Friday 5 April 2002

On the Frontline Online

This article looking at online news outlets in war zones originally appeared in Online Journalism Review on 5 April 2002.


Online publications in conflict areas suffer from the same wartime pressures all media face, and access issues mean their local influence is often minimal. Still, the few sites that manage to steer clear of propaganda can quickly become invaluable resources for decision-making readers.

Like other media, the Internet has been both a target and a weapon of war. Nothing particularly new or unique there.

What is new, at least in theory, is the ubiquity of the Internet and its low cost of entry, allowing all sides in any conflict to get their views out to the wider world. It is probably no exaggeration to say that every side in every conflict in the world has a Web site promoting its views.

Sifting out propaganda

Partisan propaganda dominates online pages related to conflicts. The sites covering the conflict in Chechnya are typical of the pattern.

Valeri Dzustev, a free-lance journalist in the North Caucasus, says online information related to the war there is frequently second-hand and highly biased. 'It's often emotional overflow on Chechen side,' though he is quick to add that is 'quite understandable' given the circumstances.

Some Chechen-related sites have been particularly crude. maintained a photo gallery of Chechen military leader Khattab and his operations, including bloody pictures of the victims and the martyrs. Interestingly, both and the 'Jihad in Chechnya' site disappeared off the Web after 11 September.

Subtlety is found elsewhere. The official Russian government site on the conflict is clearly charged with churning out positive stories from the breakaway region: 'another military success over the terrorists,' 'new hospital built,' etc. On the other side are sites such as 'Kavkaz-Center News Agency,' complete with bank details for readers who wish to 'help the struggle.'

Of course, every side in a conflict is going to pump out its propaganda wherever and whenever it can, and the Internet is just one more means of getting your point across - and cheaply.

But many of these sites are not cheap. They carefully maintain the overall 'look and feel' of a professional news site to purposely obscure the line between propaganda and objective online journalism, and they support huge sections in English and other international languages.

They are spending good money to reach their target audience: media-savvy Westerners.

This is not unusual; the point of much online publishing in and about conflict regions is not to reach the local inhabitants at all. The Chechen case is just the most obvious, as there is essentially no Internet in devastated Chechnya whatsoever.

No popular influence

With infrastructure in tatters on the ground, most war zones are not welcoming places for the Internet, and therefore it has little if any popular influence in the conflict.

Even in conflict regions with better online access, the Internet is not very influential. India and Pakistan have millions of regular Web users, but as Madanmohan Rao, an Internet consultant and writer based in Bangalore, India, told me, 'Compared to the overall diffusion of TV and print in south Asia, the Net is barely making a dent in the coverage of the Kashmir issue.'

Jaba Devdariani, Director of the United Nations Association of Georgia and an analyst of the on-again-off-again war between Georgia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia, says presence on the Internet is a 'status thing' for all sides in a conflict: 'To be present and spread hate speech gives moral satisfaction, rather than exacerbating the situation or affecting the conflict in any way.'

In most conflicts, it seems, the Internet is simply not a local player, neither inspiring people to arms nor advancing the cause of peace.

Where online journalism does have influence in a conflict area is in facilitating communication between elites in the region and elites in the wider world. This means both those on the outside looking in, as well as those on the inside looking out.

Outside looking in

As long as the reader is able to filter out the propaganda sites, local online sources in and about war zones can play a vital role in informing the world about the conflict.

Saso Ordanoski, Editor-in-Chief of the Macedonian fortnightly Forum, says that the readers of his magazine's Web site, which is completely dedicated to covering the Macedonian crisis, are 60-70% foreigners. Many are Macedonians from the diaspora.

Madan Rao confirms this phenomenon in his region, as well: 'the Indian and Pakistani diaspora populations (those living in the US, UK, Persian Gulf region, southeast Asia) are voracious consumers of online news.'

The diaspora is especially motivated to go online in moments of crisis. Ljubica Markovic, Director of the Beta News Agency in Belgrade, gave me a particularly good example of this. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, she says, Beta had more than 500,000 visitors on its site every day, and much of that surge was from the Yugoslav diaspora.

That does have its price, however. 'We had to pay to our provider a lot of money for that,' she says.

But, of course, it's not just the diaspora who follow these events. As Ordanoski notes, 'Most of the foreigners on our site are professionals somehow connected to the crisis or the region - journalists, businessman, military, analysts, intelligence, writers...'

Decision-makers in government and in international organizations do keep up with online news from the regions they are professionally concerned with, and sometimes the Internet is the best window they have on that local conflict.

For a start, the Internet can be the most effective way the anti-government side of a conflict can bypass official channels and get its views known abroad. Sometimes they are more media-savvy than government sites with all their resources. Saso Ordanoski says this is the case in Macedonia, where Albanian insurgents have been fighting the government: '(on the Web) Albanians have much better capability for getting 'their' truth across, because they were much better equipped and trained by the West before and during the Kosovo crisis.'

Perhaps more importantly, the Internet opens up local sources to the outside world. Several online resources in Georgia are only copies of their print and broadcast sisters - Rustavi 2 TV news, 1st Channel News or the newspaper archive - but, according to Devdariani, they are still invaluable to those outside Georgia trying to understand what is happening within the country.

And though rare, non-partisan online publications can and do exist in conflict areas, providing a unique view of the situation to the outside world. Valeri Dzustev says that a handful of Russian sites have started to cover the Chechen war quite well.

' and, and probably and, are more objective than print or TV. They offer a wide range of content as well as good Web design, and they have acquired or are acquiring a network of their own correspondents.'

Still, he admits looks can be deceiving: 'Russian sources are normally more 'professional' and therefore tell more subtle lies.'

Another insider, Givi Ordenidze, Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine Civil Georgia believes that 'online journalism plays a very important role in providing information from 'secondary' conflict zones around the world, like Abkhazia.' When there are hotter wars on in Afghanistan and Chechnya, he says, it is too costly and time-consuming for the international media to get information from such 'secondary' conflicts.

Indeed, perhaps this is the most significant way online journalism can have a certain influence in a conflict situation.

Elites looking outward

Back in Macedonia, Ordanoski notes how vitally important the Internet is to some people within the small Balkan state. 'Not more than 3-4% of the Macedonian population use the Internet,' he says. But it is a key demographic: 'younger, generally better educated, creative and more peace-oriented than average.'

What that group of elites is looking for is information from abroad.

Devdariani confirms the pattern for the Caucasus, saying that the 'thin layer' of elites with access to the Internet - professionals, researchers, employees of international organizations - spend much of their online time looking at international sources, not only general news sites such as The Economist and Web-versions of Western newspapers, but also international sites dedicated to their regional conflicts, such as EurasiaNet, CaciAnalyst or my own Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Devdariani says that although such sites generally play only a marginal role for the local populations at large, these neutral publications are quite helpful for the decision-making elites, because 'they create the body of knowledge needed for conflict resolution and discussion of the ways forward.'

Online publications in third countries or run by impartial NGOs maintain a commitment to neutrality that is every bit as important as their Web-enabled openness and accessibility.

Coming to a war zone near you

The events of 11 September turned office buildings, airplanes and mailboxes into battlefields, and thus made the entire world a war zone. Sadly, the same media mistakes seen in other war zones are now being repeated in Western media outlets that many thought 'knew better.'

It's not just that many US sites wrapped themselves in flag jpegs after the attacks, but like the quality Russian sites covering the Chechen conflict, many Western sites are 'more 'professional' and therefore tell more subtle lies.'

With special sections called 'War on Terror' or 'War on Terrorism,' sites like the BBC Online and accept the terms of one side in the war. To use the other side's terms - say 'Jihad against America' - would just be unthinkable, yet somehow the equally biased 'War on Terror' survives.

Every war spills over into the media like this; media polarization is an almost inevitable function of war. Prior democratic ideals and independent media principles are weak arguments to editors and writers facing a reading public incensed by the last attack and fearful of the next one.

Online media outlets are no exception.

But these lessons from other conflicts may not help us in looking at media coverage of this new war. First, although the online media are not very influential among the wider public in other conflict zones, this may not be the case in an Internet powerhouse such as the US.

More importantly and more disturbingly, this new war is truly global, and every individual, every country and every media outlet is under strong pressure to take sides. If this means there can be no 'outside media,' then there will be no neutral sites for conflict resolution and discussion of the ways forward.

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