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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > TV images: LTTE's next strategic dimension?

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

TV images: LTTE's next strategic dimension?

Daily Mirror - 30 March 2005

It is now generally accepted that the conduct of modern warfare is not only about troops, weapons, generals and battlefields - it is also about perceptions. The manner in which a war is perceived by states and their populations today can have a strategic impact on its conduct. Real time images of a battlefield, flashed round the world can shape strategic decisions about the war and the mindset of one's strategic allies.

For many years, the role of media as an indispensable component of modern war making has been conceptualized and discussed in military journals and symposia as the "CNN effect". Analyses in LTTE journals and the tenor and content of discussions that Pirapaharan has had with some foreign media consultants in recent years clearly indicate that the Tigers have been making an extensive study of the "CNN effect".

The result is the National Television of Thamil Eelam (NTT). It is not my intention here to relate in spine tingling detail the succulent secrets of how the Tigers set up the satellite channel in the Vanni. All I want to do here is to describe briefly the kind of thinking that appears to have gone into the making of the NTT.

The LTTE's satellite TV has introduced a new strategic dimension to Sri Lanka's ethnic divide. The Tigers never had the ability in the past to give their side of the story in real time. Press releases from London and news broadcasts painstakingly monitored and translated from the Voice of Tigers in Vavuniya were always late or missed the issue at hand.

Now the LTTE has the ability to transmit moving images, which are the most effective way to get their message across. The NTT would be the new strategic dimension in another Eelam War.

Therefore an overview of " CNN effect" as a "strategic enabler in modern military discourse" would set the stage for understanding what the LTTE has got in store for our generals who got used to thinking of war only in terms of more weapons, more troops and more foreign assistance.

The following excerpt from an article in the US War College Journal Parameters about the CNN Effect gives an idea of the issues it has raised among military thinkers.

"The process by which war-fighters assemble information, analyze it, make decisions, and direct their units has challenged commanders since the beginning of warfare. Starting with the Vietnam War,they faced a new challenge-commanding their units before a television camera. Today, commanders at all levels can count on operating "24/7" (twenty four hours a day and seven days a week) on a global stage before a live camera that never blinks. This changed environment has a profound effect on how strategic leaders make their decisions and how war-fighters direct their commands".

"The impact of this kind of media coverage has been dubbed �the CNN effect,� referring to the widely available round-the-clock broadcasts of the Cable News Network. The term was born in controversy. In 1992 President Bush's decision to place troops in Somalia after viewing media coverage of starving refugees was sharply questioned. Were American interests really at stake? Was CNN deciding where the military goes next?

"Less than a year later, President Clinton's decision to withdraw US troops after scenes were televised of a dead American serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu seemed to confirm the power of CNN. Today, with the proliferation of 24/7 news networks, the impact of CNN alone may have diminished,but the collective presence of round-the-clock news coverage has continued to grow. In this article, the term �the CNN effect� represents the collective impact of all real-time news coverage-indeed, that is what the term has come to mean generally. The advent of real-time news coverage has led to immediate public awareness and scrutiny of strategic decisions and military operations as they unfold. Is this a net gain or loss for strategic leaders and war-fighters?" (The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk? -by Margret H. Belknap, Parameters, Autumn 2002)

Former US Defence Secretary James Schlesinger has argued that in the post-Cold War era the United States has come to make foreign policy in response to"impulse and image." "In this age image means television, and policies seem increasingly subject, especially in democracies, to the images flickering across the television screen", he said.

A commonly-cited example is the Clinton administration's response to the mortar attack on a Sarajevo market in February 1994 that killed sixty-eight people.

However, there are people who say that the CNN effect is no longer an issue. James Hoge, Jr., editor of Foreign Affairs, for example, argues that while a CNN effect of some sort may have once existed immediately following the end of the Cold War, it no longer does,or at least not to the same extent.

One of the potential effects of global, real-time media is the shortening of response time for decision making. Decisions are made in haste, sometimes dangerously so. Policymakers "decry the absence of quiet time to deliberate choices, reach private agreements, and mold the public's understanding."

"Instantaneous reporting of events," remarks State Department Spokesperson Nicholas Burns, "often demands instant analysis by governments . . . In our day, as events unfold half a world away, it is not unusual for CNN State Department correspondent Steve Hurst to ask me for a reaction before we've had a chance to receive a more detailed report from our embassy and consider carefully our options."

It has been argued quite plausibly that the CNN effect has been used selectively by the US to create favourble diplomatic conditions for intervening in countries in which it has strategic interests.

For example in 1993, when approximately 50,000 people were killed in political fighting between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi, American broadcast television networks ignored the story. When regional leaders met in Dar es Salam in April 1994 in an attempt to reach a regional peace accord, only CNN mentioned the meeting. Afghanistan and the Sudan have more people at risk than Bosnia, but together they received only 12 percent of the total media coverage devoted to Bosnia alone.

Tajikistan, with one million people at risk, has a little over one percent of the media coverage devoted to Bosnia alone. Put another way, of all news stories between January 1995 and May 1996 concerning the thirteen worst humanitarian crises in the world-affecting nearly 30 million people, nearly halfwere devoted to the plight of the 3.7 million people of Bosnia.

Basically the CNN effect created the politically favourable international climate for the US to set up its largest military base in Eastern Europe. But ofcourse very few have seen images of vast Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo that sits a stride several vital pipeline routes.

The CNN effect is also useful in achieving strategic and tactical deterrence. "Global media are often important and valuable assets to the US military, particularly when time is short and conditions are critical. Admiral Kendell Pease, Chief of Information for the United States Navy, has called global media in such circumstances a "force multiplier." After showing a CNN video clip of carrier-based U.S. fighter-bombers taking off on a practice bombing run against an implied Iraqi target during Desert Shield, Pease explained that the Navy had arranged for a CNN crew to be aboard the carrier to film the "hardware in use" and to "send a message to Saddam Hussein."

The US expected that the images would deter the Iraqis, dent their morale. The US Navy realized and counted on the fact that the Iraqis monitored CNN.

"The same thing is going on now," said Admiral Pease in Taiwan. Prior to Taiwan's March 1996 elections,which China opposed and threatened to stop with military force if necessary, the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carrier groups to the seas off Taiwan. Television crews accompanying the US Navy ships sent pictures of the American defenders to the Chinese and the rest of the world.

By using media as a "force multiplier" in conjunction with deterrent force, U.S. policy makers are, ineffect, attempting to create a "CNN effect" in the policymaking of a potential or actual adversary."Global, real-time media should not be regarded solely as an impediment or obstacle to policy makers. It may just as well be an asset", says a perceptive study of the subject (Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention by Steven Livingston - Harvard University Public Policy Papers 1997)

I hope this provides a brief theoretical background for understanding the future of the 'NTT Effect' in Sri Lanka's evolving strategic equation.


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