Truth: The first casualty of the Russo-Georgia War
Today, I’ve been multi-tasking: spending some time spying (with permission, I should add) on the BBC’s news operation, keeping one eye on the tennis, and reading a very interesting paper on the media and the Russian invasion of Georgia.
I can’t really talk too much about the former (yet) and I don’t suppose many of you read this blog for its sports coverage so that leaves the key points of a paper in the Small Wars and Insurgencies journal by Margarita Akhvlediani.
Refreshingly she focuses on the local and national media in Russia and Georgia rather than the Western media. It’s not a particularly uplifting read: she argues that a cocktail of fear, censorship, jingoism, cyberwar, PR, and threats to journalists led to chronic misinformation during the Russo-Georgian War last summer. Here are some of the key points:
"Two separate simultaneous conflicts"
While local media in Georgia and Russia were prime sources of information for Georgians, Russians and especially South Ossetians, they were fed "two separate simultaneous conflicts" in August 2008. Reporters in Georgia characterised Russia’s intervention as blatant aggression; Russian media claimed troops were aiding South Ossetians and preventing ethnic cleansing. In short, "media coverage in both countries was skewed in favour of the official version".
Akhvlediani claims that the BBC "made its contribution to the confusion". She criticises a report by Tim Whewell, in which Whewell ‘balanced’ a grief-stricken Ossetian mother, with the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, while providing "no information" from grieving Georgian families. (Worth checking out whether you agree with this assessment). She points out that there was a spat between Whewell’s two fixers, one a Georgian and the other a North Ossetian about the content of the report.
The ‘other side’
Journalists did not report the other side of the conflict and there was a "slide of journalism into propaganda". Censorship, political pressures, and patriotism all contributed to journalists’ failure to represent different points of view on the conflict. Misinformation abounded in a climate of unchallenged facts and figures. Russian media repeatedly used a figure of 2,000 dead in South Ossetia. In the autumn of 2008, the official figure was reduced to 162. Meanwhile Georgian media over-emphasised the extent of US involvement inaccurately suggesting that the United States was offering military as well as humanitarian assistance.
The dangers for journalists
Part of the problem was the conditions faced by journalists attempting to do independent reporting. Akhvlediani says journalists had equipment and material confiscated. They were arrested, deported, shot at, wounded and killed. The Committee to Protect Journalists recorded three fatalities and ten wounded during the conflict.
On 8 August, Yuga.ru says South Ossetian websites came under a large DDoS attack. Georgian websites like Civil.ge, Media.ge and Interpressnews.ge were also blocked and the cyberwar spilled over into the Ukraine where several media websites reported problems.
The battle for the support of the international community was a key part of the information war. Both sides employed significant PR operations in an attempt to woo international media and Western governments.
Interestingly, Akhvlediani claims that "with no real differences in public alternative information, Internet blogs became a crucial way of checking what really happened". Although blogs are "a very new social phenomenon in the Caucasus" they are becoming increasingly influential. New blogs and forum topics were started to discuss the war.
But Akhvlediani suggests the potential of blogs and forums to provide accurate alternative information might have been undermined by the attentions of the secret services and PR campaigns.
Fog of War
Akhvlediani’s paper suggests that there are many stories of the Russian invasion of Georgia still to be told and many others that need correcting, revising and updating.
Even in the information age, the truth remains an elusive adversary. And even more so in times of conflict.