Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian TV’s Distorted Coverage of Georgia Forces Many to Turn to Internet, Western Broadcasts

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 12 – Russian television, the most influential media channel in that country, has so distorted what is taking place in Georgia in the course of its “construction” of reality there that Russians who want to know what is really happening have been forced to turn to the Internet or, as during the Cold War, to Western broadcasters such as Radio Liberty.
In an analysis which was posted on Fontanka.ru today, media critic Sergey Ilchenko observes that “facts, especially in our days, do not exist on the television screen ‘in a pure form,’ separate from interpretation and commentary” as Russian TV’s approach to Georgia has clearly demonstrated over the last five days (www.fontanka.ru/2008/08/12/033/).
Catastrophes and conflicts, he points out, are “constructed” by television whose editors and reporters “ever more frequently appear in the role of directors of reality,” as the movie “Wagging the Dog” and Russian coverage of the war in Georgia show to the satisfaction of anyone who cares to pay attention.
But what is striking, Ilchenko suggests about this, is how unoriginal Russian television has been. “The way in which leading television channels in Russia have covered military actions in South Ossetia recalls the work of TV journalists during the second Chechen campaign and the seizure of the school in Beslan.”
The only difference is that “This time in the role of enemies of Russia and all progressive humanity appear not Chechen militants or abstract ‘international terrorists’ but Georgian soldiers and President Saakashvili personally, who has been transformed by the efforts of the domestic propaganda machine into something between Hitler and Pinochet.”
Russia’s military correspondents have been doing a good job, Ilchenko hastens to say, but those sitting in Moscow offices understand that “on the basis of one and the same data, contemporary television can create two totally opposite ‘texts.’” If necessary, “Georgian forces in the blink of an eye can become angels” or equivalents of the “punitive agencies of the SS.”
“From the very beginning,” Ilchenko continues, “Russian media occupied a radically anti-Georgian position,” one that was striking even though Moscow media had never been pro-Georgian. And Russian TV did everything it could to present Georgian forces as “Hitlerites” and Saakashvili as “a hysterical fuehrer.”
But Russian television did more than that to distort the situation, the media critic says. It created an image of the situation in Georgia in which some kind of “dues ex machine” would have to appear – and just such a person was on offer: Vladimir Putin, who could be presented as the savior of the situation.
Because the distortions of Russian television were so obvious to anyone who cared to reflect, Zoya Svetova and Dar’ya Okunyeva of “Novyye izvestiya” write today, thoughtful Russians quickly recognized that the only place in the Russian media where there could be a serious discussion is the Internet (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-08-12/95814/).
“The information deficit” left by the official government media “is in part being filled by the Internet,” they write. “There are sharp arguments in the blogosphere, communities of opponents and supporters of continuing military operations are forming.” And many extremely interesting and valuable pieces of reporting are contained in these online discussions.
Having noted that so far “pacifist attitudes” predominate on line, Svetova and Okunyeva point out that “net surfers, who in [Russia] do not represent more than 25 percent of the population do not set the tone.” And they suggest that “in the near future one should expect not anti-war but patriotic and pro-Russian statements” to predominate there as well.
But many of the articles posted online do provide remarkable details about the situation in Georgia and the background of the current crisis. One of the more interesting offerings in this regard is by Dmitry Tayevsky, who writes for the Siberian news agency Babr.ru which is based in Irkutsk (babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=46993).
Among other things, he addresses the issue of the number of Russian passport holders in South Ossetia, a number that Russian officials from Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin on down have made central to their claims that this region must remain under Russian control in the future.
Not only is South Ossetia famed for continuing to use Soviet-era postage stamps – something that has attracted the interest of philatelists, but “it is curious that South Ossetia which is one of the world leaders in the production of counterfeit dollars with a great deal of humor deals with the fact of the production of [false] Russian passports in the republic.”
As early as two years ago, Tayevsky says, “the entire Caucasus world laughed over the reliable but humorous report of an unknown Ossetin author in which President Kokoita, having received freshly printed passport number 2 (number one was sent as a gift to Putin) found instead of his own photograph a portrait of Abraham Lincoln taken from a one hundred dollar bill.”
But there is yet another source that Russians who want to find out what is going on are turning to. When experts on the post-Soviet space at Moscow State University wanted to keep track of Georgian developments, they turned not to Russian media but to the broadcasts of U.S. funded Radio Liberty (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/1942/).
Tragically, instead of helping Russians who increasingly cannot learn the facts from their own media, all too many Western governments – including the U.S. – have been cutting back on such broadcasts, thereby unintentionally helping Putin and Medvedev to distort the “reality” on offer on Russian television far more easily and effectively.

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