From edition

Review: Media Discourse and the Yugoslav Conflicts. Representations of Self and Other

Pål Kolstø (Ed.)

Farnham, Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.

by Paul C. Bott

The relevance of mass media in conflicts has got much attention by the academia over the last years. The anthology edited by Pål Kolstø presents important findings of a research project conducted by The Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages at the University of Oslo in cooperation with Mediacentar (Sarajevo) and the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade.

The research cooperation focused on the analysis of the representation of conflict parties by the mass media in the Yugoslav republics and the nation-states emerging from the break-up of Yugoslavia, respectively. Unlike many other theoretical approaches that describe the role of the media in conflicts as agents of manipulation, the contributions of this book rightly follow a more complex understanding according to which, for example, politicians and media makers may become prisoners of the images, narrations and perceptions they have conjured up.

The overall approach is a comparative one taking into consideration three cases with high tolls of death (Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia), two cases of conflict with limited violence (Slovenia, Macedonia) plus one region (Serbia and Montenegro) where the dissociation did not enter a violent mode. To avoid overcomplexity the comparison dealt with the media presentations of ‘us’ vs ‘them’.

The issue of the discursive construction of Self and Other in this inspiring anthology theoretically starts from Barry Posen’s research on ethnic groups and their threat perception and integrates further work by Roger Petersen who has pointed to the relevance of emotions like hatred, rage and fear for understanding inter-ethnic relations and acts of violence. Yet, Kolstø emphasizes that Petersen’s emotion-based theory of ethnic violence does not include any discussion of how information about ‘reality’ is filtered and moulded through discourse before it becomes ‘knowledge’ that may direct behavior. Referring to the concept of politicizing and securitizing that has originated from the Copenhagen School and to the idea of the logic of generic attribution developed by Arne Johan Vetlesen according to which every individual is reduced to ‘a member of a group’ and every member of the respective group is held responsible for all alleged acts committed by all other putative members of the group, Kolstø argues that making the Other an enemy needs massive efforts especially in cases in which individuals belonging to different ethnic groups have lived together over a longer period of time without or with only little conflict. In comparison with the constructivist approach of the Copenhagen School the editor points out that the effectiveness of such “systematic propaganda” (9) cannot be explained through discourses alone but has to take power structures and the interests of diverse protagonists into consideration.

The book’s contributions cover seven case studies and three more general chapters. Tarik Jusić theorizes about the role of media ín conflictive surroundings and argues that three basic dimensions have to be taken into account: a) environmental variables such as the nature of the crisis, type of control over the media, and relationships between elites; b) the nature of the media made up, amongst other factors, by the presence of sensationalism, professional journalistic standards and the existence of alternative voices, c) the profile of the audience. Nedin Mutić’s contribution is about the representation of Self and Other in (post-)war Balkan cinema. Sabina Mihelj, Veronika Bajt and Miloš Pankov investigate the coverage of conflict development in Slovenia from mid 1988 to early 1992 broadcasted by TV in Slovenia and Serbia. One important result of their research is that “a series of discursive shifts” had to take place “before the media stage was cleared for an all-out war between the republics-turned-national states” (58).

This book is definintely worth reading for those interesting in the role of media in conflicts. It offers a complex theoretical frame plus a number of CDA based case studies which are especially interesting as they look at the reciprocity of the discourses of the conflict parties.

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