Georgian student Otar Shalikashvili and Russian student Tamara Nosenko witnessed the media coverage of the conflict in the Caucasus this August in Tbilisi and Moscow.
On Aug. 7, 11:12 local time, the top Georgian broadcasting company launched its morning news with the announcement that Ossetian separatists had been shooting at Georgian villages through the night. According to the anchor, the Georgians were "compelled" to open fire in response to the separatist shelling of Georgian villages.
At about the same time, the main South Ossetian information agency’s web site (www.osinform.ru) claimed that it was the Georgians who had bombarded not only the South Ossetian villages and the outskirts of Tskhinvali, but the tightly populated districts as well.
Next morning Georgian President Micheil Saakashvili addressed the nation to declare that the country was at war – one that it had not started. The president stated that the Georgian forces had "liberated" several villages and were soon going to fully restore Georgian authority over the break-away region. At 14:30, the Tblisi mayor Gigi Ugulava announced over the country’s largest TV channel (rustavi2) that Georgian forces were controlling about 70% of South Ossetia.
This was the last news program aired by the channel for two days, as the country sank into an information vacuum.
Historical blockbuster films were screened back to back, aimed at fanning the flames of patriotism among the Georgian population were only interrupted literally for seconds to air short addresses by Government officials, whose puzzled faces told more than their lips. All Russian television channels and Internet sites were, and at this writing are still, blocked. Apparently this was done to avoid panic.
However the effect has been quite the contrary: People went to the streets for information and those with the most pessimistic views and with help of scared imagination, were the loudest.
Broadcasting resumed on Aug. 10, with a news brief (rustavi 2) that Russians had moved in heavy artillery and several thousand troops and that Georgian forces were retreating from Tshinvali. The role of the Georgian media for the days to come was limited to voicing announcements of the Georgian state and military officials along with the opinions of the foreign politicians.
Despite some journalists’ courageous attempts to get close to the war scenes the material they were able to glean was modest. During one live report from the freshly bombarded town of Gori, a young correspondent of the Georgian Public Channel was shot in the arm by a sniper. Still, she continued reporting, her wounded arm visible while she spoke.
Not a single shot of a dead or wounded Georgian soldier was shown by any Georgian media outlet, whereas the Russian-operated South Ossetian information agencies posted dozens of images showing mutilated corpses of Georgian soldiers. The Georgian broadcasters (not the print press, as most had been closed down during the war) reported the bombardments of bases and airports, including civilians, showing images of destroyed infrastructure.
However, they failed to show the atrocities that took place at the heart of the crisis. The Georgian media was busy quoting foreign officials – from ministers to members of the European Parliament. The remarks made against Russia were sharp and the support for Georgia warm. Perhaps the images of trucks loaded with corpses of Georgian soldiers would have heightened public awareness and their bid for foreign support.
Georgian broadcasting for succeeding days fell into two categories: Reports of Russian air strikes across the country and other atrocities, and excerpts from the statements of foreign diplomats and politicians either criticizing Russia or supporting Georgia. In the absence of any footage from the conflict zones and any kind of analytical debate, people were absorbed in a frenzy of quoting the West, as if the words were draining the energy that might have turned to action.
Not a single analytical conversation took place on any of the top broadcasting channels. Not a single question asked if what the West had said and done was enough.
"Please mention that the West did very little for us," a special forces intelligence officer named Jemal told me, on Aug. 28, after being informed that his response would be published in a European newspaper. For a person fighting at the front line facing death, the Western allies seemed further away perhaps than for the population gathered at the television screens.
The West should not necessarily have intervened with military force. However, while the international media talks about Nicholas Sarkozy remaining neutral, about Angela Merkel being careful, it is very upsetting to many Georgians that the their media mentions none of this, while hailing the West for its immense support.
No one seemed to be weighing the geo-political consequences of the crisis, the possible outcomes and solutions, who gained what. Instead the media acted as a press agency for the Government that had decided to keep its population in intellectual darkness, agitating the masses to march the streets with a flag of any European country they could get a hold of.
At this writing, the long-awaited emergency summit of the EU head of states, French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced that the EU has postponed a decision on possible sanctions against Russia.
In the Battle to Control Public Perception, No One in Moscow Was Fighting for the Truth
by Tamara Nosenko
As the South Ossetian capital of Tshinvali lived through its first night of bombing, Russian state TV news seemed to be using a time machine, returning to the rhetoric of the cold war. The switch to the terminology of Brezhnev’s era happened swiftly, giving Russians little chance to notice the difference.
The word "aggressors" appeared, something Russians had almost forgotten about. The Soviets would have called Americans the "aggressors" back then, no matter what they did. This time the aggressors were Georgians – Russia’s historical allies, neighbors, a former jewel of USSR and earlier Russian Empire. Recent years had not brought about good relations between Georgian and Russian presidents, but to call the whole nation "aggressors"? That seemed a little much.
Russians at home also found out that this war was targeted against them, not against the North Ossetians or Georgians, since many people living in Tshinvali had been issued Russian passports. So, with high emotion and trembling voices, Russian TV commentators started to call the victims of the war "our compatriots." Such rhetoric gave a green light for the Russians to do anything they wished, never asking themselves how it was that so many Ossetians had ended up with Russian citizenship.
Newly elected president Medvedev was less than diplomatic in his announcement of the country’s military operation in Ossetia.
"The actions of the Georgian side can not be called anything other then genocide," said the Russian President on Aug. 10, allowing the media to use this strong wording as well without any actual proof, except for his claim that it was "a large scale attack aimed at civilians and peace keepers trying to maintain peace in the region."
"The information we have received suggests that horrible crimes were committed there," Medvedev said. "People were killed, burnt, run down by tanks, and had their throats cut." Without proof, the Russian TV media announced the first casualties: It varied from one state channel to another, but never got lower than 1,500 citizens of Tshinvali who allegedly died on the first night of the war. Meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch expert Tatiana Lokshina, "there at most several dozen killed, not hundreds or thousands. From what we have seen in South Ossetia, we can not make a conclusion of genocide."
Wide spread presentation of unproven facts about war crimes became a daily event and a trade mark of the conflict on Russian TV. On Aug 9, for example, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited a refugee camp in North Ossetia, where he was told third-hand stories about Georgian violence and massacres in Ossetian villages. Not only was the information repeated many times, the Media never followed up and never double checked the sources.
As Russia appeared to be losing the international information war, it was still struggling to win over the opinion of its own people. The methods of Russian State TV were simple – the same pictures of same destroyed buildings in Tshinvali, the same pictures of the same dead people, used over and over again, where one could hardly tell the nationality or understand if the person was civilian or military. They did not bother to provide any analysis of the situation or get an alternative opinion that might differ from the official one. The only analysis the Russian viewers could get on a daily basis (right after the evening news) was a 10 minute-long program called "However," and hosted by Mikhail Leontyev, a radical political journalist and nationalist who claimed that the whole world was against Russia’s, using the term "fascist," when talking about Georgian President Saakashvili. Referring to the US role in the conflict, Leontyev would claim, without blinking an eye, that "America wants to see Russian soldiers dead."
As the days passed, Russian state journalists became more careful, calling the conflict a "humanitarian catastrophe" (News TV channel "Vesti") instead of genocide. Meanwhile, the Russian print press started to provide for more adequate feedback. For example, The New Times Magazine of Moscow published a "chronology of lies" reported in the course of the military conflict. Gathered on one page, they looked impressive and gave a feeling that all key aspects of military operation were being reported to the audience twice – first in a wrong way, second in a way of almost unintentional truth telling.
It seemed that although the Russian media was doing its best to line up behind the state, the state itself – or its’ different branches – were not coordinating their statements. On Aug. 8, the Russian Foreign Office stated that no Russian planes had been brought down calling these reports, "disinformation" and "another provocation by the Georgians." But on Aug. 9, military General Anatoly Nogovitsin confirmed the loss of a military plane in the conflict zone. On Aug. 12, the Russian General Commander’s Office claimed that they had no Georgian prisoners of war, but on the Aug. 13, the Russian investigation committee of the Public Prosecutor’s Office proudly reported that they had started interrogation of the "non-existent" Georgian prisoners of war that had taken part in the fighting in South Ossetia.
While Russian state TV was presenting a sweetened picture of Tshinvali’s recovery and return to the normal life, Russian aviation was bombing other Georgian cities and villages, where the Russian army thought Georgians were harboring weapons. At the same time, the Russian army let Ossetian looters into the neighboring Georgian villages and closed their eyes the pillaging. There were reports from refuges in a Tbilisi shelter of the rape of young girls. These were pictures Russians have never seen.
At the same time, President Medvedev claimed that the Russian troops were leaving Georgia, EuroNews reports were showing a Russian army presence in Georgian villages. Russian TV, on the other hand, was proud to show the first child born in Tshinvali after the war was declared over and never provided any information about Georgian civilians that were ‘accidentally’ killed while the Russian army was bombing Georgian military camps.
In this whole fight over who would control the world’s picture of these events, nobody was fighting for the truth. The Russian Government, its President and Prime Minister may be wrong or right in this conflict – in an important sense, that is beside the point.
What was shown was a one-sided picture and contradictory information that was most probably far from reality. Russians as well as the outside world were involved in the war of words, where media representatives and respected media outlets played a role as active participants rather than unbiased observers.
To an observer of the Russian state and non-governmental media, it is impossible to know whether what was reported represents a true and comprehensive picture.