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South Ossetia, Georgia and Information Warfare

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Wherever there's a hot war, there's an information war and the Georgia-Ossetia-Russia conflict is certainly no different. How do Georgians, how do South Ossetians, how do U.S. citizens get information in this propaganda-ridden event?

Here's a spotty collection of blogs and factoids that might encourage comment:

The ever-valuable Ethan Zuckerman has just written a "plague on both your houses" account of citizen blogging and citizen propaganda from both the Georgia and Russian sides. As compared, say, to Burma, there have been few citizen blogs from the front, and there are problems with approach and reliability. Zuckerman explains why:

Citizen media accounts - blogs of eyewitnesses, jouralists [sic] writing in a personal capacity, the writings of people who know and are passionate about the region - are actively engaged in rhetorical warfare.... Georgian, Russian and Ossetian bloggers - whether off-duty journalists or ordinary citizens - all want the suffering of their group acknowledged on a global stage and are all presenting the conflict from their personal perspectives. These perspectives sometimes include troubling eyewitness accounts, and sometimes include amplification of rumors, usually ones that support that author's interperative [sic] frame.

It's probably naive to expect citizen accounts of a war zone to be less politically biased than those from professional media, but in a situation where one believes professional media to be part of a propaganda strategy, it's understandable that readers would turn to bloggers for an "unfiltered view" of events on the ground.

This piece of the puzzle is about competing bloggers trying to influence the opinion not only in Georgia and Russia but in the United States and the EU and elsewhere.

Other interesting information struggles arise (including what short-hand name to give the conflict -- one unsatisfactory candidate is the "Olympics War" because it occurred during the moment of the anticipated traditional Olympics Truce).

For example, the movement of tanks in South Ossetia has given rise to renewed altercation between two U.S. international broadcasters, the fighting siblings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors: the Voice of America and RFE/RL (the old Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty). Prior to the outbreak of violence, the Broadcasting Board of Governors had decided for strategic reasons to phase out the VOA's Georgian-language service and leave RFE/RL with full responsibility there. VOA, the advocates of this position claimed, had a declining and small audience, so duplication (or something like duplication) was unwarranted. ProPublica has been covering the merits of the issue for some time.

When the tanks rolled, the partisans of VOA went into high press-release gear (perhaps--only perhaps -- they are marginally better about creating favorable attitudes toward the Service than the Service is at creating favorable attitudes toward the United States). The consequence of the squabbling was that the previous order cutting the VOA was put on hold and VOA hours of service (about an hour a day) have temporarily held steady or slightly increased. Here's a bittersweet account of "the last VOA radio broadcast to Russia," and an account of the internal maneuvering.

This is a bit of a small tempest in a small teapot (one of the biggest brewers is Ted Lipen of freemediaonline.org). But it's also a morality play about the clunkiness of our international broadcasting efforts. There's much intramural back and forth and appeals to individual Members of Congress for support and questioning of the competence to make large-scale strategic decisions.

More interesting, perhaps, is warfare for opinion within Georgia and Russia. Cyberwar is alive and well. The September 1 Newsweek has what seems a slightly one-sided "nasty Russians" account by Travis Wentworth.

Also, the Georgian government--much to the consternation of international NGOs--blocked many .ru websites and certainly impeded a great deal of the information that was being projected into Georgia from Russia. As one blogger at the OpenNet Initiative reported:

Censorship of Russian media sites in Georgia continues to expand despite the winding down of hostilities. ONI and the Information Warfare Monitor confirms that filtering of Russian media sites resident on the .ru domain has spread to a second Georgian ISP. Subscribers of Caucuses on-line the largest Georgia ISP have been without access to russian media sites since 9 August. Yesterday a similar filtering regime was implemented on the Georgian Academic and Research Network (GRENA). The decision to filer was made by the director, although no reason was given at the time. ONI suspects that GRENA's decision was prompted by concerns of inflamatory information causing panic.

The justification for the filtering and blocking appeared on a related interesting website, Information Warfare Monitoring:

Inaccurate and inflammatory reports by Russian media sites are apparently behind the decision by major Georgian ISPs to implement limited Internet filtering. The limited filtering of Russian media sites appears to be part of the government's declared state of emergency. At least two Georgian ISPs have implemented limited filtering this week as a "defensive measure" aimed at protecting the population and reducing the potential for panic during a time of national crisis. One of the two ISPs, the Georgian Research and Academic Network (GRENA), connects many of the country's schools.

Russia, has, according to Letitia King, spokesperson for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, knocked the VOA off of many its FM stations and television outlets in Russia. Perhaps the Russians didn't like the VOA's account of the Putin-Medvedev policies and considered U.S. official "objectivity" a pudding of partisan inaccuracies -- to say nothing of Putin's "Wag the Dog" charge of linking the conflict to the upcoming Presidential election.

Here's another skirmish -- in this August 19 back and forth between Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza and Vladimir Kara-Murza, of RTVi, an international Russian language network.

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Several days ago, the Georgian authorities terminated the broadcast of our own channel in the Georgian territory, RTVi, which is the only Russian-language news channel not controlled by the Russian government. It provides objective coverage, both sides, but apparently even that wasn't good enough. How, in your view, is this conforming to the principles of freedom of speech and democracy that many U.S. officials claim the Georgian state is about? Thank you.

Mr. Bryza: Thank you. Excellent questions.

Georgia is a democracy. It remains one. It was one last November, and it is not--it has not even come close to finishing its democratic evolution. It still has a long way to go on many fronts, including the issue you just raised. I'm happy to say I've been working with our embassy yesterday and today on the very case of your station. And you raise a compelling point. It is the one Russian-language TV station that is freely operating. Even if it weren't, that's irrelevant. There needs to be -- there must be freedom of the media in any democracy for a country to be a democracy. So of course we call on the Georgian government to restore those broadcasts, absolutely, as I personally did in the case of Imedi TV back in November.

What we did in that instance was develop a mechanism that addressed legitimate concerns on not only the part of the Georgian government but some of the investors in Imedi that the editorial line had diverted a bit from the normal professional and ethical standards of journalism. That was fixed. That was resolved.

In this case, there have been no such accusations about your station. It simply needs to be put back on television.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, our international broadcasters used short-wave, so the governments in target societies couldn't knock the services off so easily. But we've terminated short-wave to Russia for the most part (largely because it isn't used that much and, when we were making nice to each other, getting permission to rebroadcast on FM stations seemed easy and more effective). Another "strategic" decision the Broadcasting Board of Governors has made is to try to increase the attractiveness of its Internet web presence.

These events will definitely be a future case study in information advocacy. It's far from the story of this case, but those who subscribe to Netflix should rent and watch "The Mouse that Roared."