During the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia, both sides have broadcast drastically different versions of events, which appears to confirm the old adage that the first casualty in war is the truth. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky examines how Moscow and Tbilisi waged the battle for public opinion.
Russia's around the clock television news channel, Vesti 24, informed its viewers that Fidel Castro blames the conflict in Georgia on U.S. President George Bush. The station says the former Cuban leader told Mexican television that Georgian leaders would never have launched an attack on South Ossetia without prior agreement with Mr. Bush.
The Bush administration says it does not make such agreements and Geogia's government makes its own decisions.
This detail stands in stark contrast to a virtual blackout of information on Russian TV about attacks by Russian forces on targets in Georgia, including bombs dropped in the vicinity of the capital city, Tbilisi. Instead, Russian viewers have been shown horrific scenes of destruction in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, as well as interviews with distraught refugees. They relate stories of Georgian troops throwing grenades or running over civilians with tanks, and deliberately flooding basements to force women and children out of safe havens.
William Dunbar is a British citizen who worked as Tbilisi correspondent for Russia Today, Moscow's international English-language television service. Dunbar resigned his position Saturday when the broadcaster refused to air his reports after he informed viewers on live TV that Russian warplanes had bombed the central Georgian city of Gori.
"I felt that I could no longer work for them because there was no real way that I could be able to report the facts, and they did not really want to know what was really going on in Georgia if it did not sort of fit with the agenda that they were trying to put out," Dunbar said.
Russia TV has depicted Russian forces in Georgia as peacekeepers who only respond to Georgian provocations in defense of South Ossetians. There have also been reports of casualties on the Georgian side that included mercenaries who may have been Americans. William Dunbar says such reports cannot be confirmed, but that they strike him as extremely suspicious.
But Georgian media has also appeared heavily one-sided.
Russian troops have been characterized as invaders who seek to snuff out Georgian democracy and independence. They have been compared to brutal Soviet invaders of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili underscores his country's plight in numerous interviews with international media, which has prompted a charge from Russia that western journalists favor the Georgian side.
Independent Russian political commentator Alexander Golts says the goal of a modern information war is to win over not only the hearts and minds of a domestic audience, but also international public opinion and whatever political influence comes with it. In this regard, Golts told VOA that Georgia has waged the better information campaign.
Golts says he will not pass judgment on Western journalistic objectivity, but says the circumstances are such that Russian leadership is far more closed and has no command of modern information technology, so the Georgian side, according to Golts, won the propaganda war.
A relatively new aspect of the information war in the Georgian conflict has been a struggle for control of cyberspace. All sides are reported hacking into one another's others websites, or denying service. At one point, the webpage of Georgian President Saakashvili was hacked and someone drew a Hitler-style mustache on the Georgian leader.
The editor in chief of Russia Journal, Gleb Pavlovsky, says South Ossetian cyberspace is part of the Georgian domain, which was shut down in the very first minutes of Georgia's assault on Tskhinvali.
Later, says Pavlovksy, there were disruptions carried out by Ossetians and Russians. He says it is difficult to judge the success of those operations, because they led to exaggerated propagandistic exchanges, and did not carry any information. The editor says there was a lot of noise, shouting, and cursing, but very few facts.
Pavlovsky also gives the advantage to the Georgian side, noting that Georgian officials, unlike Russians, interrupted their vacations to return to their capital for the conflict. He says they also made themselves available to journalists and did so in English, French and other languages. Pavlovsky notes, however, that all sides of the conflict seem to have disseminated or withheld information in pursuit of their political and military goals.