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The media in postmodern war and terrorism
by Tapio Varis



`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. It had to rely on world opinion or moral authority as the basis on which the states would abide by its decisions. As a consequence, this philosophy has not produced instruments to deal with the problems of world communications. Robert Fortner concludes that `both countries and corporate interests continued to press for, or to maintain existing, monopolies of knowledge, struggling to impose their versions of history and methods of interpretation on the world's peoples'. (6)


But in the modern world all political, economic and military operations from preventive diplomacy to peacekeeping must take into consideration the new media environment and world public opinion. In the United Nations, world communications are a prerequisite for the work of the General Assembly and the Security Council. The media are seen to reflect the world's public opinion and it is important that the world media are as independent and free as possible to reflect people's views and opinions as well as to maintain a critical reporting of the governments.


However, since US President George Bush declared the `new world order' at outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War, the United States and her allies, especially the UK in their attack against Iraq in 1998 and NATO in the aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999, have literally bypassed the existence of the United Nations as the only legitimate international organization for legitimizing war. Their concern has been to interfere internally for humanitarian reasons.


It is obvious that the media publicity will be increasingly important for the peace-related decisions. This is especially true of the UN-peacekeeping operations. In fact, one of the key elements in the international environment where all UN activities now take place is the international media. The increasing telecommunications capabilities result in increasingly detailed graphic, timely information being available to audiences worldwide.


A UNIDIR (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research) research document concluded that in peace operations, national and international news media converge plays a significant role in quickly framing public debate and shaping public opinion. It is likely that future peacekeeping operations will often be demanded and executed under the worst possible conditions. That means a situation when preventive diplomacy has failed; when impassioned calls for action submerge careful analysis in emotions and impatience; when frustration supplants caution and facts on the ground are judged primarily by the media coverage they receive. The report concludes that it is precisely for this type of environment that decisionmakers and peacekeepers should prepare themselves. (7)


The sensitivity of these issues for the success of the UN became very clear in the media coverage of the UN operations in Somalia and former Yugoslavia. The possible mistakes of the UN are given wide publicity by the world's news media, which tend to stress action and war-related issues in a conflict rather than diplomacy, which, after all, is the strength of the UN and its true metier.


The great challenge to communication research as well as to policymaking now is to find a new approach that is forward-looking and based on enough past knowledge but free from Cold War conceptual frames. Information and communication technology present a continuity, which has a solid past but challenges many previous assumptions. The analysis of technological developments is useful in order to understand the need to treat specialized agencies and to introduce normative thinking in this field:


(1) It is important to look at the technological changes that have been decisive for many other changes. Currently, they are creating an entirely new learning environment for all international activities.


(2) How the intellectual thinking on communication and education has developed in relation to conflicts and wars needs to be studied.


(3) It is important to understand that culture and communication skills are essential for the merging global information society.


(4) When the media turn violence and conflict into a permanent open learning environment a new challenge enters the concept of global learning. Do we really learn anything from wars and what role do the media have in this?


International communication has no precise origins but it has existed as long as there have been nations and states. As we know, as soon as groups establish their separateness, at least some members find the need to communicate with individuals in other groups. Of course, the media have developed from runners, drummers, pigeons, ships, and trains. But with the advent of the telegraph, a fundamental transformation began: as early as 1837 successful electric telegraph experiments began. The technological developments of telegraph, submarine cable, telephone, wireless and radio led to the need for international control of the technical means of communication. The objective has been to facilitate necessary international cooperation and avoid transnational interference the operations of other countries.


During the 20th century, especially between 1933 and 1969, the field of international communication became a field of increasing politicization and propaganda. (8) Although politicization never really ended during the period after 1970, a newly complex environment emerged, the result of both the application of new communications technologies and the proliferation of new states with the breakup of Europe's colonial empires.


Towards a global knowledge society


In recent years fundamental changes have occurred in technology, the political world order and population growth that have had a profound impact on world economic, political and human development. The rapid developments in telecommunications microprocessors and biotechnology and the introduction of information superhighways are changing national and international economies and the world order. The development of national information infrastructures is planned; these in turn are or will be plugged into worldwide efforts to create global electronic information super-highways, which are expected to revolutionize economies as well as education and learning environments.


It has been estimated that the present decisions concerning telecommunications and electronic information highways will have a socio-economic impact similar to the building of canals, railroads and motor highways. It is believed that information highways will be the key to economic growth for national and international economies. The information infrastructure already is to the major economies of the 1990s what transport infrastructure was to the economy of the mid-20th century.


Some critical researchers point out, however, that if the future user requirements do not align with national information infrastructure-provisioning capabilities, lengthy periods of wasteful and uneconomic network underutilization will result. For instance, the mid-1980s unveiling of ISDN (Integrated Services of Digital Network) has yet to overcome initial subscriber scepticism. During the interim, resources will not have been put to their best possible use. These information superhighways have been compared to the building of interstate highways in the earlier period; certain elementary points in this comparison need to be observed. Highways function only if all roads are connected to them; in the field of information superhighways there are weak links that determine the outcome of the whole system.


In the global perspective, there is a threat that the information gap is increasing. Even in the technologically-advanced countries a great number of individual homes are without computer connections and very few home computers have modems. In fact, the first users of information superhighways will be those that have the necessary equipment. In the early stages of motor highways the first users were those who had cars and could benefit from the new infrastructure. Highways changed the whole culture, including small business and shopping centres. The shops were no longer built within walking distance of their users but near the highways. In the case of information superhighways we do not yet know how much they will serve individual citizens and how much enterprises, organizations and administration.


In the 1990s the central role of information and communication technology for social and economic development could be observed. Traditional industrial societies faced difficulties and even collapsed, particularly in cases where obsolete models of thinking had dominated management, but the number of economies that were able to utilize new communication and information resources were growing, for example in the Pacific region and also in North America.


In the light of the exponential growth of electronic communications, the role of telecommunications will grow rapidly in world affairs. Consequently, the International teleommunication Network (ITU) has to deal more and more with issues that are not technical in nature. For example, it has to define more clearly its role in relation to development. A significant move took place in 1984 when a report of the Independent Commission for Worldwide Telecommunications Development, `The Missing Link', was published. It concluded, among other things, that `all mankind could be brought within easy reach of a telephone by the early part of the 21st century'. (9)


In 1994 the ITU held the first World Telecommunications Development Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A Declaration on Global Telecommunication Development for the 21st Century was approved. It recognizes that telecommunications are an essential component of political, economic, social and cultural development. It is important that the document refers to the principle of `the right of connection' between countries. The telecommunications gap between vision and reality persists, at technical and political levels, and hopes of closing it are modest. More than two-thirds of all households worldwide still have no telephone. Less that 2 per cent of World Bank lending goes to telecom projects.


Media and peace education


International governmental efforts in the fields of education and communication have been carried out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the League of Nations, which both reflected the intellectual and moral integrity of scholars of their time.


The role of international communication and the media was not perceived as central during the period of the League of Nations after WW II. The organization passed one resolution in 1925 on the collaboration of the press in the cause of peace. It referred to `moral disarmament' which was understood to be a condition of material disarmament.


In 1936 the League approved an international convention concerning the use of broadcasting in the cause of peace. This lengthy convention came into existence after politicization and propaganda in radio and other forms of international communication in Europe. The convention, still in force today, speaks of the need to prohibit such transmissions, which are likely to damage good international understanding, but has probably had no impact on anything. Even the deliberate interference in other countries' transmissions (jamming), was started in Austria in the early 1930s.


The International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations was important even though not enough was accomplished. It was a characteristic feature of the times that only 15 smaller and medium-sized states signed the 1937 Declaration Regarding the Teaching of History which none of the bigger powers accepted, albeit for different reasons: the British government did not feel entitled to interfere in the field of local educational authorities and the free expression of opinion; the United States refused to sign because the federal government had no control over education; France did not want to curb the independence of teachers and historians; while the Nazi government of Germany totally opposed the aims of the declaration."


The UNESCO Constitution was approved in 1945 after the experiences of WW II. It states that peace must be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind. The means of communication between peoples should be developed and increased and these should be employed `for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other's lives'. The doctrine of the `free flow of information' was assumed to be obvious prerequisite for peace. (11) The free flow doctrine was always problematic in the light of the global economic structure and its impact on communications. Technological changes have made it even more problematic today.


The chairman of the committee that drafted the Preamble, the American poet and librarian Archibald MacLeish, was once asked if we can educate for world peace:


Of course we can educate for world peace. I would be willing, for my own part, to say that there is no possible way of getting world peace except through education. Which means education of the peoples of the world. All you can do by arrangements between governments is to remove the causes of disagreement, which may become, in time, causes of war. But peace, as we are all beginning to realise, is something a great deal more than the absence of war. Peace is positive and not negative. Peace is a way of living together, which excludes war, rather than a period without war, in which peoples try to live together. (12)


Later history has shown us the difficulties of building truly international educational and communication systems. Much intellectual work has been carried out on the basic problems of peace. One clear finding is that the criterion of peace depends on the times and on who defines it. During the period of the League of Nations, peace research referred mostly to the causes and functions of war and necessary and sufficient conditions for abolishing it; more recently, it has been broadened to include human rights and the quality of life. Communication and education are key issues. Now education is changing into a life-long learning process where communication skills are central.


In general, communication research can be seen as part of peace education in the wider sense. While early peace research targeted the decisionmakers and diplomats, it was later discovered that in order to promote peaceful relations among nations, one had to increase the general level of awareness of what was at stake.


In principle, UNESCO is ideal for cultural, scientific and literary intellectuals to promote peace on the world stage. In the early years of UNESCO in the late 1940s, the time of Julian Huxley's involvement, the organization was still perceived as an agency uniting qualified individuals from different civilizations, representing the human mind rather than governmental spokespersons. The UNESCO Constitution was drafted by Archibald MacLeish and the British politician Clement Attlee. The Axis governments had demonstrated the power of the media to control events; UNESCO's founders now wrote into the organization's constitution a mandate to create a communication programme that would advance the understanding of peoples.


A dialogue between cultures


The UN philosophy and Charter is essentially a product of European civilization, clearly intended to reinvigorate contacts among peoples and nations with its humanistic principles and aspirations. None of the countries then under colonial rule by European powers made any contribution to its formulation. (13)


The UNESCO Constitution also reflects the spirit of the anti-fascist struggle:


The great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races ... Believing in full and equal opportunities for education for all, in the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, [UNESCO's founders] are agreed and determined to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purpose of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other's lives. (UNESCO Constitution, 1945)


In other words, UNESCO's mandate is to contribute to the preservation of peace and security by promoting cooperation between nations through education, science, culture and communication. In the field of information and communication the purpose is `to promote the free flow of ideas by word and images'.


The ideologies of racial superiority have their roots deep in different civilizations and were not limited to the Italian, German or Russian societies at that time. As observed by The Economist: `the fighters for freedom and against fascism and racism in 1939-45 were rank hypocrites, since they were themselves running dictatorial empires in which racial superiority was a strong theme'. No wonder that Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of western civilization, replied that it would be a good idea. (14)


The scholarly views of communication at the time of the founding of UNESCO were well reflected by the report of an unofficial body, the Commission on Freedom of the Press, generally known as the Hutchins Commission, `Peoples Speaking to Peoples'. Communication was seen to link `all the habitable parts of the globe with abundant, cheap, significant, true information about the world from day to day, so that all men increasingly may have the opportunity to learn to know, and understand each other'. The Commission set three objectives concerning international communication: (i) to improve its physical facilities and operating mechanisms; (ii) the progressive removal of political barriers and the lessening of economic restrictions; and (iii) the improvement of the accuracy, representative character, and quality of the words and images transmitted in international communication.


The report also noted that the `surest antidote for ignorance and deceit is the widest possible exchange of objectively realistic information--true information, not merely more information'. Many scholars have similarly questioned the success of a mere quantitative increase of information for international understanding. Llewellyn White and Robert Leigh, for example, pointed out very early that there is evidence that a mere quantitative increase in the flow of words and images across national borders may replace ignorance with prejudice and distortion rather than with understanding. (15)


In view of the 1999 war in Kosovo one might conclude with the catchphrase of the popular American writer, Francis Fukuyama, who writes of `the end of history and the last man'. (16) One might add, though, that the new millennium seems to have begun with the emergence of techno-barbarism. In fact, Fukuyama warned against the danger of returning to being the first men, engaged in bloody and pointless prestige battles--only this time with modern weapons.


Many scholars have addressed the issues of war, peace and the media. Quincy Wright analysed the problem in his book A Study of War. (17) Wright observed that among the causes of war is the difficulty of making peace a more important symbol in world public opinion than particular symbols that may locally, temporarily or generally favour war. He noted that wars have always required propaganda for both their initiation and their conduct, and that the methods have long been elucidated: `The objects of war propaganda are the unification of our side, the disunion of the enemy and the good will of neutrals'. (18)


Wright went on to note that efforts have also been made among both `primitive and civilized' peoples to preserve peace by propaganda. Here, the problem is more difficult than the problem of war propaganda because, to be effective, peace propaganda must gain attention simultaneously within earshot of all potential belligerents, and yet peace, in Wright's view, is intrinsically less interesting to human beings than war.


Several peace researchers have outlined the requirements for peace-oriented media at times of conflict. Johan Galtung emphasizes, among other things, the importance of giving a voice to both or all parties in the conflict, trying to make explicit the intellectual frame of reference within which conflict is to be understood, and avoiding overe-emphasis on elite nations in media reporting. (19)


In connection with the information warfare over Kosovo in 1999 Jan Oberg raises critical issues of media coverage. He asks, for example, whether there is a larger story behind what we see on the screen. Who are the victims of what? What is a military target, and how does it differ from a civilian target? (20)


It is always necessary to ask what are the sources of the information being disseminated by various parties to the conflict and who are the experts used in the media. The problem of violence is not necessarily problematized in the media but used to legitimize action. In some humanitarian crises like in Rwanda in the 1990s there were radio stations that openly urged people to kill. In the long run media education and critical communication skills and competencies are the only way to combat distorted information, media manipulation and war propaganda.




Boulding, Elise (1988), Education for an Interdependent World. towards a global civic culture, Columbia University: Teachers College.


Enzensberger, Hans Magnus (1994), Civil War, London: Granta.


Galtung, Johan (1992), The Emerging Conflict Formations, in Katharine Tehranian and Majid Tehranian (eds), Restructuring for World Peace, Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press. Huntington, Samuel P. (1993), The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs 72: (3), Summer.


Katz, Elihu (1992), The End of Journalism? Notes on watching the war, Journal of Communication 42 (3), Summer.


Kennedy, Paul (1993), Preparing for the Tweny-first Century, London: Harper Collins Publishers.


Lewis, Peter (ed.) (1993), Alternative Media: linking global and local, New York: UNESCO Reports and Papers on Mass Communication, No. 107.


United States Institute of Peace (1994), Preventive Diplomacy and American Foreign Policy. A guide for the post-Cold War era, New York: United States Institute of Peace.


Tehranian, Majid (1992), Restructuring for Peace: a global perspective, in Katharine Tehranian and Majid Tehranian (eds), Restructuring for World Peace, Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press.


UNESCO (1993), Activities in the Matter of the Free Flow of Information and Freedom of Expression, New York; UNESCO Communication Division, 5 April.


United Nations (1994), Development and International Economic Cooperation', General Assembly A/48/935, New York: UN, 6 May.


Varis, Tapio (1982) Peace and Communication--an approach by flow studies, Journal of Peace Reseach 3.


Varis, Tapio (1992) (ed.) The New Media. Cultural identity and integration in the new media. Publications of the University of Industrial Arts B 28, Helsinki.


Varis, Tapio (1993) Culture, Communication and Dependency. A dialogue with William H. Melody on Harold Innis, The Nordicom Review 1.


Note: This article is published in: "War or Health? A Reader" with a preface by Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations Edited by Ilkka Taipale et. al. Zed Books Ltd., 7 Cynthia Street, London N19JF, UK and Room 400, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, USA First published In 2002 (manuscript finished in 2000)


Tapio Varis                                                          

Immolantie 25 C
FIN--00780 Helsinki

tel (home): +358-9-3859979
mobile: +358-50-5679833
University of Tampere: +358-3-2156111
e-mail: [email protected]
  Currently Professor and Chair of Media Education, earlier Media Culture and Communication Education at the University of Tampere, Finland (Research Centre for Vocational Education, and Hypermedia Laboratory), and Unesco Chair in global e-Learning with applications to multiple domains. Acting President of Global University System (GUS). Former Rector of the University for Peace in Costa Rica, and Professor of Media Studies in the University of Lapland, Finland. Consultant on new learning technologies for the Finnish Ministry of Education, and expert on media and digital literacy to the EC, Council of Europe, Nordic Research Councils, and many Finnish and foreign universities. Member of European Union's PROMETEUS Steering Committee and Adviser to several international organizations. In 1996-97 UNESCO Chair of Communication studies at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain. Faculty member of the European Peace University (Austria), Communication and Media Scholar at the University of Helsinki and the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. In addition to Finnish fluent in English, Spanish, German, and Swedish. Published approximately 200 scientific contributions which are listed at "publications" with additional biographical information (in Finnish).


In 2001 received The Rochester Intercultural Conferences 1995-2001 award as "an outstanding European scholar in intercultural and international communication."




(1.) Rogers, Simon (1999), The First Web War, The Guardian, 26 March.


(2.) Wright, Quincy (1965), A Study of War (2nd edn), Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


(3.) Taylor, Philip M. (1992), War and the Media. Propaganda and persuasion in the Gulf War, Manchester: Manchester University Press.


(4.) See n. 3 above.


(5.) Laqueur, Walter (1996), Postmodern Terrorism, Foreign Affairs, September/October: 24-36.


(6.) Former, Robert S. (1993) International Communication. History, Conflict, and Control of the Global Metropolis, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.


(7.) Racvsky, A. and I.N. Vorobev (1994), Russian Approaches to Peacekeeping Operations' UNIDIR Research Paper No. 28.


(8) See n. 6 above.


(9.) ITU (1984), The Missing Link, Report of the Independent Commission for Worldwide Telecommunications Development, ITU.


(10.) Mertineit, Walter (1979), Strategies, Concepts and Methods of International History Textbook Revision: a German share in education for international understanding, International Journal of Political Education 2: 101-14.


(11.) Alger, Chadwick F. (1990), Telecommunications, Self-Determination, and World Peace, in Sven B. Lundstedt (ed.), Telecommunications, Values and Public Interest, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, pp. 36-51.


(12.) The UNESCO Courier, October 1985.


(13.) Jaipal Rikhi (1982), The Military Mind. Gandhi Marq, No. 38 and 39.


(14.) The Economist, 11 September 1999.


(15.) White, Llewellyn and Robert D. Leigh (1972), Peoples Speaking to Peoples, Report on International Communication from the Commission on Freedom of the Press, New York: Arno Press (reprinted edition).


(16.) Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man, London: Hamish Hamilton.


(17.) See n. 2 above.


(18.) Ibid.


(19.) Galtung, Johan (1986) On the Role of the Media for World-Wide Security and Peace, in Tapio Varis (ed.) Peace and Communication, San Jose, Costa Rica: Universidad para la Paz.


(20.) Oberg, Jan: Presslnfo #62: The Information Warfare about Kosovo, http://www.transnational.org 15.4.199904-27.


Taplo Varis, Professor and Vice Chancellor, University of Tampere, Finland
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