Robert Amsterdam’s blog does not get nearly enough credit for their translations into English from languages other than Russian. Following is his translation from the German of a web posting on neo-Soviet propaganda, which was carried out at our urging. But for the blogosphere, this kind of thing would never see the light of day in English; the item was cited by us last week for its revelation regarding the mistreatment of Russia Today reporter William Dunbar.
The fight for the right of interpretation between Russia and Georgia has broken into a full-fledged battle. It is taking place parallel to the fights on all channels – on television, in newspapers and especially in the Internet.
A familiar, almost hackneyed, quote: “When war breaks out the first victim is the truth”. Yet this insight from US Senator Hiram Johnson of 91 years ago applies for 2008 as well: For five days there was fighting in Georgia and the situation was unclear, more than anything. It is difficult for journalists to confirm statements made by the warring parties and have them verified by independent positions. The hardliners in Russia and Georgia are fighting to influence the opinions in the rest of the world.
An example: Russia’s ambassador in Georgia spread the message that 1500 people died as a result of the Georgian attacks on Tskhinvali in the first night of the war. It took days for aid organizations to gain an overview. A representative from the human rights organization Human Rights Watch mentioned around 200 wounded in the area of Tskhinvali in the Frankfurter Rundschau. No one knows the actual number of deaths, but it is most likely significantly lower than what the Russian side has been saying. The objective was reached; the numbers made their rounds for days, were reported and, so they hope, are now fixed in people’s minds.
Since pictures are the most important in war, the TV stations play an important role. Georgia blocked Russian stations over the weekend, the national broadcasting service showed mostly films and then later pictures of the national security council – but nothing recorded in South Ossetia.
There are clearer examples of manipulation in the Russian giant: The national station Westi sent emotionally touching reports between news segments; with a background of solemn music they show crying mothers with their babies, bullet-ridden houses and refugees. According to research by the critical radio station Echo Moskowy, the Rossija station is said to have passed off reports about Georgian wounded as wounded South Ossetians.
The Russian perspective
The Frankfurter Rundschau reports an interesting case at the news station Russia Today (RT). Last Saturday in a live broadcast its correspondent in Tbilisi, the Brit William Dunbars, mentioned that Russian airplanes had also attacked the city of Gori, located outside of South Ossetia. Russian bombs were said to have hit houses. This was to be the last report from Dunbars – RT cancelled all further satellite broadcasts. The 25 year-old, who has quit meanwhile, told Frankfurter Rundschau: “The facts didn’t fit what Russia Today wanted to transmit.”
Russia Today advertises on its website that it is a news channel to present the Russian perspective on events inside and outside of Russia. RT makes great use of the Internet and the YouTube platform, where you will find many reports on the conflict. By no means is all of the information incorrect or distorted, but it is possible to find many rumors, suggestions and valuations: supposedly the Georgian army was using soldiers from Ukraine and the USA, the attacks on South Ossetia were “ethnic cleansing.” Another juicy bit was a report of how the conflict is reported in Georgia and information is supposedly held from the citizens.
Bandits or Brothers?
The words chosen by top politicians vary according to whom they are addressing. When President Mikhail Saakashvili has spoken with the Georgian people about South Ossetia or Abkhazia in the past, the 41 year-old has been more than clear. The leaders of South Ossetia are “bandits,” he called the Abkhazians “hyenas” that have entrenched themselves in the buildings of government.”
In interviews and meetings with Western audiences the American-trained lawyer was reticent and spoke of “our brothers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” The telegenic present was often seen on CNN, yet his statements were commonly shown to be incorrect or exaggerated, such as the accusation that Russian soldiers were marching towards Tbilisi. Saakashvili was still able to determine the agenda, however.
The Georgian national television also put several reports on YouTube, although they were in Georgian and not of very good quality. It is not only the official media competing in the Internet to influence opinions, however. There are video clips with titles such as “Georgian Terrorism in Ossetia: Year 1990-1992.” Right next to the title is a link to a Russian website, which makes accusations of supposed genocide, including an English translation. It seems as though video messages calling for peace and understanding are currently very much in the minority.
No clarity surrounding hacker attacks
The data regarding accusations that Russian hackers had paralyzed or blocked Georgian government sites are contradictory. A speaker for the Georgian State Department told the Reuters news agency last Monday: “A Russian cyber war attack is hampering the operation of several Georgian websites in a very sensitive manner.”
Politics are reflected in the Internet: Even in the non-political StudiVZ there are reactions to the war in the Caucasus.
This reminds us of spring 2007, when Estonian websites were unreachable for days after a Soviet memorial was relocated in Tallinn. The Estonian government laid responsibility at the Kremlin’s doorstep, yet could not prove the accusations. It was certain however, that there were instructions in the pertinent websites on how to paralyze the servers of the Baltic republic.
The battle for opinions is taking place increasingly on video platforms and social networks such as Facebook or StudiVZ over the past few years. A few hours after the fighting had begun there was a group in StudiVZ called “Abkhazia is Part of Georgia” and “Stop Russian Aggression against Georgia.”
Almost all conflicts can be found in Facebook within various groups: Whoever joins the groups “I hate Pakistan” or “Kosovo is Serbia” is making a clear statement. According to a study from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York in May, 2008 the number of websites stoking hate and violence has grown 30 percent to a current total of 8000. This may seem small at first glance, yet the nationalist and zealot scene is well-networked and often technologically refined. For this reason websites with incorrect historical facts often land near the top in search machines, and thus affect public opinion.