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Yugoslavia: U.S. Sends Ukrainian Journalists To Meet Refugees To Clarify NATO Mission

Kyiv, 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. embassy in Ukraine, concerned by the unfavorable local press coverage of NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia, has undertaken to change the attitudes of the local media. A four-day trip, funded and organized by the embassy, recently took journalists and cameramen from the four major Ukrainian TV channels to Germany to meet Kosovar refugees in a Nuremberg processing camp.

Ken Moskowitz with the United States Information Service says the trip was unprecedented but necessary. He says Ukraine's media has taken its cue from Russia in coverage of Kosovo, focusing on the plight of the Serbs rather than on the hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanian refugees.

Although Ukraine has sent $380,000 in humanitarian aid to the fleeing Albanians, the damage caused by NATO bombs is still reported much more comprehensively than "ethnic cleansing," words only recently heard on Ukrainian television.

Moskowitz, who escorted the journalists to Germany, says he feels the one-sided media coverage doesn't reflect official policy but results from necessity. He says Ukrainian journalists simply haven't had the chance to talk to refugees to get their side of the story. None of the channels have sent journalists to Kosovo and they rely solely on reports from international agencies and Russian partners.

Oleksandr Vlasenko from the channel STB said he was reluctant to accept the American offer, given that the U.S. is leading the NATO campaign, but that it was a useful opportunity. He said he was "glad for the chance to see and investigate what's happening." But he said if the journalists could have gone on their own, it would have been better since there was what he called a "propagandist aspect" to the trip.

Vlasenko, who regularly covers Balkan affairs, said he had been pushing to go to Kosovo for months leading up to the bombing, but his channel, like others in Ukraine, could not afford it.

Vlasenko says Ukrainian journalists, with access to both Russian and Western information sources, have a unique chance to analyze what is going on:

"I can't say Ukrainian channels are directly for the Serbian opposition. There's no such position that we are absolutely pro [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, or absolutely against him. I think our position differs from Russian channels and CNN because we are more even-handed."

It's unclear how much of an impact the trip will have on Ukrainian coverage of the war. The journalists said they were limited to speaking with just one family each and that they were frustrated by a shortage of translators.

Also, the families they talked to, living more or less comfortably in Germany, were far from the ragged and desperate crowds who regularly feature on Western news reports from Albania and Macedonia. Vlasenko said he felt that Ukrainians, who are accustomed to suffering, were unlikely to be moved by their plight.

"In Macedonia of course [the refugees] are really miserable, it's the real thing, but in Germany they ... don't look so bad, they don't give the impression of people ill-fated. And when they complain, there is genocide against us because they've turned off the electricity for four hours a day, we say we live without light for five hours, or a day, in many places in Ukraine, but no one is bombing us."

The visit coincided with news that a NATO bomb had landed on a refugee convoy in Kosovo, killing many refugees. Journalist Olha Lototska from the television station 1+1 thinks the trip perhaps backfired from the U.S. point-of-view because of that.

"I thought from the beginning that it was organized to justify themselves a little in our eyes, to say we are helping, we are supporting these refugees, we haven't abandoned them. On the other side, there is a paradox, that NATO is bombing not only in Yugoslavia but in Kosovo. On that side, when we were in Germany a NATO plane bombed the refugee column."

The U.S. embassy is now planning to organize a trip to Macedonia or Albania. Lototska and Vlasenko both said they would be very glad to go along. Lototska say it's one thing to read about developments in the Kosovo crisis from news agencies and another to see them with your own eyes.