Information Note

Note No. 239
18 March 2003


OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the United Nations Information
Service (UNIS)-Vienna Hold Joint Roundtable, "War: Images and Language –
Looking at the Coverage of Conflicts in the Media 1991-2003"

On 17 March 2003 a Roundtable entitled "War: Images and Language – Looking at the Coverage of Conflicts in the Media, 1991 to 2003" was held at the Diplomatic Academy, Vienna. Jointly organized by the United Nations Information Service in Vienna and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media, Vienna, the Roundtable brought together fifteen journalists, academics and members of the Secretariat of Intergovernmental Organizations. One of the Roundtable’s focuses was on the complicated range of issues regarding the relationship between the media and conflicts.

Dean Kazoleas, Professor of Communications, Illinois State University, said the 21st century was one of a "public relations warfare" as a consequence of which military and governments have begun using more and more sophisticated public affairs techniques in their desire to control the impact of images and information. This makes the objectivity of the media a difficult goal to attain. But the landscape was not so bleak as the Internet and advanced satellite images now provided open access to information so that "images and events cannot be hidden from societies."

Mark Thompson, author and consultant, Oxford University, said the information revolution affected both conflicts and the coverage of conflicts. During the nineties governments and NGOS worked together – for example, during the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan – to increase the attention paid to local media reform and development. The result had been a strengthening of democracy. Thompson said the impending war with Iraq appeared to be taking the media in a different direction. The Bush administration was talking about establishing a U.S. military controlled press in post-war Iraq which meant the Iraqi media would not be exposed to multilateral influences, such as those of the EU, OSCE, the UN, or NGOs, as in Kosovo or Bosnia.

Liam McDowall, Outreach Coordinator, International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), said that international and domestic media exposure of crimes against humanity by the Milosevic regime, had led to the establishment of the ICTY. Yet he noted the ICTY’s very limited success to date in bringing journalists/editors in former Yugoslavia to trial for inciting hatred/genocide. In contrast the international court set up to deal with genocide cases in Rwanda had prosecuted defendants for "direct incitement to genocide" because the propaganda had been much more blatant and therefore easier to prosecute under international law.

Ruth Wodak, University of Vienna, spoke of the negative influence of the global media: the small time slots accorded to news events meant little depth to reporting prevailed. Images were presented without text, in 15 or 30 second sound bytes. This resulted in very simplistic ways of tackling complex issues. The consequence: an erosion of the collective memory.

As regards verbal rhetoric, Wodak said a case in point was for example the post - Sept 11 days with President Bush’s talk of wanting Bin Laden "Dead or Alive," his religious crusader-type rhetoric. Such talk led to polarization rendering diplomatic negotiations very difficult; any rational course became difficult to undertake as witnessed in the current diplomatic impasse over Iraq’s disarmament, Wodak commented. The media reproduces this polarization, a polarization made more acute because of the global media’s short soundbytes, she continued.

Regarding the Bush Administration’s referral to its current massive bombing threat against Iraq in the initial days of a war as "a campaign of shock and awe, " Wodak, University of Vienna, called this phrase "a euphemistic way of dealing with horrific things." But Kazoleas, said such violent rhetoric should be seen as part of a current U.S. propaganda campaign, -- combined for example, with its recent dropping of 700,000 leaflets over Iraq -- to induce Saddam Hussein’s military leaders to topple the dictator.

The German journalist Andreas Beer, South West Radio (SWR), Baden-Baden, spoke of German politicians’ use of clichés such as the "Fight against terrorism," which did not exist as a common term in the German media before September 11; now it was prevalent. German politicians used the term, even simultaneously with the words "humanitarian intervention," as in Afghanistan. In other words, German politicians were interweaving peacekeeping and multilateral actions with the fight against terrorism.

Indeed no government wanted to use the word "war." Instead, such phrases as "intervention," "disarming Saddam Hussein" are used, according to Alexander Ivanenko, Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Vienna.

The U.S. media, in the current Iraq build-up to war, tended to be uncritical of the U.S. administration’s policies towards Iraq, Andrew Purvis, Time Magazine, South-Eastern Europe correspondent believes. The media had not set the agenda. Therefore as the U.S. and UK appears to be entering a war, the OSCE and such organizations should analyze propaganda emanating from the theatre of war rapidly. James Arbuckle, Lester B. Pearson International Peacekeeping Training Centre, Nova Scotia, pointed to the important role of disinformation in war.

As Freimut Duve OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Vienna, and co-chairperson of the seminar, aptly put it: "War propaganda always accompanied conflicts of twentieth century" especially World War II. But since 1945 reductionism has prevailed, for example in the use of "Communism" vs "Fascism". This current trend needs to be countered, and societies need to accept the different collective war experiences of other nations on the one hand, and their common values on the other. The media has an important role to play in examining these different experiences and in helping audiences hostile to one another – such as Israelis and Palestinians – bridge psychological gaps created by conflict.

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For photos taken at the roundtable
please click here