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October 8, 2002 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Was the bombing of Serbia's state TV headquarters necessary? Reporters Without Borders meets NATO leaders


Reporters Without Borders met with NATO Assistant Secretary General for defence planning and operations, Edgar Buckley, on 7 October, to discuss the controversial bombing of the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) on 23 April 1999, in which 16 employees of the state-owned television station were killed.

Assistant Secretary General Buckley was accompanied by Yves Brodeur, NATO spokesman and head of its press and media service, and other NATO advisers and officials. Reporters Without Borders was represented by its director, Robert Ménard, and Soria Blatmann, the head of its Europe desk, together with Alexandre Lévy, a journalist who has written several investigative reports on NATO intervention in Serbia.

Reporters Without Borders asked about the choice of RTS as a military target, the proportionality between the strategic gain and the risk for the civilian population and the question of giving the civilian population warning of an imminent military attack "in sufficient time and by effective means," as the Geneva Conventions stipulate.

Buckley said that, like all the sites bombed, RTS was identified as a military target after a long process of discussion between the allies and after consulting with jurists. "The RTS building was chosen solely for military reasons," he told the Reporters Without Borders delegation.

Refusing to retract the contradictory statements made by political leaders of NATO or its member countries at the time of the bombing, Buckley nonetheless made the point that "a NATO military target is not necessarily a target of a military nature."

While deploring the civilian losses caused by the bombing, Buckley said both its strategic and tactical objectives were achieved. "We always tried to reduce the risks for civilians as much as possible when taking our decisions. Sixteen dead is too much, and we regret it," he said. Nonetheless, he said the principle of proportionality was respected.

NATO has so far not adopted any compensatory measures for the families of the victims of the RTS bombing and it does not envisage doing so either, he told Reporters Without Borders.

As regards giving a warning "in sufficient time and by effective means," Buckley reiterated that NATO gave the Milosevic regime no specific warning. "We did not warn of the imminence of this strike in order to protect the lives of our pilots and to avoid the regime establishing a human shield at the target." He declined to comment on the many reports about informal warnings of the imminent attack given to certain journalists or Serbian officials by western diplomats or military officials.

In support of their arguments, Buckley and his colleagues made several references to the committee that was tasked by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with examining the NATO bombing campaign. In its report published on 13 June 2000, this committee said that neither a full-fledged investigation into the bombing campaign nor investigations into specific incidents were justified.

"We will continue to act solely within the framework of international law" as regards NATO's treatment of journalists and news media in time of conflict, Buckley stressed, while recognising that this was "not a fixed process, but a dynamic one."

Reporters Without Borders fears that the military strike on RTS could constitute a dangerous precedent opening the way for other actions of this type against news media in future conflicts. The organisation has therefore decided to formally ask the International Committee of the Red Cross to define or elaborate its position on the role of the news media and journalists in time of conflict.