Media war flares over S Ossetia

Public relations heavy guns are used by Russia and Georgia to influence world opinion.

Russian soldiers at checkpoint
Georgia is fighting back against media claims it started the war with Russia [EPA]

Georgia has launched a campaign to counter an increasing number of media reports which allege that the government of Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, was responsible for starting the war with Russia in August.

Media reports have quoted controversial statements from a former official of the monitoring mission for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Georgia, who accused Saakashvili of mounting an indiscriminate attack on South Ossetia, the contested region which was the focus of last summer’s fighting.

The OSCE has not endorsed these claims and Georgia has strongly denied them.

Temur Yakobashvili, the Georgian integration minister, said an “information war” for international public opinion was now under way.

Yakobashvili accused Moscow of spending large amounts of money on a propaganda campaign to alter the perception that its forces invaded and occupied Georgian territory.

“We know for sure that Russia allocated quite an impressive number of dollars to spin anti-Georgian sentiments in the West and we see some results of that, but I think truth will prevail,” he told Al Jazeera.

“What Russia is trying to do is to undermine Georgia’s credibility but I don’t think that it’s going to work,” he said.

He described the sources quoted as criticising Georgia in Western media reports as “very questionable”.

The media had also highlighted allegations by Amnesty International that both Georgia and Russia may have violated international law by shelling or bombing civilian areas during the conflict.

Media battlegrounds

A billboard depicting Ossetians serving in the army in the capital Tskhinvali [AFP]

Since the Russian army crossed the border to drive Georgian troops out of South Ossetia three months ago, the media has become a crucial battleground in the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Favourable media coverage is important for Georgia to help maintain Western support as it struggles to rebuild after its defeat.

However, some European politicians have recently tempered their condemnation of Russia by questioning whether Saakashvili was right to go to war.

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, has said Georgia’s military action was “reckless”, but also said Russia’s response was “disproportionate and wrong”.

Senior Georgian politicians, including Saakashvili, have travelled to Europe to argue that the Russian invasion was planned months in advance to undermine their country’s pro-Western orientation and reassert Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet region.

“It’s clear; it was prepared militarily, politically and diplomatically. Unfortunately the world woke up on August 7 when it realised it was a war,” Saakashvili said in Spain this week.

This view has been echoed by some US officials, although they have also said they warned Saakashvili not to respond to Russian ‘provocation’.

Eric Edelman, a US defence department official, said: “It is clear that Russia’s political and military leadership executed a pre-planned operation to forcibly and quickly change the status quo in Georgia.”

Public relations agencies

Moscow insists it only intervened to defend its citizens and “enforce peace”.

Both Georgia and Russia have employed European public relations agencies to make their case.

Many analysts believe that Georgia’s media campaign was more effective during the war because it ensured that English-speaking ministers were constantly available for interview, but some recent media coverage has been seen as more favourable to Russia.

Moscow and Tbilisi have also been using the internet as a political tool.

The government-funded Georgia Update website issued a detailed rebuttal of what it called “inaccurate and incomplete” Western media stories this week.

It has also published transcripts of intercepted mobile-phone conversations which it claims prove that Russian troops moved into South Ossetia before the war, forcing Georgia to defend itself by fighting back.

The war online

The Georgian opposition has blamed both Russia and the government for the war [AFP]

On the other side, two professionally-designed websites, Truth for Ossetia and Help Ossetia Now, have been set up to portray Georgia as the aggressor.

“I think the media may have been embarrassed when they realised how badly they were manipulated by Georgia’s propaganda campaign and maybe they were slow to correct the mistruths,” said one of the websites’ authors, Lira Tskhovrebova of the Association of South Ossetian Women for Democracy and Human Rights.

Tskhovrebova said she was in hiding in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, while it was being shelled by the Georgian army. When she saw the international coverage of the war, she said, “It broke my heart.”

She said the websites were produced with the help of a US-based public relations company, but denied they were supported by the Russian or South Ossetian authorities.

“I do not need governments telling me what to do or say in response to an attack on the people of South Ossetia,” she said in an email interview with Al Jazeera which was conducted through her public relations advisers.

Verification needed

Tskhovrebova acknowledged that western media’s access to South Ossetia has been restricted since the war. This has made it difficult to verify some of the allegations made by both sides.

In Georgia, Moscow is seen as the aggressor, but some opposition politicians have been asking whether Saakashvili fell into a trap carefully set by the Kremlin.

Georgian ministers and military commanders have responded by testifying in front of a parliamentary commission established to examine whether the war could have been averted.

Some of their testimony has been broadcast live on Georgian television, in what the government believes is an example of democratic accountability.

The European Union is also launching an inquiry – headed by a Swiss diplomat – into the causes of the Georgia-Russia conflict.

The EU’s conclusions will not be published until July 2009, but even after that, the question of who started the war is likely to remain the subject of bitter dispute.

Source: Al Jazeera