Reuters news agency was caught cropping photographs of the Gaza blockade-running raid by Turkish radical Islamists, removing knives from the hands of the extremists and blood from the scene. Previously, in its coverage of the Lebanon war of 2006, Reuters was forced to retract altered images by a local photographer, Adnan Hajj, who manipulated photos to exaggerate damage, turn Israeli flares into missiles, and otherwise influence the reader towards sympathy with Hezbollah.
Reuters fired Hajj and removed his work from its archive. Six months after publication of the Lebanon pictures, Reuters editor in chief for global news David Schlesinger described the incident as “the inadvertent publication of two rogue photographs. There was absolutely no intention on Reuters’ part to mislead the public,” Schlesinger declared.
But Reuters has an old pattern of mendacity involving its photographers. I recall vividly an incident during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s when Reuters went down a strikingly-similar path. I was then working as a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. On November 20, 1991, the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar, known for its distinctive Habsburg-era baroque architecture, was taken by Yugoslav Army troops and Serbian irregulars, after almost three months of brutal fighting. (The situation in Vukovar is depicted in one of the few decent films about the Balkan wars, Harrison’s Flowers, released in 2000, and, as it happens, dealing with war photographers.)
Reuters immediately reported that a photographer, Goran Mikic, had seen the corpses of 41 Serbian children whose throats had been cut by Croatian soldiers in a suburb of Vukovar, Borovo Naselje, during the final battle. Reuters added to its coverage the reassuring comment, in parentheses: “Mr. Mikic has worked for Reuters before and is a reliable witness.” The London Guardian quoted Yugoslav military information officer Milan Gvero, who said, “We wanted you to see fascism and to see the truth about Vukovar, this awful tragedy.”
But the truth, as most recently, turned out to be different from the way the story was reported by Reuters. On November 21, 1991 – the next day – Reuters withdrew its report of the 41 dead Serb children, admitting it contained “incorrect information.” And the day after that, Reuters said Mikic admitted he had never seen the bodies he had described in such shocking terms.
Milan Gvero, the Yugoslav Army information officer quoted at the scene, is now on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the Hague, for his complicity in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Leading Serbian politicians have admitted their government’s guilt at Vukovar and Srebrenica. Whether Reuters has encouraged “rogue” practices, in the Balkans or Gaza, intentionally or “inadvertently,” may be debated, but the pattern of behavior cannot be denied. And unlike the Serbs, it is doubtful they will ever truly be held to account.