Open Letter To Amnesty International’s London and Belfast Offices

Open Letter To Amnesty International’s London and Belfast Offices, on the Occasion of Noam Chomsky’s Belfast Festival Lecture, October 30, 2009 [1]
Edward S. Herman and David Peterson

In his wild and slanderous "Open Letter to Amnesty International" (signed, fittingly, "Yours, in disgust and despair"),[2] The Guardian – Observer‘s veteran reporter Ed Vulliamy explains that two "main concerns" motivated him to draft his repudiation of AI’s choice of Noam Chomsky to deliver this 2009 Stand Up For Justice lecture: One is that the "pain" individuals such as Chomsky are alleged to cause the "survivors and the bereaved" of the wars in the former Yugoslavia is "immeasurable," and Vulliamy feels some kind of need to help mitigate this pain; the other, apparently, is that the "historical record" as it pertains to these wars is too precious and too fragile to be left in the wrong pair of hands.  "
For Amnesty International, of all people, to honour this man is to tear up whatever credibility they have estimably and admirably won over the decades, and to reduce all they say hitherto to didactic nonsense," Vulliamy writes.  "By inviting Chomsky to give this lecture, Amnesty condemns itself to ridicule at best, hurtful malice at worstAmnesty joins the revisionists in spitting on the graves of the dead."

To spit on the graves of the dead is a ghoulish act, and Vulliamy makes a serious charge against both Noam Chomsky and Amnesty International.  Yet, it is notable that Vulliamy offers not a single quote or even paraphrase of what Chomsky has written or said about the former Yugoslavia to back-up this charge; and in his writings for The GuardianObserver over many years, we are unaware of a single published item under Vulliamy’s byline that criticized, let alone excoriated, Chomsky.[3]  Vulliamy’s Open Letter to AI complains that "Chomsky [has] said many things, from his ivory tower at MIT, to spur them [the revisionists] on," but Vulliamy never provides specifics—just insults.  This possibly results from the fact that Chomsky has never written or said anything remotely like what Vulliamy imagines and alleges—Chomsky has never denied or questioned whether there were displaced persons- and detention- and POW-camps in Bosnia – Herzegovina during the wars there (1992-1995), never denied or questioned whether Bosnian Muslims were massacred following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, and so on.  But from the standpoint of a writer aiming solely at denigration, it is necessary to leave it that "Chomsky said many things," and insinuate the worst. 

A second fact relevant to the vitriol that Vulliamy expresses towards Chomsky and AI, and to Vulliamy’s work overall, is that Vulliamy admits to being a "journalist of attachment."[4]  He has written proudly that "In 1996 [he] was the first journalist to testify" for the prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  "There are times in history when neutrality is not neutral at all, but complicity in the crime," he explained.  "I do not want to be neutral between the camp guard and inmate; the woman raped seven times a night every night, and the beast who rapes her."[5]  In fact, Peter Brock notes that Vulliamy has been "surprisingly frank and passionate…about his own abandonment of objectivity" at least since 1993, when he wrote in The British Journalism Review that he was "embarrassed…by how objective" he used to be.  But "with Omarska and Trnopolje objective coverage of the war became a rather silly notion," Vulliamy proclaimed, and he was now "on the side of the Bosnian Muslim people against an historical and military program to obliterate them."[6]  Writing in The Guardian around the same time, Britain’s Foreign Correspondent of the Year, who, his editors falsely claimed, "broke the story of the Serbian concentration camp together with [Independent Television News]," Vulliamy struck an equally committed pose: "[T]he horrors of war have taught me that there are things that are worse than war, and against them determined and careful war should be waged, in the name of the innocent and the weak. My father had the honour of fighting fascism; I have instead the strange privilege of meeting the people who are fighting a pale but unmistakable imitation of the Third Reich but have only the sons of the appeasers of 1938 to turn to."[7] 

Over a very long period of time, Ed Vulliamy’s attachment to Bosnian Muslims victims has been matched only by his hatred for "Serbian barbarism" and the "sons of the appeasers of 1938," including the "objective" journalists whose ranks he deserted long ago.  It is within this camp of alleged appeasers of "Serbian barbarism" that Vulliamy now places Amnesty International, right alongside Noam Chomsky; and Vulliamy’s Open Letter repeats each of these convoluted themes. Theoretically, a political commitment like that of Vulliamy would not necessarily result in serious bias in reporting news, but in his case, we have a paradigmatic illustration that it can do so in practice.  As we will show in what follows, his attachments have led him to concoct, distort, and suppress evidence related to the former Yugoslavia for the better part of two decades.

Thus it is a notable fact that while Vulliamy was "there" on August 5, 1992, at both the Omarska and Trnopolje camps for the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnian Serb-controlled territory, and Chomsky most certainly was not, Vulliamy repeats a stream of falsehoods about the events of that day and their follow-up, confirmed by people who were "there."  Second, he conflates those events with alleged denials and claims of "fakes" about the "concentration camps" that he and his colleagues with a British Independent Television News (ITN) crew allegedly helped to "discover."[8]  Vulliamy admits that Chomsky didn’t—unlike Thomas Deichmann writing in Novo in Germany, and later reprinted by LM in Britain (see below)—propose "that these camps were a fake," nor use "grotesque arguments about fences around the camps," claims that "were beaten back in the High Court in London, by a libel case taken by ITN." 

Note Vulliamy’s use of the plural "camps," when the issue was solely about one camp, Trnopolje, and his one visit to this camp on August 5, 1992.  In the very first report he ever published about this camp, Vulliamy had written that "Trnopolje cannot be called a ‘concentration camp’ and is nowhere as sinister as Omarska: it is very grim, something between a civilian prison and transit camp."[9]  What is more, nobody (and certainly not Chomsky or Deichmann) has ever contended that these camps themselves were "fake," though there always has been a dispute over the nature of the camps, the "fences around the camps," and what purpose(s) they served in the civil wars in Bosnia – Herzegovina during the second-half of 1992.  In his Open Letter, Vulliamy makes all of the camps out to be concentration camps, with this term’s ominous overtones of possible Nazi-like death camps.  But this was manifestly not true of Trnopolje, which served as a transit center, and most of the people Vulliamy actually saw at Trnopolje were internally displaced persons fleeing the violence of the civil wars.  Indeed, Vulliamy testified to this very fact the first time he acted as a witness for the prosecution at the ICTY in June 1996, in the trial of the Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic, where Vulliamy referred to Trnopolje variously as a "staging post," "transit camp," and "distribution point."[10]  Only in his writings and reporting for The Guardian – Observer and other venues (for example, in his 1994 book Seasons in Hell [11]) did Trnopolje become fixed as a "concentration camp," with the Nazi-allusion firmly in place, a status that it retains in his Open Letter to AI: "places of extermination, torture, killing, rape and, literally, ‘concentration’ prior to enforced deportation…."

The other big issue was whether the famous images of an emaciated man, Fikret Alic, the "symbolic figure of the war," as Vulliamy once described him, "on every magazine cover and television screen in the world,"[12] who seemed to stand behind a barbed-wire fence while interviewed by the British reporters, were deceptive and misleading. 


The simple answer is: Yes.  First, it is well established that Fikret Alic’s physical appearance—often described as "xylophonic" because his ribcage showed prominently through his extremely thin torso—was not representative of the rest of the displaced persons seen at Trnopolje by the British reporters on August 5, 1992.

More important, it is also well established (in the face of fanatic denials to the contrary) that Alic at no time while he was photographed and interviewed that day by the British reporters was standing behind a barbed-wire fence that enclosed him and the other Bosnian Muslim men.  In fact, the actual fence used in the famous shots of Alic and the other men consisted of chicken-wire that stretched from the ground up roughly as high as the men’s chests, with three strands of barbed-wire above the chicken wire, both affixed to the side of the fence posts facing away from the British reporters.  In other words, this fence enclosed the area where the British reporters had positioned themselves to interview and film the Bosnian Muslim men, and these men—Fikret Alic included—stood outside the area enclosed by the fence. 

This is what Thomas Deichmann’s original debunking of "The picture that fooled the world" argued correctly[13]—much to the chagrin of the British reporters, to ITN, and to the British establishment, which resorted to Britain’s onerous libel laws to punish LM magazine for publishing Deichmann’s work in 1997, and used the British High Court to exact from LM the ultimate price: LM‘s bankruptcy and liquidation.[14]  Deichmann, who studied a copy of the unused film shot that day by ITN cameraman Jeremy Irvin, wrote:

When Marshall, Williams and Vulliamy entered the compound next to the camp, the barbed wire was already torn in several places. They did not use the open gate, but entered from the south through a gap in the fence. They approached the fence on the north side, where curious refugees quickly gathered inside the camp, but on the outside of the area fenced-in by barbed wire. It was through the barbed wire fence at this point that the famous shots of Fikret Alic were taken….

[Thus] an important element of that "key image" had been produced by camera angles and editing. The other pictures, which were not broadcast, show clearly that the large area on which the refugees were standing was not fenced-in with barbed wire. You can see that the people are free to move on the road and on the open area, and have already erected a few protective tents. Within the compound next door that is surrounded with barbed wire, you can see about 15 people, including women and children, sitting under the shade of a tree. Penny Marshall’s team were able to walk in and out of this compound to get their film, and the refugees could do the same as they searched for some shelter from the August sun.[15]

The journalist Phillip Knightley also acquired the film shot by ITN’s Jeremy Irvin that day (the out-takes included) and "examined it frame by frame."  In an affidavit he filed on behalf of the LM defense, Knightley wrote:

The barbed wire turns out to be only symbolic. Were all the inmates starving?  No. Fikret Alic was an exception. Even in Marshall

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