FAIR Misrepresents the Racak Massacre
By Roger Lippman
April 30, 2001
In a Media Advisory of February 1, 2001, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) misrepresents the 1999 Serbian killings of 45 residents of Racak, Kosovo.
( DOUBTS ON MASSACRE: Media Ignore Questions About Incident That Sparked Kosovo War )
FAIR's article alleges that there is new evidence casting doubt on claims that the bodies were civilian victims of a massacre and attributes the first-hand source for that information to a recently-published report by a Finnish team of forensic pathologists hired by the European Union to investigate the deaths. According to e-mail I have from Rachel Coen of FAIRs staff, that report was published in the issue of Forensic Science International dated February 15, 2001.
FAIRs article is erroneous or misleading in the following ways:
1. It misrepresents the content of the Forensic Science International article.
2. It is at odds with substantial previous credible documentation on the Racak incident.
3. Information released since the publication of FAIRs article also contradicts the articles position.
4. There are numerous errors of detail in the article.
5. The Berliner Zeitung article on which FAIRs was largely based also contains many errors and distortions.
1. The Forensic Science International report contains nothing new and does not cast doubt on there having been a massacre of civilians.
There is nothing in this report that contradicts either earlier reports by this team or public statements by the team leader, Dr. Helena Ranta, who has described the killings as a crime against humanity. Since FAIR neither cited the report by title nor offered any quotations from it, it is difficult to know what the basis is for FAIRs characterization of the report as saying that there is no evidence of a massacre at Racak.
The report, published in a scholarly journal, is highly technical. Most of the report is devoted to recounting the scientific methods and observations of the pathology team. In the reports final section, the authors make certain observations regarding their role as pathologists. They write,
The function of forensic investigation is the detailed and skilled documentation of biological facts. It is partly on the basis of these objective documents that the responsible authorities can draw their conclusions. Besides the documentation of findings, the forensic investigation of victims in political or ethnic conflict is reasonable because the investigation defines the probabilities and can eliminate certain versions of events. The definition of the course of events consists of many elements. Speculation about different possibilities can be directed more justifiably when certain limits are imposed, including those circumscribed by medical data.
The team of pathologists, accustomed to preparing evidence for legal proceedings, attempted to avoid characterizing the killings in a political way. The report is meant to provide evidence, not to arrive at final conclusions on the basis of that evidence. A complete explanation of what happened has to be sought elsewhere. An unfortunate result of the pathologists circumspection was that the report was left open to manipulation and distortion by those seeking support for their political agenda.
2. Previous documentation supports the conclusion that Serbs massacred Albanian civilians at Racak.
Reported information on Racak needs to be understood in a context, established by the following events:
A. Immediately after the Racak killings, Human Rights Watch conducted an extensive investigation, interviewing numerous witnesses. The resulting report was published within two weeks of the killings, on January 29, 1999. That report accused Serbian special police forces and the Yugoslav army of indiscriminately attacking civilians, torturing detainees, and committing summary executions. The evidence suggests that government forces had direct orders to kill village inhabitants over the age of fifteen." Yet, FAIR makes no reference to the HRW report.
B. In mid-March 1999, the Finnish team of forensic pathologists released a summary of its findings. The team attempted to limit its report to the physical evidence. The report included evidence that the victims were unarmed civilians, not soldiers. The team leader, too, described the dead as unarmed civilians, including older men and a woman, who had all been killed at the same time. Under pressure from insistent reporters to reveal her own conclusions, she stated that the killings were a crime against humanity. Nothing said or published by any members of the team has contradicted that statement.
The following statement within the report has been taken out of context by the Yugoslav government and its supporters:
The Racak events have been described as a "massacre." However, such a conclusion does not fall within the competence of the European Union forensic team or any other person having participated solely in the investigation of the bodies. The term "massacre" ... is a legal description of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of persons as judged from comprehensive analysis of all available information.
This statement, like the rest of the report, cannot plausibly be read as doubting that a massacre took place at Racak.
C. Serbian forces had committed many mass killings of Kosovo Albanian civilians in the year preceding the Racak killings. This information is readily available. See, for example,
Violations of the Rules of War by Government Forces and
Violations in the Yugoslav-Albania Border Region
(Both are reports by Human Rights Watch.)
D. Evidence suggests that the Racak massacre was ordered not by local renegade commanders but by the head of the Yugoslav Ministry of the Interior forces in Kosovo.
3. Subsequent information also supports the conclusion that Serbs massacred Albanian civilians at Racak.
Early in 2001, the European Union released an Executive Summary of the work of the Finnish team from January 1, 1999, to June 30, 2000. That document describes the teams work at Racak. Significantly, it describes investigation at the gully where 23 Albanian bodies were found. While Yugoslav government sources have claimed that the bodies were arranged there after a battle, this document reports that bullets were found in the ground as deep as 15 cm., directly below the locations of the bodies, indicating that the Albanians were killed where they were found.
Recently, Dr. Ranta has reiterated the conclusions she announced two years ago. In an interview reported in two articles in the March 10, 2001 issue of the respected Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, she characterizes the Berliner Zeitung article and similar articles as nonsense. She completely rules out the Serbian scenario, that the Albanians were KLA soldiers. Rather, she says that her team found that the victims were unarmed civilians, countering the Berliner Zeitung articles claim that the Finnish investigators could not establish that the victims were civilians, whether they were from Racak, or even exactly where they had been killed.
4. Additional problems with FAIRs Media Advisory
Paragraph 1: New evidence casting doubt on claims that the bodies were civilian victims of a massacre
FAIR cites no new evidence anywhere in this article. In paragraph 7, FAIR asserts that a new report (presumably in Forensic Science International) finds that there is no evidence of a massacre, but does not quote the report, and the report says no such thing. FAIR states that there has been a virtual blackout on the news in the U.S. press, but there was actually no news, no new development, and nothing to report.
FAIR reported on the opinion of the Berliner Zeitung reporters, and if FAIR's writers had read their source and been familiar with other available information on Racak, including the Human Rights Watch report, FAIR would have recognized the inaccuracy of their report. FAIR's claim that there is "new evidence" is a false statement.
Paragraph 5: FAIR quotes a 1999 Berliner Zeitung article, which says, the Racak bodies were not-- as Walker declared-- victims of a Serbian massacre of civilians, but were mostly KLA fighters killed in battle.
However, both the HRW and Finnish reports concluded that the victims were civilians who had been killed wearing civilian clothes, not KLA uniforms as alleged by the Yugoslav government.
Paragraph 7: After the massacre, the European Union hired a Finnish team of forensic pathologists to investigate the deaths. Their report was kept secret until now, two years later.
A summary of the Finnish report was presented to the media March 17, 1999. The complete report was at that time provided not only to the European Union, but also to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Pristina and to the Pristina District Court, both of which were then controlled by the Serbian government. (If the Finnish report in any way supported the Yugoslav position, one would expect that the report would have been quoted or released by the Yugoslavs.) The European Union provided a copy to the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia. Subsequent visits to Racak by the forensic team, as described above, provided more data, and a supplementary report was submitted to the ICTY on June 21, 2000.
The report referred to in paragraph 7 was not the official report of the Finnish team but rather a journal article. That article was not kept secret until now. It was submitted to Forensic Science International on May 8, 2000, and it was subsequently revised and accepted for publication.
Paragraph 8: According to the Berliner Zeitung (1/16/01), the Finnish investigators could not establish that the victims were civilians, whether they were from Racak, or even exactly where they had been killed.
This Berliner Zeitung report is based simply on an inaccurate reading of the Forensic Science International article. FAIRs use of this quotation suggests that FAIR has not read the FSI article. Dr. Ranta explicitly refuted this argument in recent interviews, stating that the victims were civilians. She made that statement in March 1999, and she repeated it in the March 2001 Dutch interview. For FAIR to claim that a report says the opposite of what the lead investigator says it means is absurd.
Paragraph 9: The Berliner Zeitung also reports that these findings were completed as early as June 2000, but that their publication had been blocked by the UN and the EU.
Findings that the victims were in fact civilians were made by March 1999. Subsequent visits to Racak by the forensic team established further details of the killings that were incorporated in a report completed in July 2000.
Paragraph 10: Except for one brief wire story from United Press International (1/18/01), not a single U.S. media outlet has run a story on the Finnish team's findings. News outlets continue to refer to the Racak massacre without qualification, despite the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the story.
Again, perhaps this lack of press coverage is because there really is no uncertainty about Racak, except that which has been spread by Yugoslav government propaganda.
Paragraph 12: A recent Philadelphia Inquirer story (1/23/01) about Yugoslavia's relationship with the war crimes tribunal at The Hague claimed that 'Serbs refuse to accept the world's vision of them as aggressors, and noted that Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica alleges the killings [at Racak] were staged to look like a massacre to embarrass Yugoslavia. The Finnish team's findings about Racak, which prompted Kostunica's recent allegations, went unmentioned.
The Finnish teams findings may have gone unmentioned because they could not possibly have provided a justification for Kostunicas allegations.
Read accurately, they discredit Kostunica's statement.
5. Further Inaccuracies in the Berliner Zeitung article
The Berliner Zeitung article quoted by FAIR also says, Mrs. Ranta repeated to the EU officials what she said to a Berliner Zeitung cooperating Canadian journalist - far away from the interested European public: that her research did not support the official version of a mass execution; that she did not know what really happened in Racak.
I asked Dr. Ranta by e-mail about this statement, and she responded, as she has said publicly, I have refused to use the word "massacre" because it is basically a legal description and its use should be restricted to the court. She said that the Canadian journalists misinterpretation may have its roots in this statement.
The Berliner Zeitung also claims that autopsy protocols leaked to the paper show that there were not executions at Racak a position that Dr. Ranta has repeatedly refuted.
In the March 2001 interview cited above, Dr. Ranta describes the Berliner Zeitung article as nonsense and rebuts its conclusions.
It is unfortunate that FAIR has joined such right-wing sources as Free Republic and Reagan.com in endorsing the Berliner Zeitung's false, misleading, ideology-driven article.
[A translation of the Berliner Zeitung article can be found here.]
The true nature of the Serbian killings of Albanian civilians at Racak was well established by the Human Rights Watch report published just two weeks after the killings. That report was substantiated by the various reports from the EU Forensic Expert Team and the public remarks of Dr. Ranta, the team leader. Recently, Dr. Ranta has been even more explicit in stating that the victims were unarmed civilians.
FAIRs media advisory does not even mention the Human Rights Watch report or the public comments of Dr. Ranta.
It is not surprising that the perpetrators of the killings of civilians, namely Serbian forces, would deny their deeds or obfuscate them with propaganda and false (if plausible) theories. And its not surprising that Yugoslav government claims would be given credence by some journalists.
It is surprising, however, that FAIR would essentially repeat the allegations of one new article, with virtually no investigation or discussion of the broader, incriminating context. With this widely distributed report, FAIR places itself firmly in the camp of Serbian apologists, modern-day war-crimes deniers, sensationalist or careless journalists, and right-wing isolationists.
The denial of the Racak massacre serves more than one purpose for the Yugoslav propagandists. The many other massacres committed in Kosovo by Serbian forces are thus denied by omission. If the issue is just Racak, a concerted propaganda campaign can confuse a lot of people. But Racak was only one among many similar atrocities.
The clinical descriptions in the new report cannot be interpreted as casting doubt on the actuality of a massacre. Rather, they must be understood in the context of the comments made by the forensic team leader at the time of the release of the team's report, in March 1999. Dr. Ranta's remarks can be heard at
I am certainly aware of the unsavory role William Walker has played as an instrument of U.S. policy, especially in Central America. But in this case, most of his observations have been confirmed by HRW and the Finnish team. If a tree falls in the forest and William Walker sees it, does that mean the tree didnt fall?
At the end of the media advisory, FAIR writes: We especially appreciate documented example of media bias or censorship. With FAIRs biased coverage of the Racak killings, and its censorship of the numerous reports that contradict its own, Im afraid that in this case FAIR needs to look no further than its own shop.
The Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, former president of the International Parliament of Writers, decried activity like FAIR's as:
a world that turns a blind eye to the structured violation of its kind, and then goes further to insult the claims and duty of memory by the manipulation of language, inventing a syntax of denial in the testaments of reality.
The appropriate thing for FAIR to do now, after verifying the information provided above, is to issue a retraction and distribute it as widely as the original media advisory.
[Update 7-20-2001] The author provided FAIR with the information above. In response, FAIR concedes that forensic investigators determined that "physical evidence was consistent with a massacre." However, the response disregards most of the available reports on Racak and concludes that the question of what really happened at the Kosovo village of Racak is still unresolved. With this statement, FAIR has dropped its pretense of media criticism on the Racak question and has engaged itself in spreading confusion about the issue.