BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A Serbian photographer's claim to have seen the mutilated corpses of 41 children slaughtered by Croatian national guardsmen stirred horror and outrage when it was broadcast around the world in late November.
Foreign newspaper readers and radio listeners later learned that the 22-year-old photographer admitted fabricating his "eyewitness" account.
But the story was never retracted by the Serbian media. On the contrary, it has been subsequently presented by Belgrade newspapers as a typical example of Croatian savagery and referred to at the highest levels as evidence that the enemy is embarked on a campaign of genocide against Serbs.
Throughout the Serbian-inhabited regions of Yugoslavia, people talk of the massacre of children as if it were established fact instead of admitted fiction.
Some Western diplomats here contend that the photographer's story inspired such a fever for vengeance that Serbian rebels summarily executed Croatian fighters who were captured near the scene in Vukovar the next day.
Because such unverifiable stories are blamed for inciting or perpetuating violence, some legal officials and journalists have begun calling for postwar criminal charges against those whose propaganda inspires reprisal.
Jovan Buturovic, a judge in the Yugoslav federal military court, has called for a special commission to investigate allegations of war crimes. These would include fabricated media reports among the list of heinous offenses.
"There is a need to investigate the real circumstances of severe crimes brought to light by the media, and whether in some instances news agencies have deliberately spread false reports," Judge Buturovic told the federal daily Borba recently.
The military judge has deemed all television footage showing mutilated corpses and broadcasters' unsubstantiated allegations as to how and by whom the victims were slaughtered as incitement.
Both Serbian and Croatian television have broadcast ghoulish pictures of war victims with eyes gouged out or their throats cut, atrocities they have attributed to their rivals.
L Some reports appear to have been intended to spark violence.
When government-controlled Croatian Radio broadcast the whereabouts of Serbs with high-ranking relatives in the invading federal army, the move was seen as an official invitation for vigilante action that reportedly drove many of the officers' families from their homes.
The Zagreb-based weekly Slobodni Tjednik likewise published the names and addresses of alleged Yugoslav intelligence operatives a few weeks later.
Travel and communication have been disrupted by the war in Croatia, thwarting most independent attempts to verify reports of atrocities or the reactions they stir.
But abuse of the media is believed to have become commonplace after nearly a half-year of civil war. As the fighting has escalated, with at least 7,000 dead, so has the propaganda expanded to powerful proportions.
Whether true or false, the now routine horror stories are issued in shocking detail.
One recent issue of Belgrade's International Weekly carried a full page of purported confessions from captured Croatian fighters describing how they had raped and dismembered young Serbian women and tortured elderly civilians.
When the war first flared into deadly combat in the Croatian village of Borovo Selo May 2, Croatian television displayed the hacked bodies of three of the 13 republic police officers killed in an ambush and claimed that the mutilation was the deed of rebel Serbs.
Use of the airwaves to incite the masses began even before the war. Much of the Serbian public's belief that Croats are plotting ethnic massacres was instilled last January by a widely broadcast videotape purporting to show then-Croatian Defense Minister Martin Spegelj advising Croatian nationalists how to retaliate against Serbian civilians in the event of war.
Although the authenticity of the dubbed and subtitled tape has never been verified, most of Croatia's 600,000 minority Serbs unquestionably believed it.
As the war has expanded from scattered skirmishes to widespread and virulent fighting, exaggerated reports have become daily fare in the corrupted media.
"It is now possible for the news to be false from start to finish, as a whole and in detail," says Stojan Cerovic, a reporter for the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme who has been compiling evidence of media abuse.
Mr. Cerovic describes his compromised colleagues as "freaks" of a perverted social system and blames the communist past for corrupting journalists and equipping nationalist zealots with "a revolutionary alibi that knows no restraint."
As an example of deliberate fabrication designed to incite the masses, Mr. Cerovic points to two articles in Politika, once a respected Belgrade daily, which is now the mouthpiece of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.