June 29, 1992 Vreme News Digest Agency No 40

The Banja Luka Babies

Using a Tragedy

by Dusan Radulovic

There would be no doubts concerning the "twelve babies' tragedy in Banja Luka Hospital" if it were not for the fact that one shipment of oxygen tanks had previously been delivered to Banja Luka despite the UN sanctions

When the news was published on June 18 that eleven babies in incubators died due to a lack of oxygen and that two patients whose life depended on dialysis machines have passed away in Banjaluka, it had a strong impact on the Yugoslav public, already used to news about deaths.

The babies died during "the period from May 19 to June 18", said a communiqué released at a Banja Luka health officers' press conference.

The facts say that in the beginning of June, when the UN sanctions were already in effect, after a dramatic appeal from Banja Luka, Radio Belgrade initiated a campaign for sending liquid oxygen to local hospitals. The appeal had an effect on the Yugoslav public. A Belgrade-based firm responded immediately by offering liquid oxygen, while the Air Force offered to transport the aid to Banja Luka. Apart from fears that consequences could be severe if the oxygen and medicines did not arrive on time, no dead babies were mentioned in that particular appeal from Banja Luka!

Those who had followed the campaign know that there were no major problems, and if there were any, they were not emphasized. The permission for the flight was obtained, the plane reached Banja Luka safely, while the protagonists began receiving expressions of gratitude for a job well done. That time nobody mentioned the "world which is deaf and blind for the suffering of innocent babies", or even thought of protesting in front of the UNPROFOR headquarters.

Nevertheless, the excitement which followed the whole undertaking inspired some of the creators of "spontaneous" media campaigns to repeat the whole thing, but this time with a different meaning and aim. The Banja Luka babies story was reactivated twelve days after the first successful delivery of liquid oxygen and medicines to Banja Luka hospitals. The period during which the babies had died was mentioned only in the first communiqué and never again! It was necessary for the public to get the impression that the tragedy happened in one day.

Mr. Borisav Jovic, the President of the State Committee for Cooperation with the UN, took care of that (in an urgent message to the UNPROFOR Commander General Satish Nambiar) by saying the following: "Due to a lack of oxygen and medicines, eleven newborn babies and three patients died yesterday in a Banja Luka hospital..." After that, almost nobody wondered why the first appeal for help, which was successfully attended to, did not mention the death of babies or connected the dates from the end of May and the end of June. The fact that the communiqué specifying the period during which the babies died and Mr. Borisav Jovic's urgent message were published on the same day (POLITIKA daily, June 19), the former on the front page, and the latter on the fourth page, speaks more of the authorities' arrogance than of the manipulators' or the editor's negligence.

The quantity of information, the vocabulary used and the way in which the tragic story was presented successfully created the desired public atmosphere. The government needed the "case of the Banja Luka babies" to deepen the impression that the blame for the imposition of sanctions "cannot be attributed to the government's policy but to the big, mean world which could not care less for the death of twelve babies". Public appeals and protests against "the cruelty of those denying permission for sending humanitarian aid", were proof that the TV campaign had hit its target. The people were persuaded to believe that absolutely everything has been done here in order to send the aid to Banja Luka hospitals, but "that permission from the UN Sanctions Committee was not coming, while babies were dying".

The whole thing, however, still did not cut ice. The campaign was at its peak when Radio Belgrade broadcast (June 21) an interview with Mr. Dragomir Djokic, the head of the Yugoslav mission in the UN. He said that "the approval procedure for sending humanitarian aid is rather complicated", but that because of this, after the sanctions were adopted, he "informed the competent people in Yugoslavia that each request should be sent at least two days ahead." Ambassador Djokic also said that some of the UN Sanctions Committee members had suggested to him that "it would be ideal if such requests could arrive four days in advance, so that they could consult their governments." Not a word in the interview was uttered concerning who thought of denying permission for something that is not covered by the sanctions - the humanitarian aid, why, with what explanation and until when. Not a single word about the number of requests coming from Yugoslavia (and they did come), about diplomatic activities aimed at discovering where the problems lie.

The tragedy in Banja Luka was also used as an instrument against the striking students and government critics. That event became unavoidable in telegrams of support to President Milosevic. It is evident that nothing was further from the mind of the people who were behind the whole media campaign and abuse of the Banja Luka tragedy for the most base political purposes than broadcasting at the same time the news that a "truck carrying 2,000 liters of dialysis solution and certain quantity of oxygen" was heading for Banja Luka at the very same moment. The truck, hired by "Caritas", reached Banja Luka safely via Okucani (Croatia) last Wednesday.

The air space over Bosnia-Herzegovina opened for humanitarian aid last Thursday. The Banja Luka tragedy has already disappeared from the front pages and the first minutes of radio and TV programs. The job was done, at least to the extent that the growing discontent in Serbia was turned towards another target, and not against the creators of the unsuccessful policy. But, it doesn't matter - some other opportunity for media manipulation will appear eventually.

At the same time, the news about the critical situation in Belgrade, Kragujevac, Novi Sad and other Serbian hospitals remains in the background. It is kept far from the front pages, for when their turn comes, despite all media power, it will be hard not to give the right answer to the question - why?