Caught in the Maelstrom: Perceptions of the Populace in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq
In "these very troubled times of war against terror, the difference between information and disinformation is very, very small," warned Anne Nivat, a Moscow-based author and journalist, at an 8 November 2004 Kennan Institute lecture. Nivat argued that most media coverage of the wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq presents a narrow and inaccurate picture of the reality on the ground of these war-torn societies. The war coverage presented on CNN and other major Western news outlets is increasingly dictated by the perspective of the governments involved, and, as a result, "the voice of the real people has never been less taken into account," she contended.
Nivat has extensive experience in covering the war in Chechnya and has recently spent several months in Afghanistan and Iraq. She explained that her goal in covering war zones is to go beyond the traditional method of interviewing people by developing a dialogue with ordinary people and learning how they perceive the world. To achieve this goal, when Nivat traveled in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, she adopted the dress styles of local women, lived with ordinary families, and traveled without any sort of bodyguards. By taking the same risks as the locals and showing respect for their traditions, Nivat argued, she was able to establish "the kind of dialogue that would lead to real information without the usual bias that you have in the news-obsessed media."
This focus on the lives of ordinary people and what they think is, in Nivat's view, different than the focus of most news coverage, which describes what Westerners think and why they should think that way. She argued that journalists and editors tend to approach war coverage with pre-formed opinions and to focus on the commercial appeal of their material. Therefore, the media tends to cover only the most recently-started, "fashionable" wars, compress war zones into a series of powerful photograph and film images, focus only on a few cities or specific events, and follow the official positions of governments in describing conflicts. According to Nivat, this type of media coverage tends to oversimplify complex realities and to present one side as more successful in winning the war than is actually the case.
Nivat gave several examples of distorted media coverage of the war in Chechnya. She argued that media coverage of the war, which was fairly extensive in the 1990s, is almost nonexistent today. Nivat argued that despite Russian claims that they have taken control of the separatist region, the war in Chechnya that began in 1999 is still raging today. "Militarily speaking, the war is a total failure," she said. Because the war has gone on for so long without an apparent winner, most editors do not see stories about the continuing conflict as newsworthy and have shifted their focus—first to Afghanistan, and now to Iraq. However, she warned that while it appears that nothing new is happening in Chechnya, "everything is changing…because people are fed up of this war." The people of Chechnya, Nivat argued, feel entirely without hope, and both the Russian military and Chechen guerrilla groups are under severe strain from the extended war. Exhaustion and despair are leading Chechens to increasingly use terrorist and suicide tactics against Russia.
Nivat contended that most journalists have been willing to accept the Russian government's position on the war in Chechnya, although the government distorts information to further its own interests. She explained that in the fall of 1999, she was in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, while a group of foreign journalists were escorted around the central market by the Russian military. While the journalists inspected flowers and meat, Nivat was "with Chechen rebels who were choosing a Stinger missile…just 50 meters away from where the Russian troops were showing off to the world press the city of Grozny under normalization." Particularly since September 11, 2001, many people have also accepted the Russian claim that the Chechen separatist movement is connected with international Islamic terrorism. Nivat noted that the media gives a lot of attention to, and shows vivid images of terrorist attacks in Russia, but ignores the Russian military's attacks on Chechen cities.
According to Nivat, the same gap between media coverage and the reality on the ground that exists in Chechnya is equally visible in Afghanistan and Iraq. The result of this distorted coverage "is total confusion among the public, not only in the West but also in those countries where the wars are raging," she said. She emphasized that ordinary people in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq know as little about us as we know about them, and that the images presented on Western television are the main source of misconceptions about Westerners. Nivat argued that the communications revolution, instead of bringing people closer together, has aggravated tensions and differences, and "even more worrying and dangerous-stereotypes have only increased." She believes that fighting these stereotypes and misperceptions, among both Westerners and Muslims, is the most important aspect of her work.