17 March 2010

Throughout the MyWar exhibition, FACT will be publishing guest blog posts from looking at war and politics in the media. Matthew Taylor is a "twentysomething lawyer with interests in arts, music, philosophy, politics, and sci/tech..."
What can we ever really know about a conflict which we do experience directly?

This question - one of several the MyWar exhibition takes up - has been thrown sharply into relief by curious events in Georgia last Saturday.

This small republic in the Caucasus borders the Russian Federation, which has long backed the claims of two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2008, the Russian army invaded South Ossetia in support of the separatists, before invading Georgia proper.

Russian tanks came within 30 miles of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and even after they withdrew from Georgia, Russian troops remained in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ever since that comprehensive defeat of the Georgian military, the country has essentially lived under threat of invasion. Last Saturday night, it seemed the invasion had finally arrived.

The Guardian's Moscow correspondent, Luke Harding, explained what happened:

"I was at home in Moscow on Saturday night with a friend from the Associated Press, when he got a call saying Russia had invaded Georgia, and that Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's pro-western President had been killed and murdered.

Now, clearly this was an enormous story, so I raced upstairs and logged on. I read Russia's Interfax press service, which is the Russian press association, which indeed was carrying this as a news flash.

At that point, I was thinking how do I get to Georgia, where's my flak jacket, etc. Absolutely scrambling.

And within about 20 minutes it turned out that this story wasn't true, it was a hoax. But it was a pretty serious hoax which had spooked not only me but half of the Georgian population."

Georgian television channel Imedi TV had broadcast a half hour programme in which it imagined what the Russian invasion of Georgia might be like. Although they carried warnings, these were either missed or misunderstood by thousands of Georgian viewers, who thought their country was being invaded. The programme used a mixture of faux-news programmes and archive footage from the 2008 war, to portray a scenario in which Russia again mounted a surprise invasion.

CNN reported the panic that was sparked in one town, Akhali Tserovani, which houses people who fled their homes during the 2008 invasion.

"I was afraid. It wasn't right of them to do it," said Tamuna Okhadze, a refugee who held her one-and-a-half-year-old son Lasha, who was born after the war.

"People were in panic," she said. "Some people started getting dressed to flee to Tbilisi. People wondered where they should hide their children."

Lali Tskitashvili, a mother of three, said she couldn't see the broadcast because she didn't have a satellite dish that received Imedi TV. But she says she received panicked phone calls from friends in Tbilisi, asking if she had seen Russian tanks.

"People here ran out into the street and asked each other 'what's happening?'" she said. "It was a provocation."

Next time you watch a news bulletin about a conflict you havenít directly experienced, ask yourself this: how do you know that what youíre being told is "reality"?

What is reality when you're relying on somebody else to tell you?

You can watch the Imedi TV programme on Youtube (in Georgian, obviously):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3