The Media in Postmodern War and Terrorism

By Varis, Tapio | International Journal of Humanities and Peace, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

The Media in Postmodern War and Terrorism


Varis, Tapio, International Journal of Humanities and Peace


`The battle for hearts and minds is being fought on the net', wrote Simon Rogers In The Guardian at the outbreak of the war In Kosovo on 26 March 1999. (1) He said that there had never been a war like It before. Even though there had been articles about cyberwar In the public media, the NATO attack on Yugoslavia In 1999 may have been the first war fought also on the Internet.

One of the peculiarities of modern wars since the late 1950s is that they are not declared to be wars by legitimate parliamentary bodies and often have the nature of an intervention in the internal conflicts of sovereign states. Consequently, it is difficult to define when it is a question of terrorism and when of war.

During the Cold War there was the fear that a large-scale nuclear war might break out even by accident. However, in a legal sense a war does not normally start without elaborate procedures of parliamentary or conciliar discussions, with the accompanying declarations, orders and proclamations dealing with its means, ends, modes and justifications. (2)

In any case, even the undeclared wars are always intentional in the sense that symbolic acts which imply or lead to hostilities and war and justify them have been carried out by some government. Even the clandestine preparations for large-scale war require major preparations in the climate of opinion in which the mass media and other new sources of information like the Internet become crucial.

The 1991 Gulf War broke out on television when it erupted on primetime evening news bulletins in the United States on Wednesday 16 January 1961. (3) The ABC network took the viewers of its 18.30 evening programme World News Tonight to Baghdad for a telephone interview with reporter Gary Shephard. In Iraq it was just past 02.30 on a moonless night after the expiry of the United Nations' deadline for its government to withdraw from occupied Kuwait. Within minutes the reporter said: `Something is definitely under way here, something is definitely going on ... obviously an attack is under way of some sort'. Over ten minutes later, at 23.47 GMT, British viewers who had settled down to watch ITV's recorded highlights of that evening's Rumbelow's League Cup soccer matches had the war introduced to them by sports commentator Nick Owen. (4)

In Yugoslavia in 1999, the CNN effect was eliminated from the beginning when Yugoslavia expelled western media journalists from its territory. Yugoslavia also has capable operators for cyberwar, as Iraq did not. In recent media history, the Vietnam War was the first television war, the Gulf War in 1991 showed the power of real-time news journalism, and Kosovo in 1999 proved the strength of the Internet and cyberwar in the field of information and propaganda.

In the 1990s the western vocabulary increasingly emphasized terrorism as the threat to security. Walter Laqueur writes that current definitions of terrorism fail to capture the magnitude of the problem worldwide. In his view the terrorist operations have changed somewhat so that terrorism is not the militants' only strategy any more. He warns that terrorists can order the poor man's nuclear bomb from a catalogue and that 20 hackers with US$1 billion might shut down America: `Chances are that of 100 attempts at terrorist super violence, 99 would fail. But the single successful one could claim many more victims, do more material damage, and unleash far greater panic than anything the world has yet experienced'. (5)

The media and the United Nations

After the end of the Second World War (WW II) efforts were made to rationalize the international communications system by bringing various organizations under the aegis of the UN. Their treaties and conventions were to be adjudicated by the International Court of Justice. However, the court was given no official sanctions to impose on countries against which it ruled. …

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