As the first NATO missiles slammed into Yugoslavia March 24, journalists covering the story found themselves thrust into the headlines. Reporters told of hotel doors broken down by heavily armed thugs, middle-of-the-night arrests and interrogations, equipment smashed and transmissions blocked. Some, like Christopher Burns of CNN, received death threats.
The swift crackdown by Serb authorities dramatically redefined how news of the American-led NATO mission was delivered to the world. Correspondents in Belgrade resorted to "rooftop journalism," witnessing what they could from the Hyatt Regency until police herded about 30 off for questioning. Serbian security forces with machine guns patrolled the halls and confiscated reporters' equipment.
That first night, CNN scored an exclusive by secretly transmitting blurry fluorescent green "nightscope" images of the NATO air strikes in Kosovo. Within hours after the footage aired, CNN correspondent Brent Sadler and three crew members watched in terror as a man brandishing a rifle crashed through their hotel room door and fired into the ceiling. "I thought it was curtains," Sadler later said. "They felt we were part of the whole attack structure."
The next morning, as they prepared to leave Pristina, the capital of Kosovo province, they were accosted by gunmen who set their armored car on fire and slapped one of the CNN producers. The atmosphere throughout Yugoslavia was "very angry, very hostile," reported CBS correspondent Mark Phillips.
Within 48 hours, journalists heard the dreaded words: All those from the NATO countries were to leave the embattled province. The Yugoslav military escorted caravans of vehicles carrying Western correspondents to the borders of neighboring countries. Phillips and Peter Finn of the Washington Post were rousted in the middle of the night, held for nine hours in a police station, then driven to the Croatian border and released.
Back home, news executives lost sleep over the safety of their forces in the field and turned to cyberspace--e-mail and the Internet--in attempts to move the story forward. They also began the agonizing process of determining how to get correspondents back into a country that had declared itself a journalist-free zone.
Even before missiles struck, Serbian TV had been grinding out a campaign aimed at silencing the messengers. CNN was, by all descriptions, the hardest hit.
Eason Jordan, CNN's president of international networks and global newsgathering, accuses the Serbs of attempting to "demonize" his journalists in a stream of propaganda. Serb news anchors commonly referred to CNN as a "factory of lies," he says, and called for the network's leaders to be tried for war crimes.
One Serb report described CNN's journalists as cheering and popping bottles of champagne when NATO bombs began falling. Jordan calls the charges "nonsense." There is no question, he says, that CNN staffers were in more danger because of their high visibility in the region and their history of tough reporting over the years on Serb attacks against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"That has made us unpopular with Serb hard-
liners," Jordan says. "It's always difficult to put people in harm's way. But when CNN is singled out, targeted and subjected to propaganda attacks, we have had many sleepless nights." He says Sadler was threatened by armed men who held up two bullets and said, "These are for you."
Often, news executives turn to local stringers, residents who can be reached by satellite phone, ham radio or the Internet, to continue coverage after the press has been ejected from a war zone. But according to Jordan, the Serbs warned that any Yugoslav journalist found cooperating with a Western news outlet would be "subject to severe punishment."
Like his counterparts, Michael Moran, international editor for MSNBC, undertook the delicate operation of trying to get his people back inside. "The reality is that we try not to compromise, but we also know once [the Serbs] shut us out all together, it's a greater compromise. It closes down all access," he says.
Moran points to a coup by MSNBC correspondent Preston Mendenhall, who ran into a notorious Serb paramilitary leader in a Belgrade bar while covering the conflict. Mendenhall interviewed the since-indicted war criminal, Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan, and arranged an online chat with MSNBC.
CNN's Jordan says no journalistic compromises were made to obtain access. "We have people who have spent years in the Balkans and know the [Serb] leadership and were able to convince them it was important for CNN to be there," he says.
John Moody, vice president of news editorial for Fox News Channel, believes Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic committed a public relations blunder when he threw out journalists. "He's been following Saddam Hussein's playbook pretty clearly with that exception," says Moody, who interviewed Milosevic years ago while working for Time magazine.
Saddam garnered what some have described as a propaganda windfall when he let American TV networks telecast live as bombs fell on Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. This time, instead of dramatic on-the-ground footage that is the "meat and potatoes of networks when war breaks out, viewers were mostly fed thin gruel," reported the Boston Globe. Commentators turned to locator maps alongside still photos of network correspondents who delivered reports by telephone.
Adding to the confusion, journalists found themselves trapped in a rift between rival factions of the Serbian leadership who differed on how the press should be treated. In one part of Belgrade, leaders of the federal government held a press conference to urge journalists to capitalize on their presence in a country under NATO attack.
Across town, the Serb republic's information minister faxed an urgent advisory to the Associated Press offices, saying that journalists were to leave the country immediately. Serb television already had halted video transmissions by networks from NATO countries.
In his report on the growing chasm, MSNBC's Mendenhall explained it this way: It would be like the head of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's press department ordering outside journalists to leave the state, while a federal cabinet member said they could stay.
The mixed messages added an element of farce to the Balkan drama, in Mendenhall's view. They also heightened frustrations as journalists pondered the odds of hunkering down and trying to ride out the expulsion order or heading for the nearest border. Two NBC reporters did decide to remain because no one directly asked them to leave, spokeswoman Alex Constantinople says.
Many journalists from NATO countries were able to get back into Yugoslavia if they did so within the first week of the conflict. Soon after, such journalists were not allowed to enter the country.
On March 30, the Yugoslav government organized the first press junket for foreign journalists, dominated by non-NATO countries, such as Japan. The destination: the site where an American stealth bomber crashed, 30 miles outside Belgrade. Around the same time, a Yugoslav leader went on CNN to tell the world, "Journalists are not our enemies."