How can media coverage tell us when a genocide is happening? This is the subject of a fascinating article published Tuesday on ForeignPolicy.com.

“What Did We Know — and When Did We Know It?” (by Michael Dobbs, who is following the Mladic trial for the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) looks closely at about 1 minute of video footage shot by a Serbian journalist on July 13, 1995, during the genocide of Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica.

The first part of the video (repeated subsequently in slow motion) shows prisoners gathered in a field, guarded by soldiers in uniform. The second part was taken by Petrovic as he drove back toward Srebrenica through the village of Kravica while the massacre was underway. You hear shots ring out, mingled with the throbbing beat of music from the car radio. In addition to the crumpled bodies (more visible in the slow motion part of the video that begins at 0:50), you see the bullet-spattered façade of the warehouse and empty white buses (used to transport the prisoners).

This footage aired the next day on the Belgrade TV station Studio B, with the murdered Bosnian Serbs described as “dead Muslim soldiers.” One journalist—Robert Block, Belgrade correspondent for the Independent in London—saw the footage and immediately suspected a massacre. He went to the television station and asked to see the footage in slow motion. The next day he published a story titled “Bodies pile up in horror of Srebrenica.”

As Dobbs points out:

If a lone reporter was able to reach such conclusions on the basis of examining a few seconds of video footage, think what a powerful intelligence agency would have been able to do had it been explicitly tasked to gather evidence of war crimes. We now know that the CIA had additional imagery of the Kravica events that was captured in real time, but not analyzed for many weeks.

Given that massacres in the area continued for another week after the footage was broadcast, if intelligence analysts had been paying attention, many lives might have been saved.

From a prevention point of view, what’s important is for intelligence agencies—and journalists—to be on the lookout for signs of atrocity crimes, especially when there is violent conflict going on.

Dobbs will be writing more articles about the use of intelligence in genocide prevention, which you can follow here.

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