First South Ossetian War

Disinformation campaign during the 2008 South Ossetian war

The 2008 South Ossetia War included an extensive information war, fought over historically poor communications infrastructure in the region.

  • "I agree we lost the information war in the first few days, but we have nothing to hide here"

— Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov

  • "Georgia has lost the information war since, unfortunately, foreign agencies frequently relied on Russian news sources controlled by the Kremlin. These would spread inaccurate news which foreign media had to reject later."

Malkhaz Gulashvili, President of The Georgian Times Media Holding


Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin accused foreign media of pro-Georgian bias in their coverage of the conflict between Georgia and Russia over breakaway South Ossetia. "We want television screens in the West to be showing not only Russian tanks, and texts saying Russia is at war in South Ossetia and with Georgia, but also to be showing the suffering of the Ossetian people, the murdered elderly people and children, the destroyed towns of South Ossetia, and Tskhinvali. This would be an objective way of presenting the material," he said in a statement to Russian news agencies. Western media coverage of the events in the separatist republic is "a politically motivated version" in the eyes of government officials. Western media editors disagreed with this view, however, The Washington Post arguing that Moscow was engaging in "mythmaking".

On August 11, 2008, Russia Today TV accused CNN of presenting video footage of destruction in Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, shot by a Russia Today cameraman, as pictures of destruction in Gori. CNN has not denied the accusation. Western media has defended its coverage, with Chris Birkett, executive editor of Sky News saying: "I don't think there’s been a bias. Accusations of media bias are normal in times of war. We’ve been so busy with the task of newsgathering and deployment that the idea we've managed to come up with a conspiratorial line in our reporting is bananas." CNN has also defended its coverage.

William Dunbar, a reporter for Russia Today TV in Georgia, resigned in protest of alleged bias in the Russian media. He claimed he had not been on air since he mentioned Russian bombing of targets inside Georgia. He told The Moscow Times: "The real news, the real facts of the matter, didn't conform to what they were trying to report, and therefore, they wouldn't let me report it. I felt that I had no choice but to resign." However one senior journalist from Russia Today TV called Dunbar's allegations of bias "nonsense". "The Russian coverage I have seen has been much better than much of the Western coverage,” he said, adding, "My view is that Russia Today is not particularly biased at all. When you look at the Western media, there is a lot of genuflection towards the powers that be. Russian news coverage is largely pro-Russia, but that is to be expected."

August 12 through 15

Human Rights Watch called the Russian death toll figure of 2,000 unfounded, citing a doctor who said that between August 6 to 12 the hospital treated 273 wounded, more military than civilian. The doctor also said that 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital since the fighting began, both military and civilian. According to HRW, "the doctor was adamant that the majority of people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital before being buried". Anna Neistat, leader of a HRW team investigating the humanitarian damage in South Ossetia, told The Guardian that

While acknowledging that third-party investigations were incomplete, she clamed that the death toll placed by South Ossetian and Russian authorities (of over 2,000) was "suspicious" and "very doubtful". The South Ossetians later claimed that 1,492 were killed as the result of the bombing of Tskhinvali.

On August 13, Fox News interviewed and tried to cut off the 12 year old girl Amanda Kokoeva and her aunt, Lora Tedeeva-Korevisky who returned from South Ossetia. Fox began the interview by emphasising the terrors faced by a 12 year old girl "when bombs started falling". Invited to tell about Russian bombings, a 12 year old girl and her aunt say they were saved by Russians from Georgian bombings. As the aunt started to mention South Ossetians were being killed by Georgians, Fox News cuts the interview for commercial. When the break ended and they were back to air, Fox granted the aunt an additional 40 seconds to finish her thoughts, at which time she started to blame the Georgian government but explicitly distinguishing it from the Georgian people . Thereafter the anchorman claimed "as we know, there are grey areas in war." and they were cut again by the him. The CBS also had an interview with this girl before

BBC News world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds filed a story on August 15 citing the reports of refugee Ossetians in Russia and a Human Rights Watch report describing much of the damage in Tskhinvali as due to Georgian fire in concluding that the Georgian attack into South Ossetian on August 7 was being "played down" contrary to the "evidence". Reynolds called attention to what he considered exaggerated Georgian claims and the fact most of the western media is based in Georgia (the cause of this, as he writes, being Russia's reluctance to admit western media) is his story about how "mud" thrown in the "propaganda war" has "stuck" to Russia: "the Bush administration appears to be trying to turn a failed military operation by Georgia into a successful diplomatic operation against Russia.

August 17 through September

On August 17 the The New York Times reported that while Russian authorities "have given Western journalists little or no access" to areas under its control, "Russian journalists are allowed to move around freely. On August 21 the paper reported that a clip of a Fox News Channel live interview with a 12 year old girl and her aunt was shown repeatedly on Russian television news. The article claimed a Russian news anchor had introduced the clip as evidence the US would use "any means available" for a disinformation campaign against Russia, and the man who dubbed the Fox anchor's voice into Russian "not only exaggerates the anchor’s tone, but even coughs and groans loudly when [the guest] blames Mr. Saakashvili for causing the conflict — something that did not happen in the original." The same article quoted Sergei Ivanov's response out of context. While alleging Ivanov had made a faux-pas and attempted to rectify. Whereas a Russian Mission to the UN published transcript of the interview quoted Sergei Ivanov in detail:

For everyone in the United States who was here and for everyone in the United States who has been watching this story and has watched the developments since Friday, can you tell me why Russian tanks, troops, warplanes are in, have been in Georgia?
"That is a very easy question. First of all, good afternoon and thanks for the opportunity to be with you. I have an impression that the American public thinks or intends to think that Russia attacked Georgia."
That [is] what we have heard from the President of Georgia, in his words…
"Yes, exactly. Thanks for prompting me on that. [...] A big Russian bear attacked a small peaceful Georgia. In fact, the situation is and was vice-versa. It was a big Georgia which attacked a small and tiny breakaway Republic of South Ossetia."
The New York Times article resumed the discussion thusly:

"A big Russian bear attacked a small, peaceful Georgia,” said Mr. Ivanov, a deputy prime minister, before seeking to undo the damage. “In fact, the situation is and was vice versa. It was a big Georgia which attacked a small and tiny breakaway republic of South Ossetia."

Der Spiegel reported that Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, claimed that "On [Russian] TV there is hardly any free reporting — instead you see a lot of very aggressive propaganda." He claimed summarily it was reminiscent of the worst of times in the Soviet era.

Russia Today TV reported that Europe’s largest magazine, Der Spiegel, was accused by one of its staff members, Pavel Kassin, of propaganda and taking a pro-American stance. Kassin said he sent 29 pictures showing the devastation left by the Georgian military in South Ossetia to the magazine’s Hamburg headquarters, but was shocked to find that none of them appeared in the issue released the following Monday. Kassin had been working there for 18 years and has never before had any problems getting his photographs published. "Could it be that the most liberal, democratic and independent magazine has gone down the road of ideological one-sided propaganda?" he said. "In my view this is one of the rare cases when Spiegel has taken a pro-American one-sided stance. According to Kassin the photos were rejected on political reasons. The decision is considered to be influenced by the ousting in Februar 2008 of the editor-in-chief Stefan Aust, who had worked for many years in Der Spiegel, and his replacement with Georg Mascolo who had been leading the Washington subdivision of the magazine.

Russian intervention

According to delayed reports published by some Russian news media, and confirmed by Georgian intelligence, some units of Russia's 58th Army had been deployed in South Ossetia prior to 7th August for the military exercise. However, according to an article in Der Spiegel, western intelligence agencies reported that Georgia began their artillery assault on Tskhinvali at 10:35 p.m. on August 7, less than an hour before Saakashvili claims Russian tanks entered the Roki Tunnel. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman General Uvarov claimed in September 2008 troops were ordered through the tunnel to reinforce forces in Tskhinvali around dawn on August 8. Georgia disputed this Russian explanation, rotations of the Russian peacekeeping battalion could be conducted only in daylight and after not less than a month of advance notification according to a mutual agreement in 2004.

On 11 August Agence France-Presse quoted an unnamed United States Defense official as saying: "There was no obvious buildup of Russian forces along the border that signaled an intention to invade. Once it did happen they were able to get the forces quickly and it was just a matter of taking the roads in. Jamestown Foundation affiliated military analyst and Novaya Gazeta observer Pavel Felgenhauer said he believed that "Russia's invasion of Georgia had been planned in advance, with the final political decision to complete the preparations and start war in August apparently having been made back in April. The Financial Times later concluded, upon analysing weeks worth of information, that: "So swift was the Russian reaction that some analysts believe that, while it did not appear to precede the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali, as Mr Saakashvili claims, it may have been planned in advance, with Mr Saakashvili simply falling into a well prepared Russian trap.


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