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Caucasus: Media Guilty as `Fog of War` Clears

Posted: 2008-09-13
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As the `fog of war` clears over the Caucasus and the United Nations prepares to set up peace missions in Abhkazia and South Ossetia, what stands out is the apparently partisan role played by Western media in last month`s five-day armed conflict.


TOKYO - "I am surprised at how powerful the propaganda machine of the so-called West is. This is awesome! Amazing!" Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quoted by the Interfax agency as saying on Thursday, while addressing Russia experts gathered at Sochi town for a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Earlier Russia’s ambassador in Tokyo, Mikhail Bely, told IPS he was ‘’flabbergasted’’ by what he saw on the CNN and BBC TV channels on Aug. 9. ‘’The screen reports were transmitting pictures of cluster bombs being used and indiscriminate shelling. The anchors described it as Russia’s shelling of Georgia. It was a pile of lies, distortions and propaganda of the event that happened in Georgia. The foreign press believed what the Georgian officials told them and it looked like the world tended to believe it."

While it is now clear that it was Georgian President Saakashvilli’s regime that started the conflict, the press ‘’made it out like a conflict between an authoritarian country versus a democratic one,’’ the ambassador said.

Gregory Clark, head of research and honorary president of Tama University, agrees that Georgia started the conflict. "Certainly it was Georgia that started things, and it could have escalated into genocide if Russia had not answered the original attack with a purging of Ossetians from the area by a victorious Georgia.’’

"Overall Bely’s assessment was correct. U.S. and British media have been very anti-Russia biased in reporting. The Europeans have been more balanced, realising the significance of the Aug. 7-8 attack,’’ Clark said.

The conflict between Russia and Georgia is grounded in territorial disputes over the regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia. Russia invaded South Ossetia on Aug.8 and claimed it was designed to protect the region from the Georgian army. Georgia claimed it was responding to an unlawful attack by Russia.

After five days of fighting which saw Russian tanks rolling into Georgia proper, the two countries signed a ceasefire agreement on Aug.17.

Robert Dujarric of Temple University in Japan explained to IPS that U.S. and British open support of Georgia contrasted with the evenhandedness of the European Union. "The continental Europeans feel more vulnerable to Russian pressure over gas supplies, which I think is an overrated threat since Russia needs the money and the Europeans also have ways to put economic pressure on Russia, as well as on its oligarchs.’’

Dujarric noted that U.S. support for Georgia in the present crisis is based in part on the belief that Russia is to blame for instigating this war.

"The Western public and decision makers should not take the statements of Georgian officials regarding this war or much of anything else at face value," Dujarric said. "They should think twice and then thrice about whether backing President Saakashvilli, his aspirations for Georgian membership in NATO, and the resulting 'hot peace' with Moscow are in the West's interests."

There has been killing by both sides for years and this is endemic in much of the Caucasus, but evidence of genocide is lacking, and surely one cannot give any credibility to statements from the Kremlin, said Dujarric.

In an e-mail interview with IPS, Gordon M. Hahn, a senior researcher at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute for International Studies and at the Centre for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, described Western news reporting as ‘’truly horrendous’’.

Hahn, the author of two well-received books, ‘Russia's Islamic Threat,’ and ‘Russia's Revolution From Above’, said he was appalled by the Sky News reporting in the first few hours that Russian troops were killing thousands. ‘’The total Georgian civilian death toll remains at less than a hundred and less than the Ossetian toll. Wars are famous for the fog of war that creates confusion for both participants and observers. There was no way Sky News or other news organisations could have had such information or could have been under the impression that the information could be reliable.’’

What was worse, according to Hahn, was that ‘’in order to simplify and sex up the picture, Western news organisations developed the simple but dramatic news line of the big nasty Russian bear needlessly attacking a poor, helpless Georgia. They ignored the fact that it was Georgia that attacked first and had killed Russian peacekeeping soldiers.

As for the cluster bombs, the only report of Russians using cluster bombs is now in doubt’’. Hahn referred to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) backing off from some of its statements and reporting later that it was Georgian forces that used cluster bombs.

On the other hand, said Hahn, it is unlikely that Saakashvili would start a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing. ‘’However, once a war begins and interethnic hatred is sparked anything can happen.’’

Russian claims of Georgian genoicide and ethnic cleansing had several causes, according to Hahn. ‘’To begin with the first reports of large numbers of casualties seem to have come from the South Ossetians. Secondly, if the Georgians could lie about Russian atrocities and grossly exaggerate in a propaganda war, then why could not the Russians do the same?’’

‘’In these interethnic wars the difference in the scale of atrocities and ethnic cleansing committed by one side versus another is usually determined by who is winning and who is losing on the ground. Those who are losing on the ground simply have less opportunity to engage in this activity,’’ said Hahn.

‘’Finally, the Russians have been consciously imitating what it calls the hypocritical aspects of Western behavior based on the principle that 'if they can do it, why can't we?'’’
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