Matt McCarten: US spin on Georgia war shows how vital it is to have free media

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In the United States, it seems the mainstream media fall in line frequently with their government's spin over international events. Most of the global news networks are owned and based in the US, and therefore tend to set the news agenda worldwide.

What is disturbing is how jingoistic and partisan the US news coverage is over the Georgia conflict. It is clearer to me now how these US news agencies were able to stir up public support after 9/11 to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq. It's frightening how the agencies have, in many ways, become a mouthpiece for their government's policy.

Their mainstream news stories would have us believe that the small, feisty and free democratic state of Georgia has been ruthlessly invaded by Russian thugs who are carrying out genocide and mass destruction. It's presented simply as a fight between good and evil.

Watching the US news, it's hard to understand that it was Georgia who started the bombing and killing in the region of South Ossetia.

Nor would Americans know that the Georgian military assault killed dozens of Russian peacekeepers and hundreds of civilians before Russia stepped in.

The Russian reaction to this slaughter was predictable, particularly when we know some of the background to these events.

The Ossetian people have quite a distinctive culture and language that is very different from Georgia. South Ossetia is part of Georgia and North Ossetia is part of Russia. The only reason that the southern part of Ossetia is even in Georgia is because of Josef Stalin. He split Ossetia and put each half under the control of different warlords. With the collapse of communism these arbitrary divisions of ethnic nationalities was always going to unravel.

South Ossetia was opposed to being part of Georgia when it seceded from Russia. They fought a bloody independence war in the early 1990s to prevent absorption into the newly independent Georgia. Tens of thousands were killed and an agreement was reached where South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia, would have a large element of autonomy. Russian peacekeepers would be stationed in these regions to ensure the peace was kept.

In addition, a wider agreement was also made with Georgia and all the other newly created bordering states to Russia that they would not become part of NATO (the western military alliance), nor would they allow foreign military bases in their countries.

But before the ink on these agreements was dry, American political consultants were creating and managing political parties that were anti-Russian. In Georgia, they helped create a new political party around Mikheil Saakashvili, who was educated and worked for many years in the US. This party swept out the pro-Russian government and then the real mischief began.

Saakashvili's first move was to get the US military to come into Georgia to arm and train his armed forces. Despite the early promises, the Bush administration, with most of Western Europe, actively supported Georgia to become part of NATO. As of last week, Georgia was America's ally in Iraq, second only to Britain.

Last week, it wasn't lost on Russia that it was the US air force that flew the Georgian troops from Iraq back to their country.

Like most wars, oil plays a major part. Saakashvili's provocative decision to allow the West to build a pipeline through his country from the Caspian oil fields as an alternative to the present one through Russia was just another straw on the back of Russia's camel. The West's recent enthusiasm to also unilaterally recognise Kosovo splitting from Serbia was another. Supporting ethnic communities to break away and form new countries was always going to come back and haunt the West, for what's good for Kosovo is also good for South Ossetia.

That the Georgian army invaded South Ossetia in violation of an agreement made with Russia and timed for the eve of the Olympics says it all. It was a calculated military assault to end South Ossetia's semi-autonomy and suppress their independence movement.

The Russians had warned the Americans that Saakashvili was an accident waiting to happen. They were apparently assured by the Americans that they'd keep him under control. But no one believes for a minute that the Americans hadn't given the Georgians a wink and a nod to invade while Putin was at the Olympics.

I think the US Government and their media believe their own rhetoric and spin. How else could they have believed that the Russians wouldn't slap Saakashvili down?

It's reassuring to see that the media in New Zealand provides us with a range of news sources rather than just relying on the American outlets. In this case, I think the media coverage of the conflict in Georgia has made New Zealanders better informed about why the war started. The US public and politicians still seem confused. I blame their media.

- Herald on Sunday

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