Information war during the Russo-Georgian War
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During the conflict
The Russian military attempted a few new steps to support an information campaign. Russian journalists were brought along with the Russian troops to report on the progress of the Russians in protecting its citizens and to propagandize Georgian atrocities. The Russians used television footage to gain psychological effects as well with the local population in the separatist regions. The Russians showed on local television footage of their advancing forces liberating the local Russian population. On the other hand, Georgia was unable to show any footage of its troops in action. The Russian government also used a military spokesman in television interviews to provide information on the conduct of the campaign, a first for Russia.
From August 8, 2008, the day after the conflict started, Russian and South Ossetian government officials repeatedly cited figures of South Ossetian civilian deaths from Georgian attacks ranging from 1,400 to more than 2,000 and this was used as one of the main justifications for Russian intervention. For instance, Dmitry Medvedev stated that "the actions of the Georgian side cannot be called anything other than genocide" on 10 August 2008. Medvedev also said: "The form this aggression took is nothing less than genocide because Georgia committed heaviest crimes — civilians were torched, sawed to pieces and rolled over by tanks."
The Georgian government stopped broadcasting of Russian TV channels and blocked access to Russian websites, during the war and its aftermath, limiting news coverage in Georgia.
On 9 August 2008, Russian ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko called the Georgian actions "the most true vandalism"."The city of Tskhinvali doesn't exist anymore. It simply doesn't. It was destroyed by the Georgian military," he claimed.
On 10 August 2008, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin accused foreign media of pro-Georgian bias in their coverage of the conflict between Georgia and Russia over breakaway South Ossetia. "We want television screens in the West to be showing not only Russian tanks, and texts saying Russia is at war in South Ossetia and with Georgia, but also to be showing the suffering of the Ossetian people, the murdered elderly people and children, the destroyed towns of South Ossetia, and [regional capital] Tskhinvali. This would be an objective way of presenting the material," he said in a statement to Russian news agency. According to him, Western media coverage of the events in the separatist region was "a politically motivated version". However, The Washington Post, for example, argued that Moscow was engaging in "mythmaking".
The Russian Mission to the UN published transcript of the interview of Sergei Ivanov to CNN on August 11:
For everyone in the United States who was here and for everyone in the United States who has been watching this story and has watched the developments since Friday, can you tell me why Russian tanks, troops, warplanes are in, have been in Georgia?
"That is a very easy question. First of all, good afternoon and thanks for the opportunity to be with you. I have an impression that the American public thinks or intends to think that Russia attacked Georgia."
That what we have heard from the President of Georgia, in his words…
"Yes, exactly. Thanks for prompting me on that. [...] A big Russian bear attacked a small peaceful Georgia. In fact, the situation is and was vice-versa. It was a big Georgia which attacked a small and tiny breakaway Republic of South Ossetia."
Western media has defended its coverage, with Chris Birkett, executive editor of Sky News saying: "I don't think there’s been a bias. Accusations of media bias are normal in times of war. We’ve been so busy with the task of newsgathering and deployment that the idea we've managed to come up with a conspiratorial line in our reporting is bananas." CNN has also defended its coverage.
William Dunbar, a reporter for RT TV in Georgia, resigned in protest of alleged bias in the Russian media. He claimed he had not been on air since he mentioned Russian bombing of targets inside Georgia. He told The Moscow Times: "The real news, the real facts of the matter, didn't conform to what they were trying to report, and therefore, they wouldn't let me report it. I felt that I had no choice but to resign." However sources at RT TV called Dunbar's allegations of bias "nonsense". "The Russian coverage I have seen has been much better than much of the Western coverage," one senior journalist said, adding, "My view is that Russia Today is not particularly biased at all. When you look at the Western media, there is a lot of genuflection towards the powers that be. Russian news coverage is largely pro-Russia, but that is to be expected." William Dunbar told The Wall Street Journal that when he tried to file a report on the August 1 shelling of the Georgian villages by the South Ossetians, his editors weren't interested in the story.
Rest of August
Anna Neistat, leader of a HRW team investigating the humanitarian damage in South Ossetia, told The Guardian that their investigators had recorded cases of Ossetian fighters burning and looting Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali. "The torching of houses in these villages is in some ways a result of the massive Russia propaganda machine which constantly repeats claims of genocide and exaggerates the scale of casualties," she said, adding, "That is then used to justify retribution." She also said that the Russian estimates of 2,000 dead was "suspicious" and "very doubtful". The South Ossetians later claimed that 1,492 were killed as the result of the bombing of Tskhinvali.
On 13 August 2008, Fox News interviewed 12-year-old Ossetian-American girl Amanda Kokoeva and her aunt Laura Tedeeva-Korewicki, who had returned from South Ossetia. Fox began the interview by emphasizing the experiences of a 12-year-old girl. Invited to tell about Georgian bombings, the 12-year-old girl and her aunt said they were saved by Russians. As the aunt started to mention the conflict was started by Saakashvili, Fox News cut the interview for commercials. When the break ended and they were back on the air, Fox granted the aunt additional time to finish her thoughts during the last minute of the program at which time she started to blame the Georgian government but explicitly distinguished it from the Georgian people. Thereafter before the end of the program the anchorman said that there were grey areas in war. CBS also had an interview with this girl before.
This incident was highlightened in particular on NTV (Russia) and Russia 1. However, the Russian channels allowed many inaccuracies and even editing themselves. First both channels created impression that the anchor stopped the conversation as soon as Amanda's aunt expressed the thought that it was Georgia to blame for the conflict. However, they failed to show that Amanda has been saying the same for almost a minute before, and the anchor did not interrupt her. Second Russia 1 edited the sound superimposing what is supposed to be anchors cough on Amanda's aunt talk, creating an impression that he was trying to prevent audience from hearing her. While in the original footage this sound is absent. The reporters from NTV (Russia) translated the words of Amanda thanking Russian troops while showing Amanda's aunt talking. Both channels also failed to translate the words of an anchor that the commercial break would interrupt the broadcast whether they liked it or not.
On 14 August 2008, Russian Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov announced that the Russian troops would leave Gori 2 days later. Regarding the Russian control of Gori, Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, denied that Russian troops were occupying Gori, saying that Russian soldiers "are not in Gori, have never been in Gori and do not occupy Gori," and rejecting news reports that the town was in ruins. The final withdrawal from Gori came 8 days after Borisov's announcement.
BBC News world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds filed a story on 15 August, citing the reporting about refugee Ossetians in Russia and a Human Rights Watch report describing much of the damage in Tskhinvali as due to Georgian fire. According to him, "One problem for the Russians is that they have not yet learned how to play the media game." Reynolds called attention to the fact that most of the western media was based in Georgia. The cause of this, as he wrote, was Russia's reluctance to admit western media. He also wrote about how "mud" thrown had "stuck" to Russia and how the Bush administration was "trying to turn a failed military operation by Georgia into a successful diplomatic operation against Russia."
On 17 August 2008, The New York Times reported that while Russian authorities "have given Western journalists little or no access" to areas under its control, "Russian journalists are allowed to move around freely." On 21 August, the paper reported that a clip of a Fox News Channel live interview with a 12-year-old girl and her aunt was used by the Kremlin "as evidence that the United States was censoring criticism of Mr. Saakashvili". Regarding the clip, a Russian news anchor said that the US would use "any means available" for a disinformation campaign against Russia. The man who dubbed the Fox anchor's voice into Russian "not only exaggerates the anchor’s tone, but even coughs and groans loudly when Ms. Tedeeva-Korewicki blames Mr. Saakashvili for causing the conflict — something that did not happen in the original."
Malkhaz Gulashvili, President of The Georgian Times Media Holding, said: "Georgia has lost the information war since, unfortunately, foreign agencies frequently relied on Russian news sources controlled by the Kremlin. These would spread inaccurate news which foreign media had to reject later."
"I agree we lost the information war in the first few days, but we have nothing to hide here," Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov told the journalists on 19 August.
On 20 August, the Russian Investigative Committee reported that they had confirmed 133 civilian deaths. "Perhaps in a while we will reach the figure that is given by the South Ossetian authorities," one representative said. When asked about the Georgian deaths, the representative said that this issue was not their concern. However, nine days later, prime minister Vladimir Putin still said in an interview with German ARD TV that 2,000 Russian civilians were killed during the conflict. Putin also said: "And if we protect our lives, then a sausage will be taken away from us? What choice do we have - between life and sausage?" He said about Georgia that "the aggressor was punched in the face".
Der Spiegel reported that Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, claimed that on Russian TV "is hardly any free reporting -- instead you see a lot of very aggressive propaganda." He claimed it was reminiscent of the worst times in the Soviet era.
Said Tsarnayev, a freelance photographer with the Reuters agency, arrived in Tskhinvali, during the day on 7 August. Tsarnayev planned to take photographs of the nature for his personal project. He saw an army of Russian journalists at his hotel. He later told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the Russian journalists had been sent days earlier, and were preparing for "something big". "At the hotel we discovered that there were already 48 Russian journalists there. Together with us, there were 50 people," he said. "I was the only one representing a foreign news agency. The rest were from Russian media and they arrived three days before we did, as if they knew that something was going to happen. Earlier at the border crossing, we met one man who was taking his wife and children from Tskhinvali." RFE/RL concluded Russian state-controlled media appeared to be well-prepared to cover the beginning of the armed conflict. TV networks promptly presented intricate graphics with news anchors and commentators appearing to be following the coached talking points accusing Georgia of aggression, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
RT TV reported that Europe’s largest magazine, Der Spiegel, was accused by one of its staff members, Pavel Kassin, of propaganda and taking a pro-American stance. Kassin said he sent 29 pictures showing the devastation left by the Georgian military in South Ossetia to the magazine’s Hamburg headquarters, but was shocked to find that none of them appeared in the issue released the following Monday. Kassin had been working there since 1990 and has never before had any problems getting his photographs published. "Could it be that the most liberal, democratic and independent magazine has gone down the road of ideological one-sided propaganda?" he said. "In my view this is one of the rare cases when Spiegel has taken a pro-American stance." According to Kassin the photos were rejected on political reasons. Izvestia claimed that this was influenced by the ousting earlier in 2008 of the editor-in-chief Stefan Aust, who had worked for many years in Der Spiegel, and his replacement with Georg Mascolo who had been leading the Washington subdivision of the magazine.
South Ossetian envoy to Russia Dmitry Medoyev [falsely] claimed in an interview that "They started the war with the fact that the Georgian peacekeeping battalion fixedly shot in the back of the Russian soldiers. Same peacekeepers, like they [the Georgians] were. Wearing the same uniform. And they had the same command, but they [the Georgians] brought them forward and shot them all in the back." He also claimed that the Georgian soldiers were under the influence of "100% American made psychotropic drugs".
Russia alleged that an American citizen fought with Georgian forces. Deputy Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn displayed photocopies of an American passport at a news briefing, claiming that the passport was found at a Georgian fighting position. Vladimir Putin told CNN, "We have serious reasons to believe that American citizens were right at the heart of the military action". The passport owner and U.S. authorities denied the accusation, saying that his passport was lost elsewhere.
During the war, the Radio station Echo of Moscow broadcast balanced accounts on a show called "With Their Own Eyes." On 29 August 2008, Prime minister Putin gathered thirty-five leading media executives in Sochi. Putin paid attention to Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, and criticized the station for its coverage of the war. Putin reportedly told Venediktov: "You are responsible for everything that goes on at the radio station. I don’t know who they are, but I know who you are." After Venediktov returned to Moscow, the station’s staff were told that they should "pay careful attention" to their reporting, to check their facts and ensure to air enough government views.
After the war
In early September 2008, the German newspaper Der Spiegel was caught in fabrication of anti-Georgian claims. The paper had published an article saying that internal reports from the OSCE effectively blamed Georgia for the war. However, OSCE spokesperson Martin Nesirky called the article "ludicrous". He said: "The OSCE's mission to Georgia makes regular reports that are distributed to all 56 participating states in the organisation, including the Russian Federation and Georgia. None of these reports contains information of the kind mentioned in the Der Spiegel story. The OSCE's military monitoring officers do not have access to the Roki tunnel and therefore would not have been in a position to report, one way or the other, on the timing of Russian tank movements. It is preposterous to suggest the OSCE engages in or has access to telephone intercepts."
On 18 November 2008, at a Georgian parliamentary session, MP Giorgi Targamadze, the leader of parliamentary minority, said: "Georgia was obviously had an upper hand over the Russian Federation in the information war during [the August war] and for a certain period of time after those events. But, this trend has actually changed within past two". He further called on the Georgian Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council and the President’s administration to step up efforts "for neutralizing the anti-Georgian propaganda." Targamadze also added that Georgia "should not let Russia to portray itself in the European media as an innocent wolf."
Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian minister, said that there was an ongoing "information war" for international public opinion. He accused Russia of spending a lot of money on a propaganda campaign to alter the opinion that Russian forces invaded and occupied Georgia.
In November 2008, Alexander Bastrykin, Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office, [falsely] claimed that during the war South Ossetia was invaded by mercenaries from United States, Czech Republic, Turkey, Ukraine and Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch called the Russian death toll figure of 2,000 unfounded. HRW cited a doctor who said that between August 6 to 12 the Tskhinvali hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilian. The doctor also said that 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital between August 6 and 11, both military and civilian. Human Rights Watch group stated later, however, that
The 44 figure became the subject of controversy as some mistakenly characterized this as Human Rights Watch's definitive figure on civilian casualties, and others used this as evidence of bias. We were fully aware and noted in media statements that the figures provided from Tskhinvali hospital were not a comprehensive tally. Some of the residents killed in Tskhinvali and especially in the outlying villages were never brought to the hospital; instead, a number of people were buried beside their homes.
Human Rights Watch also stated that it "does not have the capacity to make a definitive estimate as to the number of civilian casualties." But they cited different investigative groups, which provided numbers between 162 civilian and 300-400 total casualties. Russia and South Ossetia were unable to explain how the calculation of claims of up to 2,000 victims was carried out. This initial claim also significantly influenced public sentiment in South Ossetia and bitterness toward Georgians.
Human Rights Watch documented at least one account of an atrocity against South Ossetian civilians in Tsinagari from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Prosecutor's Office, which was reported by the Russian media. This report turned out to be fabricated. HRW researchers were told similar hearsay accounts of atrocities allegedly committed by Georgian troops in other villages of South Ossetia, but their follow-up research showed them to be untrue.
In March 2009, Lenta.ru published an interview with Russian journalist Vadim Rechkalov. Rechkalov arrived in Tskhinvali during the war. He said that Russian BM-21 Grads shelled Tskhinvali. He also said that he found out on 13 August 2008 that rumors about "total destruction" of Tskhinvali were false.
According to political scientist Svante Cornell, Moscow spent millions in a public-relations campaign to convince the world that Georgia, not Russia, began the war (despite abundant evidence, including some in Russian media, to the contrary).
In August 2009, BBC reported that analysts said the propaganda war was still active as both sides sought "to gain the moral high ground".
Nicolai N. Petro, Professor of Politics at the University of Rhode Island, claimed that Western media coverage of the war was biased at first, but became more balanced in November, 2008, when two OSCE officials Ryan Grist and Stephen Young confirmed the Russian version of events — that the Georgian attack was unprovoked and indiscriminate. Professor Petro said that initial impressions conveyed by respected news outlets tend to linger on, even if the story later changes radically, and "it is therefore not surprising that American pundits and politicians continue to refer to the events of last August as “Russian aggression,” even though subsequent reporting has debunked this as a myth."
In March 2010, it was reported that the Russian Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor's Office [falsely] claimed that they had the evidence of mercenaries from UNA-UNSO fighting alongside the Georgians. According to the investigators, the Ukrainian mercenaries were recruited and financially supported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia.
Former Moscow correspondent of The Guardian Luke Harding wrote in his book Mafia State that Russian state-controlled media failed to mention the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in South Ossetia and the focus was solely on the martyrdom of the South Ossetians. He also noted that the ethnic cleansing of Georgians looked more like a systemic attempt to drive out Georgians and redraw the map of Georgia rather than revenge. According to him, the Kremlin launched a "furious attack" on foreign journalists and intimated that they were, in reality, agents of the CIA. The Kremlin kept the foreign journalists away from ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia. American and British journalists were not allowed to travel independently inside South Ossetia. He reported that on 25 November 2008, when he went to the press department of the Russian Foreign Ministry to renew his accreditation, the official who spoke to him was furious about his reporting and asked him repeatedly if he, his wife, or his family were not “worried that something might happen” to him if he stayed in Russia.
In 2012, the Russian Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor's Office was still conducting investigation on the events in South Ossetia. The Committee [falsely] claimed that they confirmed the attempts to discredit the Russian military. According to them, before the Russians entered Gori, Ukrainian mercenaries were dressed as the Russian troops and participated in the making of photo and video footage that showed the attacks on civilians and looting in the Georgian villages.
In early 2014, the book Putin's Wars: The Rise of Russia's New Imperialism was published that offered the first systematic analysis of the war in the wider historical context. The author examined the Russian wartime propaganda and explained how the Russian propaganda transformed the victim (Georgia) into aggressor.
In March 2014, The New York Times reported that during the war Russian Television stations portrayed the Russian invasion of Georgia as a humanitarian effort to protect Russian citizens and gave it blanket coverage, and it was popular in Russia, "lifting the approval ratings of Dmitri A. Medvedev to the highest point of his presidency."
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