The NATO intervention in Yugoslavia demonstrated that good communications can be as important as effective military forces.

I don’t think you can fight a war today without taking into account the media focus, that’s a reality today. So you have to plan how to handle your media strategy, just as you plan your operational strategy for any campaign.

Col P. J. Crawley, spokesman, National Security Council

Il n’y a pas de gestion de guerre sans une gestion de la communication.

Col J.-E. Winckler, Délégation à l’Information et à la Communication de la Défense

Winning the media campaign is just as important as winning the military campaign…. The media is not an optional add-on; it is key.

NATO Spokesman Jamie Shea


With recent major advances in computing and telecommunications making possible both the processing of huge volumes of data and information and their instant global dissemination, the world is experiencing a media revolution. This revolution comes at a time when the international environment has undergone a radical transformation: The end of the Cold War has brought major changes in the nature of conflicts. The end of the East-West confrontation has not translated into a more stable world, however: Both the frequency and intensity of regional and internal conflicts have intensified everywhere. These conflicts have in turn led liberal democracies to intervene on peacekeeping, peace-enforcement or humanitarian missions—interventions that have been widely covered by the media, and in some cases, many observers say, have even been led by the media.

Because liberal democracies no longer have to deal with Soviet Communism, which had posed a major, unrelenting threat to their long-term vital interests or even survival, and because their former adversaries have became partners or even allies, they find themselves increasingly drawn into external interventions for humanitarian reasons, as part of a coalition or of international efforts under the aegis of the UN or regional organisations. Post-Cold War conflicts are mainly provoked by local leaders and groups trying to exploit local differences for personal gain, their main victims being civilians. The ideological dimension has all but disappeared, though this obviously does not mean that danger is absent. The best examples of this new trend are the wars which have devastated the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

In this new international environment the media have an important and unprecedented influence on international developments.

Information and knowledge have become the major sources of wealth, power and growth. Modern societies are increasingly dependent on computers and the constant flow of information they provide. The military—in the United States in particular—gives information a decisive role in modern warfare: ”Information supremacy” is now seen as essential to prevailing both in conflicts and in military operations other than war.

The information revolution and the emergence of digital technology have prompted extraordinary advances in telecommunications. Satellites, with their ability to transmit information instantly and globally, represent the backbone of the electronic media revolution. Over 220 Western-built commercial communications satellites in orbit at the beginning of 2000 carried some 5,000 transponders, half of which were used for broadcasting services.

For its part, digitisation, which allows the compression of large volumes of data (whether text, sound, or pictures, moving or still) and their instantaneous transfer, has made possible the instant exchange of news throughout the world. Digitisation also offers the possibility of carrying up to eight TV channels on each satellite transponder, which means the current fleet could carry well over 10,000 broadcasting services, capacity that has lowered the cost of satellite transmission to the point where political and dissident groups can gain a global reach.

These advances in (relatively!) old technology, together with the advent of the Internet (a completely new medium) as a significant and effective news-delivery system, have brought about a global media environment in which the way news and information are collected, packaged, circulated and accessed throughout the world has been completely transformed. The main characteristics of this new environment are an explosion in the number of broadcasting outlets and the global, real-time exchange of information.

The new global media environment directly affects international relations and the way conflicts are being managed. Most people in developed countries get their news through the electronic media, television in particular. As a result, the public perception of international events is now essentially shaped by television pictures—which carry much greater emotional weight than words but rarely provide all the necessary background needed to develop a properly informed opinion (despite the popular delusion that ”pictures, unlike words, don’t lie”). In this picture-driven news environment no pictures (or, more precisely, no video) means no news.

The landscape is also complicated by the ever larger number of players—governments, armed forces, NGOs, lobbying groups and even revolutionary movements—now making use of the various media, including the Internet, to try to influence or even control domestic and/or foreign public opinion at times of crisis. Foreign and security policies, which, more than any other aspects of government, were until fairly recently the exclusive preserve of a limited number of players, have now entered the public domain.

The explosion in the number of broadcasting outlets that is at the heart of the media revolution has resulted in an insatiable need for content, news in particular, and wars and natural disasters represent good content for broadcasters. At the same time, the advent of a truly global media environment has brought about a globalisation— a certain uniformity—in the presentation of news and in the perception of international events.

A number of television channels broadcasting mainly news, whether globally or regionally, now reach a large worldwide audience. The best known is CNN International, which was launched in 1985. CNN’s branded networks and services are now available to more than one billion people in 212 countries and territories. But BBC World TV reaches 167 million homes in nearly 200 countries and territories; Deutsche Welle-tv broadcasts in German, English and Spanish to 105 million households world-wide; and the pan-European image-based channel EuroNews, broadcasts in six European languages to over 95 million households throughout Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. These channels have been joined by a number of round-the-clock national news channels in many countries.

Policy-makers in developed countries have always exploited the media to muster public support for their domestic and foreign policies. The media have long played an important role in shaping public opinion in the international domain, conveying governments’ policies to the public and/or pushing their own agenda. In fact, their power is such that on a number of occasions they have been credited with encouraging foreign interventions or blamed for causing national setbacks. Indeed, it is often argued that interventions are now mainly triggered, not by wellinformed opinion or to defend national interests, but by emotional reactions on the part of a public distressed by television pictures of ghastly deeds. In democratic societies, viewing publics exposed to shocking pictures of human suffering brought about by wars and natural disasters— generously aired by television channels chasing scoops and ratings—may bring great pressure on governments to ”do something”. Conversely, they may demand a premature end to interventions abroad, even when important interests remain at stake.

The security policies of liberal democracies have traditionally been dictated mainly by their national interests, which obviously vary greatly from country to country and region to region. The end of the Cold War radically transformed the security environment for liberal democracies. As noted, most no longer face a constant threat to their vital interests or even survival. This new international environment makes military interventions abroad less likely to deteriorate into major conflict and, as a result renders them more acceptable.

In this new environment, the United States alone has global interests. Other countries, in Europe in particular, have mainly regional interests. The threats they now face no longer concern their vital interests, but may nevertheless be very significant. For instance, civil unrest and conflicts in the Balkans, Algeria, the Middle East or Africa have already led to both a massive and potentially destabilising influx of asylum seekers and a surge in terrorist activities in certain European countries. And threats to one European country often spill across borders. Algerian Islamists, for instance, planned terrorist attacks in France from the UK, Belgium and Germany and established logistical support in these countries.

These new risks mean that European countries may feel the need to intervene abroad even if their vital interests are not directly or immediately threatened.

Because military interventions abroad appear less risky, public opinion may in turn be less reluctant to accept them, and indeed may even exert pressure on their leaders to embark on such interventions. This phenomenon has often been described as the ”CNN effect”, although the term obviously also applies to the impact of other TV channels’ reporting of conflicts and calamities.

The most widely accepted interpretation of the term ”CNN effect” is ”a loss of policy control on the part of policy makers because of the power of the media, a power that they can do nothing about” (a definition provided by Prof. Steve Livingston of George Washington University).

Many observers argue, however, that the ”CNN effect” is not as far-reaching as is generally assumed. As a situation in a country or region worsens, it may attract increased attention from governments as well as the media, and decisions taken by the former may wrongly be attributed to the influence of the media. Moreover, if what is at issue is simply a humanitarian emergency without significant physical threats, governments may well decide to intervene with or without widespread media coverage.

On the other hand, when interventions present significant risks to the safety of those involved in them (including armed forces), governments are usually very cautious, the more so if national interests are not directly under threat. Since the end of the Vietnam War more US troops have been killed by hostile fire in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Somalia (285) than in military actions against Iraq, Panama, and Grenada (189). This largely explains Washington’s current caution when deciding whether or not to commit troops for peacekeeping operations.

Television may well force governments to consider interventions they previously would not have, but when the decision to intervene or not is made, the perceived threats to interests and their associated risks are still the factors that govern whether a country will intervene militarily or not. This was the case, for instance, in the first years of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when the (NATO) countries involved in the peacekeeping operations did not intervene militarily in spite of extensive TV coverage and often distressing pictures. On the other hand, TV coverage at the time certainly helped policy-makers prepare public opinion to the possibility of a military intervention.

Television coverage can go both ways, of course. Video pictures of a dead US Ranger being dragged behind a car in the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993 are often said to have forced the Clinton administration to withdraw US troops from Somalia. In fact, the decision to do so had already been taken before this incident but the TV pictures did speed up the process. Similarly, the ”CNN effect” is also credited with having deterred a US force from landing in Haiti after threatening crowds were sent onto the docks by then Haitian leader, General Cédras, who was inspired by the Mogadishu example: The US warship carrying invasion troops to Haiti withdrew.

Another example of a successful ”CNN effect” (though in this case it was a ”BBC or ITN effect”) was ”Operation Provide Comfort” launched by the British and US governments to protect and feed Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq following extensive media coverage of their plight by British television channels in March and April of 1991.

If anything, these examples show that the ”CNN effect” can, in certain specific cases, influence foreign and security policy decisions, but that this is far from being the case all the time.

An indisputable consequence of the ”CNN effect” is the shortening of the news cycle, which forces politicians and the military to react swiftly to events, often in the absence of an appropriate context or background: they now have to operate in a round-the-clock, real-time, global news environment.

The Haiti episode illustrates another very significant development: Players in the international arena—even in non-developed countries—are becoming skilful ”media warriors”. They are aware of the potential power of the media and use the new technologies to influence public opinion and decision-makers as they wage asymmetric struggles against more advanced countries or foes. In southern Lebanon, for instance, Hezbollah operates its own TV channel—Al-Manar (”Lighthouse”)— which for a number of years has been sending units to the front line to film attacks on Israeli and southern Lebanon militia forces. After quick editing, the insertion of militant background music and multimedia effects, the footage is aired on Lebanese television or on one of Hezbollah’s channels. From there, the pictures reach Israel television, channels in other Arab countries, CNN of course, and still other networks.

Once again, however, the media’s effect can go both ways. The United Nations believes the media are instrumental in helping it secure the military and logistical support it needs from some of its members, as explained in a recent UN internal report ”Comprehensive review of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects”. For their part, NGOs also make extensive use of the media to advance their various causes and attract funds from the public or governments.

All contemporary conflicts involve three central players: government, the military and the media. Each needs the other two, though for very different reasons. As a result, their relationship is not easy and often leads to friction.

Having the responsibility of deciding whether to intervene abroad and possibly commit the country’s forces to combat, governments in liberal democracies use the media to explain and promote their policies and to seek and sustain public support for them. The main difficulties faced by governments in their relationship with the media at times of international crises are mostly connected with the shortened news cycle, and the need to respond to (or make the best use of) the ”CNN effect”.

In times of conflict, politicians sometimes tend to behave in a heavy-handed manner with the press, even in the most liberal of democracies, a fact that was highlighted in the 1999 Kosovo conflict when the BBC came under severe criticism from a number of British officials for ”negative reporting”.

By definition the priorities of the media and of the military are often at odds. Both military and media have a time-sensitive—but conflicting—approach to information: The military is reluctant to release any information that could jeopardise operational safety. For the press, speed is vital: Old news is no news, especially in today’s real-time global media environment.

As a result, relations between the press and the military can be awkward and stressful. In the US, the tense nature of the relationship was established by the Vietnam war, which made the military fear, quite reasonably, that unrestricted reporting of a war would turn public opinion against it. As Marshall McLuhan noted in 1975: ”Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America—not the battlefields of Vietnam.”

At times of crisis, the various military establishments tend to deal differently with the media according to their own experience—and to that of others. The current tendency during conflicts is to try to control the media, to a certain extent at least. One system currently in favour is that of the media pool, in which representative journalists are included in a pool and their reports made available to the rest of the media. Many journalists resent this system, which greatly restricts their access to the battlefield and allows the military to control what the pool reporters can cover. The system makes sense for the military, however, when one considers the ever-growing number of journalists covering conflicts in which Western forces are involved: 27 reporters took part in the Normandy landing on D-Day; some 50 journalists were in the field during the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam; fully 1,600 journalists and media support crew were in Saudi Arabia to cover Operation Desert Storm.

The 1999 Kosovo conflict, which was described as ”the first media war”, has been marked by a new dimension in the relationship between the military and the press and is bound to have a very significant influence in the way these players interact in future military interventions.

When NATO forces launched air strikes on Yugoslavia in March 1999, Washington and other NATO capitals expected these would soon force the regime in Belgrade to give in to their demands. A number of Western leaders spoke of a campaign lasting days only. These assumptions, which were based on NATO’s earlier experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina, proved wrong and the campaign dragged on for 78 days, very quickly leaving NATO’s Press and Media Service too overstretched to cope fully with the demands of the protracted campaign.

The Gulf War was the first war where a TV channel, CNN, provided round-the-clock live coverage from an ”enemy” capital. CNN reporters later were joined by colleagues who provided coverage from Baghdad for other media outlets from countries also at war with Iraq. In the Gulf War, both sides tried to use the media to advance their aims. But the Kosovo conflict was truly the ”first media war”. It was the first to be the object of realtime, global, round-the-clock coverage; the first in which the media were treated as both target and weapon to such an extent; the first in which the Internet was used extensively; and also the first in which ”news management” played such a vital role in deciding the outcome. Both sides used the media to maintain domestic and foreign public support for their actions, whilst trying to undermine the other side’s positions.

Treating Yugoslav domestic media as a major instrument of internal control and propaganda, NATO subjected Yugoslav broadcasting installations to intense and sustained attacks throughout the air campaign. In justifying these attacks, NATO argued, credibly, that these installations had a dual military-civilian use.

The intensity of the onslaught can be measured by the fact that near the end of the air campaign Serbian officials announced that NATO had fired more than 1,000 missiles at Serbian state and private media facilities, had destroyed 17 out of 19 transmitters from the state broadcaster RTS and had caused damage well in excess of $US1.1 billion. Though these attacks may have been effective, the bombing of Belgrade’s RTS building, which killed 16 RTS employees, was seen by many, including in NATO countries, as a blunder and was severely condemned by press outlets and international media bodies. After more than eight weeks of air strikes, NATO also silenced Serb state media broadcasts abroad through a ban imposed by Eutelsat on RTS satellite retransmissions. It also used jamming and broadcasts from neighbouring countries and from converted C-130 aircraft to disrupt Yugoslav broadcasts. Yugoslav officials reported after the conflict that over 400 attempts by ”the aggressors to replace Yugoslav programmes with their own broadcasts” from neighbouring countries had been recorded.

Both camps used the media as a weapon to uphold support at home, undermine the other side and gain the backing of public opinion in countries not involved in the conflict. To get their respective messages across they used domestic and international radio and television broadcasting and, for the first time, the Internet. Both sides launched special web sites or expanded existing ones, and so did third parties.

Of course, circumstances were very different in the two camps. Western governments were dealing with a multitude of independent outlets whilst their Serbian counterpart had imposed very tight control on the domestic press for a long time. Although Yugoslav journalists could freely report from Western capitals, foreign journalists were under close watch and could not file freely from Yugoslavia.

NATO countries used international broadcasting extensively and (for the first time) in a co-ordinated manner to try to influence both Yugoslav public opinion and foreign audiences. From the beginning of the conflict effective news management was vital to both sides in order to maintain domestic public support for the campaign and win foreign backing. The task was easier, in a way, for the Belgrade regime: It exerted strict control over its media and was able to get its message across without opposition. NATO, on the other hand, being an alliance of 19 sovereign countries—in which completely different, if not totally opposed views of the conflict were held, and in which free media played an important role—could not adopt a rigid approach in its dealings with the press. A further complication was that news management within the alliance was implemented at both the alliance and national levels.

Hopes within NATO that the Belgrade regime would cave in after a few days of air strikes proved unfounded and caught the alliance and its small Press and Media Service of just six persons without a clear strategy, unprepared for a protracted campaign, forced to improvise constantly and almost entirely reliant on its spokesman, Jamie Shea. The fact that the air campaign did not initially result in any major mishap, whether allied casualties or a major incident of ”collateral damage” with large numbers of civilian deaths, certainly helped maintain a façade of normality in NATO’s media operations—for the public at least, if not for attentive observers in the media.

The air campaign posed a major problem for the media, particularly television, as it didn’t offer pictures. In today’s picture-led media environment, no pictures means no news. As a result, the media were left to focus mainly on the alliance’s more egregious blunders, pictures of which the Serbs were only too happy to provide. For instance, NATO’s media efforts suffered a major setback in mid-April when a convoy of refugees was caught in a NATO air strike near Djakovica. Ten to 20 people were killed according to NATO, 75 according to the Serbs. Belgrade exploited the incident fully, taking foreign journalists to the scene of the attack to report, while NATO took five days to come up with an explanation, a delay that seriously dented both its credibility and public support for the air campaign throughout most NATO countries (with the exception of the USA and, to a lesser extent, the UK, as opinion polls clearly indicated). Another instance of ”collateral damage”, in which 55 passengers died in an air raid on a train, reinforced the downward trend in public support for the war in several NATO countries. Had such incidents happened at the very beginning of the campaign they would undoubtedly have had a much greater negative impact on Western public opinion.

Following these incidents, British Prime Minister Blair dispatched his press secretary to Brussels, where he spent several days advising NATO on revamping its media operations. These were reinforced with officials sent from the major capitals and, as a result, the news management operation became much more efficient. Jamie Shea later explained NATO’s media strategy: ”Part of being convincing is to saturate the airwaves. Our credo at NATO was just to be on the air the whole time, crowd out the opposition, give every interview, do every briefing…”

A number of lessons can be drawn from recent experiences:

  • The global media environment that has emerged from the information and media revolutions has had a significant impact on the international environment by shaping public opinion much more extensively and quickly than in the past, and by shortening the news cycle, thus forcing decision makers to react much more quickly.
  • The so-called ”CNN effect” has had some impact on the conduct of foreign policy, but is not as far-reaching as many claim.
  • Public opinion is more fickle than ever and must be the target of a comprehensive information effort to allow policy-makers and the military to achieve even short-term objectives.
  • An ever greater array of players on the international scene—governments, lobby groups, terrorist organisations, and others—are becoming skilful ”media warriors” and will use the media as an equaliser in their struggle with economically and militarily more powerful adversaries.
  • Decision-makers and the military alike must integrate a media strategy into their overall strategy in foreign interventions—be they minor or major, of a military or civilian nature, driven by reasons of national interest or, as is increasingly the case, by humanitarian considerations.

In many countries, signs are now apparent that both decision-makers and the military are becoming aware of the importance of the media dimension in military interventions. In Russia, for instance, senior officials publicly acknowledged that they had totally lost the information war— and public support—in the First Chechen War (1994-1996), when independent television channels, such as NTV, highlighted Russian setbacks and heavy casualties. Drawing the lessons of this defeat as they launched their second Chechen campaign in 1999, the Russian government and military sought to manage the news agenda and public perceptions, setting up a special public information unit and strictly controlling media access to Chechnya and reporting of the conflict.

In view of the growing media dimension of recent military interventions the post-Vietnam hostile approach to the media on the part of the military, described in 1990 by retired USMC Lieutenant-General and journalist Bernard E. Trainor as: ”duty, honor, country and hate the media,” is bound to change to a more positive ”think media"win the war”.

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