Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin has accused Western media orgs of bias in their coverage of the Georgia fighting, but U.S. and U.K. TV execs are unfazed, saying that claims of bias are “bananas.”
Within Russia, TV and newspaper reports of the conflict have overshadowed coverage of the Olympics, with patriotic and emotional reportage on the conflict that Russia blames on the Georgians.
Russians with access to the Internet or international cable news, however, are able to piece together a fairly thorough picture of the conflict. Citizens in Georgia are not able to do that, since their government shut down broadcasts of Russian TV and has blocked websites in the .ru domain.
On Tuesday, the two sides agreed to a truce brokered by French prexy Nicolas Sarkozy after five days of air and ground attacks. But Georgian officials said bombs were still dropping hours after Russia declared the cease-fire, according to the Associated Press.
During the past few days, Russia’s state television — brought firmly under Kremlin control during the eight years that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ruled as president — has been running rolling news updates on the heavy fighting, interspersed with highly emotive photos of ethnic Russian refugee women and children shown to the accompaniment of classical music.
So far, there has been no mention of the Russian aerial bombardment of the Georgian town of Gori, where bombs intended for military barracks hit a school and apartment blocks, killing scores of civilians.
But international news coverage seemed equally one-sided.
Coverage in the U.S. and Europe is leaning heavily toward reports on the Georgian casualties of Russian bombing over the weekend. Few details are being given about the thousands said to have been killed when Georgia attacked Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on Thursday and Friday. A Georgian military campaign to defeat insurgents there caused the deaths of 15 Russian peacekeepers last week. Russia retaliated forcefully, sending tanks, artillery and troops into South Ossetia.
Part of the international media’s sympathy for Georgia is due to widespread confusion over the background to the conflict, which has roots going back to the breakup of the Soviet Union. In addition, many reporters — even those who specialize in Russia and Central Europe — have little knowledge of the Ossetia and Georgia regions. And coverage of the conflict has been hampered by the swiftness with which the violence escalated. Nine journalists have been reported injured, including a Russian TV producer shot on Sunday and at least two Georgian journalists killed.
Many news orgs had mobilized their foreign correspondents for Olympics coverage. After the conclusion of the Games’ spectacular Opening Ceremony on Friday, bureaus were scrambling to figure out what was going on in Russia, Georgia and Ossetia.
In Russia, state channel Rossiya complained about coverage in the U.S. and British media.
“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 showing the suffering of the Ossetian people, the murdered elderly people and children, the destroyed towns of South Ossetia and Tskhinvali,” foreign minister Karasin said.
“Western media is a well-organized machine, which is showing only those pictures that fit in well with their thoughts. We find it very difficult to squeeze our opinion into the pages of their newspapers.”
Westerners are quickly trying to catch up and present a fair picture of the conflict.
Chris Birkett, exec editor of satcaster Sky News, told Daily Variety, “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 defended its reporting in a statement to Daily Variety, saying the network “continues to explain the complex issues surrounding this conflict. Our coverage on the ground in both Georgia and Russia, in the past few days, reflects the importance of accuracy in telling this story.”
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the ongoing Olympics, the BBC has led with the war since Saturday.
The conflict also has dominated Blighty’s newspapers with all of the broadsheets — and some tabloids — dedicating their front pages and more to reports and analysis.
While much of the coverage has highlighted the rapidly escalating civilian death toll, some op-ed contributors also have criticized Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for launching the initial military assault on South Ossetia on Aug. 7.
“Both sides are behaving badly,” wrote Caucasus expert and former Times Moscow correspondent Thomas de Waal in the left-leaning Observer. “It is outrageous that Russia is seizing the chance to attack Georgian towns and airfields. Georgian civilians are now dying too. But Georgia needs to be restrained for its own sake.”
A reporter for Russia Today — a Kremlin-funded news channel that is broadcast in English — resigned over what he claimed was biased coverage by the outlet.
William Dunbar, who was reporting for Russia Today from Georgia, claimed he had not been on air since he mentioned Russian bombing of targets inside Georgia on Saturday.
“I had a series of live, video satellite links scheduled for later that day and they were canceled by Russia Today,” 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,” he added.
Sources at Russia Today — which has a newsroom largely staffed by British journalists — confirmed that Dunbar had resigned but said allegations of bias were nonsense.
“The Russian coverage I have seen has been much better than much of the Western coverage,” one senior journalist at the channel told Daily Variety.
“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.”
So far, one Western media professional, a Dutch TV cameraman for RTL, has been killed in the fighting — during a Russian bombing of Gori, Georgia, which also wounded an RTL correspondent in the leg.
(Ali Jaafar in London, John Hopewell in Madrid, Ed Meza in Berlin and Patrick Frater in Hong Kong contributed to this report.)