy. More resources, better planning and better briefing on the needs of the media produced immediate results in the visits and trips to see Task Force Harvest at work. For instance, the next display of weapons presented them laid out in a way that truly illustrated the scale of the success; a helicopter was laid on for filming; and the worst of the dirt was removed from weapons to show them for what they were - highly serviceable killing tools, and certainly not junk.

Media strategy was also an integral part of the commander's morning conference, woven closely into overall policy, and the media advisers very much felt a valued part of the team. There was even a second media meeting straight after the main conference to get the details right, and the force commanders and senior political representatives took a direct role in directing the strategy to help the overall mission.

At times, it also produced a conscious linking of background pressure and diplomacy with public statements. For instance, pressure to get ethnic Macedonian hardliners to pull back paramilitary units that were deliberately provoking firefights was done by a combination of talking to politicians and taking our evidence to the media. Here, as elsewhere, it was an absolute rule never to give out false information.

The NATO media team also found it easier to get information whenever something happened. Getting good information fast is fundamental to media success, and often a big problem in military operations relying on a chain of command. However, the commanders' clear support for their media team meant we mostly got what we needed when we needed it. Our ability to provide accurate, timely information gave NATO a big advantage in the battle to get the media's attention.

International cooperation

Cooperation with other international organisations was also vital. The NATO/EU link was particularly valuable, and throughout NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson and EU High Representative Javier Solana were not just key political brokers but also the ultimate media heavy artillery, putting over international policy in a way no one else could, especially as their visits usually came at the most critical times. But the Skopje-based political representatives also increasingly coordinated their media strategy, and for NATO it was always a high priority to get other international organisations onto the platform of the daily press conference. When we spoke together, it always had more effect, and the reverse also applied, with the hardliners always looking for gaps to exploit.

But the most important requirement for success was simple, though not easy - credibility. At the heart of our problems last summer was the fact that ethnic Macedonians did not believe us. We knew we were speaking the truth, but we had to persuade sceptical media that this was the case. The forceful refutation of others' lies and disinformation had to be followed by building up a record of accuracy in our information, as well as gaining acceptance that our strategy was at least honest and sincere, even if some still disagreed with it.

The success of Task Force Harvest helped provide this credibility. We said the weapons would be collected, and they were. We said the NLA would disband, and it did. We said ethnic Macedonian paramilitary units were causing violence, and when they were withdrawn the incidents ceased. And after the press conferences were over we talked individually with journalists, arguing and briefing over coffee, comparing notes. The problem the journalists had was that it was hard to know what to believe, because for months they had been fed a diet of distortion and conflicting views. Despite this, and despite the bias of the organisations they worked for, many wanted to get it right. Others were already well-informed, but were not allowed to write what they knew. In such circumstances personal relationships were vital, learning to trust each other as individuals, even as friends.

NATO's media strategy helped open up the media, and the success on the ground, actively promoted and explained, built up NATO's credibility. By the end of Task Force Harvest in October 2001, a core group of journalists basically trusted NATO, and regarded our version of events as most reliable. Over the next year that was increasingly reflected in the output of the ethnic Macedonian media, which split between moderates and hardliners as more normal politics reasserted itself.

Last year, media in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* were seen as a significant cause of their country's slide towards civil war. In the successful elections that took place in September, while some still opted for bias and lies, large portions of the same media played a truly constructive role. In spite of threats and intimidation in some instances, many brave individuals and publications were determined to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. It is particularly noteworthy that some of those who were threatened came to NATO for help, and we spoke loudly on their behalf. We have indeed come a long way.

Mark Laity is special adviser to NATO's Secretary General and is the Alliance's deputy spokesman.

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