#12 - JRL 7126
April 1, 2003
Fueling the Information War
By Alexei Pankin
Tak vedyotsya na Rusi -- nochyu slushat BBC! This Soviet-era joke translates as: "It is the custom in Russia to listen to the BBC at night." In those days, Russian-language broadcasts from foreign radio stations were just about the only alternative source of news available to Soviet citizens. The joke came to mind last week when I attended the opening of the BBC's new educational exhibit at the Foreign Literature Library.
The ceremony was preceded by a round table discussion in which the heads of the BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty and Moscow journalists discussed the future of foreign broadcasting in today's Russia. The foreign participants noted that both the ratings of their radio programs and the number of hits on their web sites soar during domestic and international crises.
Until recently this could have been explained as a purely post-Soviet phenomenon, a result of the Russian people's lingering distrust of a government that takes it upon itself to determine what's news and what isn't, as well as a distrust of the independent media.
Something similar has occurred in other countries as a result of the war in Iraq. Americans have begun visiting European news web sites in large numbers since the start of the war. The number of Western subscribers to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television network shot up by some 4 million in just a few days. The reasons are clear. More and more people are dissatisfied with the view of the world propounded by their national mass media. At the same time, alternative sources of information are increasingly available.
If you follow news of the war in the press, on the Internet and in television and radio broadcasts, it's hard not to notice that the information war receives nearly as much coverage as the actual military operation in Iraq. At times you get the impression that George W. Bush and Tony Blair are losing the propaganda war to Saddam Hussein. The mass media around the world have not let the allies' version of the goals and progress of the war dominate their coverage, at any rate.
There's no way of saying how this will affect the course of the war in Iraq, but it will undoubtedly have an impact on the development of international relations in the future.
Many U.S. allies and historical partners are alarmed by its unilateral military operation in Iraq, seeing it as part of a quest for world domination. No one is likely to confront the United States head-on either politically or economically, not to mention militarily. Instead, they will pursue an "asymmetrical response" -- a sort of defensive strategy designed not to defeat a superior aggressor, but to make the price of victory unacceptably high. The success of al-Jazeera in fueling anti-war sentiment across the globe provides a good example of this strategy. Jacques Chirac has announced that France will launch a 24-hour news channel available in English.
Russia won't stay on the sidelines for long. On March 6, DTV, controlled by Sweden's Modern Times Group, beat out two challengers for its broadcasting frequency, including Channel One's proposal for a 24-hour news channel.
I suspect that if the tender were held today, the result would be different. At the very least, a number of highly placed government officials, who last fall opposed amendments to the laws on terrorism and the mass media that would have restricted press freedom, are now talking about the need to significantly expand the current scope of Russia's information security policy.
In Russia, when people start to talk about an issue in terms of national security, the brainpower and money to address it are never far behind.
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.sreda-mag.ru)