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Ethnic Cleansing: The Media and World Opinion

Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 E. 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; 212-808-4980
Produced by NHK
Director Toru Tagaki
VHS, color, 52 min.
High School - Adult
Multicultural Studies, Political Science, Religious Studies

Reviewed by Brian Falato, University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library


“Ethnic cleansing” was a familiar term in news reports of the 1990s. It was used to describe the actions of Serbs as they sought to expel Muslim residents from Bosnia so that only ethnic Serbs would be living there. Bosnia had left the Yugoslav federation and declared itself independent. Bosnian Serbs fought this, with help from the Serbian republic. The resulting civil war produced stories of Serbian atrocities and reports of concentration camps where Muslims were held and sometimes tortured and executed. Reports of Bosnian Muslims committing atrocities arrived much later in the West. The Bosnian government clearly won the battle for public opinion in the U.S. Ethnic Cleansing (the subtitle listed above appears only on the container and not on the video itself) details the public relations campaign that built support for an independent Bosnia and helped bring international sanctions against Serbia, and it comes from the unlikely source of NHK, the Japanese television network.

The campaign was headed by James W. Harff, then head of Washington operations for Ruder Finn, one of the largest public relations firms in the country. Harff’s plan used Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic, who was telegenic and spoke English well, as the chief spokesman in the West for the Bosnian cause. He arranged for Silajdzic to be interviewed by influential journalists, who then often wrote articles and commentaries in support of Bosnia. Harff also came up with the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the expulsions of Bosnian Muslims from their homes and made it a key concept in his campaign. For his public relations work on behalf of the Bosnian government, Harff won the Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America.

Harff appears to have cooperated fully with the video’s producers, allowing them access to papers he produced for the Bosnian PR campaign. Yet, the tone of the video comes off as mildly accusatory. Near the end, several comments are made, by both Serbian and Western speakers, that the demonization of Serbia in Harff’s campaign meant that wartime atrocities committed by Bosnians were overlooked or downplayed and that the simplistic presentation engineered by Harff did not do justice to the complexity of the situation. There is the implication that if the Serbian government had used the media better, it might not have been treated as such an international pariah.

The issue raised is an important one, and the news media’s complicity in Harff’s PR campaign, either witting or unwitting, deserved further exploration. Yet the journalists interviewed appear only a few times and speak only a sentence or two in each instance.

While the video lacks an in-depth investigation, it is still recommended as a PR case study in how to successfully get support for a foreign government’s viewpoint. Discussion of the ethical issues involved will have to be left to classrooms.