Wrong target

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am

Serbia's state-run television is certainly an extremely unpleasant organisation. Its broadcasts compare Nato to Nazi Germany and gloss over the appalling treatment of Kosovo refugees by President Slobodan Milosevic's regime.

But airing unsavoury propaganda is not normally regarded as justification for a television station to be bombed to smithereens. All over the world, there are broadcasters who put out unpleasant and biased programmes which are tolerated as part of the price of upholding press freedom.

Even in times of war, repressive regimes, from apartheid South Africa to Iraq, have usually recognised that the media are observers rather than combatants. Under the Geneva Convention, journalists are supposed to be regarded as neutral.

However, in the Kosovo conflict, Nato seems to have given up all pretence of abiding by this basic principle. In recent days, it has bombed the transmitters of Serbian television in a fresh attempt to take it off the air. Last week, it reduced the station's studios to rubble in an attack that killed up to 20 people. Most, if not all, were cleaners, make-up staff and junior personnel - a far cry from the propagandists supposed to be the targets.

After that, Serbia's few independent stations were forced to begin relaying programmes from the state-run broadcaster. This may yet make them a target as Nato expands its range of targets to try to compensate for the failure of its bombing campaign to shake the regime so far.

Taken to its extreme conclusion, the same logic could almost be used to justify bombing hospitals tending wounded soldiers or schools where young recruits are trained.

Attacking Serbia's war machine is one thing. But, with military objectives still waiting to be hit, Nato puts its claim to represent moral rectitude at risk in expanding its bombing to include civilian targets such as the media.