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Analysis: The Fog Of Information War

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev As Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan prepare for parliamentary elections on 27 February, information wars are heating up in both countries. The basic ammunition is the word, but battles go far beyond dueling declarations to include struggles for control over the means of generating and disseminating information. Tough tactics are the order of the day, with opposition newspapers facing legal travails, duplicate organizations springing up to sow confusion, and dubious leaks poisoning the atmosphere. But the real victim is the political process itself, which can easily lose its way in the fog of information war.

The first front in the information wars involves ideas, and it is often the meanings of words that are at issue. A hard-fought polemic over the meaning of the word "revolution" is under way in Kyrgyzstan, which many outside observers have suggested could be the next candidate for political change in the emerging tradition of Ukraine's Orange Revolution or Georgia's Rose Revolution. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has made it his personal quest to explain that these were not true popular movements, but rather foreign-inspired coups, and that a repetition in Kyrgyzstan is a real and pressing danger. As the president put it at a cabinet meeting in Bishkek on 11 January, "The most dangerous thing is that our home-grown provocateurs now have qualified trainers who have learned how to coax from provocations the flame of revolutions of various colors," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In an address to young people on 5 February, he depicted revolution as foreign contagion attacking the traditions of the Kyrgyz people. "I believe that the Kyrgyz people, with their ancient democratic culture, will demonstrate their immunity to the attempts by extremist forces advancing mercenary goals to infect the country with dangerous revolutionary viruses," he said, according to Kabar.

The opposition, careful to avoid the appearance of openly fomenting revolution yet intent on stressing that conditions are right for political change, has offered its own definition. When the BBC asked Roza Otunbaeva, the leader of the Ata-Jurt opposition movement, on 2 February whether Kyrgyzstan is "ripe for its own 'velvet,' 'rose,' or 'orange' revolution," she replied: "I believe that it is absolutely ready. But I would like to make a significant correction. We're not talking about a revolution, but about the peaceful, calm, and constitutional transfer of power in our country. Revolutions, which ordinary people associate with blood, theft, and looting, are not what took place in Tbilisi and Kyiv. And they won't happen here [in Kyrgyzstan]."

Another front in the information war involves the means of disseminating information. Television is far and away the most important medium, and in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the ruling elites have a firm grip on the airwaves. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, three television stations have significant broadcast range. The largest of them is state-controlled KTR. Another, KOORT, is controlled by Adil Toigonbaev, President Askar Akaev's son-in-law, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 10 September 2004. The third is Piramida-TV. In August 2004, only a few months before February 2005 parliamentary elections, a group called Areopag acquired a stake in the network. As Eurasianet reported on 28 August 2004, Areopag has a number of links to President Akaev's family and administration. In Tajikistan, state-run television predominates.

With television less contested, the dissemination front in the information war often shifts to print journalism. In Tajikistan, the independent weeklies "Ruzi Nav" and "Nerui Sukhan" have experienced a host of difficulties since the tax police shuttered their printing house in August 2004. Further run-ins with the tax police ensued, despite an international outcry. At one point, the staff of "Ruzi Nav" even printed up an issue of the newspaper in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, although Tajik tax police impounded it when it arrived in Dushanbe in November. Most recently, tax police confiscated an issue of "Ruzi Nav" in late January. In Kyrgyzstan, the newspaper "MSN" now faces a defamation lawsuit from a rival newspaper involving damages in excess of $100,000. The lawsuit, and possible criminal charges against the newspaper in connection with an earlier regulatory dispute, led the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan to appeal to President Akaev on 1 February, charging that the authorities "want to close 'MSN'...on the threshold of parliamentary and presidential elections," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 1 February.

Yet another front in the information war involves the actual generators of information -- political parties and organizations. The aims here range from confusion to usurpation, and an important tactic is the splitting of existing organizations or the creation of duplicate structures. In Tajikistan, the Socialist Party has split into two factions. When the faction led by Abduhalim Ghafforov, an Education Ministry official, held a party conference in June 2004, the faction led by Mirhuseyn Nazriev protested that the split was a state-sponsored attempt to divide and demolish the opposition party, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 21 July 2004. The Central Election Commission's eventual decision to recognize the Ghafforov-led faction and approve its party slate for inclusion in parliamentary elections would appear to lend credence to Nazriev's claim.

The Kyrgyz student organization Kel-Kel provides a textbook example of cloning. Kel-Kel arose in mid-January amid protests over a district election commission's refusal to register opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva's candidacy for parliamentary elections. Kel-Kel did not associate itself with any particular party, but billed itself as an organization to defend electoral and civil rights. Almost immediately, however, another organization appeared calling itself Kel-Kel, using the same color schemes and logos, and even involving leaders with the same last names, IWPR reported on 28 January. As IWPR noted, the second Kel-Kel is pro-government; it has echoed President Akaev's antirevolutionary rhetoric in its condemnation of "velvet revolutions" and "hysterical demonstrations."

The final front in the information wars is disinformation, or compromising materials, usually of unclear provenance and purpose. Two outstanding examples have appeared in Kyrgyzstan in recent months. The first is an alleged action plan penned in September 2004 by Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration; it lays out clandestine measures for monitoring the political situation in Kyrgyzstan in the run-up to parliamentary elections, including surveillance of NGOs that maintain contacts with the opposition. The second is an alleged transcript of a secret meeting in late 2004, with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev crudely admonishing officials to "liquidate" nettlesome opposition politicians. The documents first surfaced in the Internet, and both officials have vigorously denied their authenticity.

Purported "smoking guns," which are almost always unverifiable, usually give rise to myriad interpretations. The individuals impugned cry foul and allege defamation. Their opponents, caught between an unwillingness to embrace possibly tainted materials and a suspicion that the compromising material may contain a grain of truth, revel in complexities. In an article in "MSN" on 15 January, Rina Prizhivoit, a staunch critic of President Akaev and his government, opined that Akaev's political advisers may have cooked up the "Tanaev transcript" "to show the firmness and decisiveness of the president, who defends democracy and the law, against the backdrop of the outrageous excesses that Nikolai Tanaev has blessed his underlings to carry out. And they did it expressly so that all of Kyrgyzstan's independent media would publish it." But Prizhivoit allows that the transcript might also represent an attempt to portray Tanaev "as an idiot and a criminal, so that there would be someone to blame for 'unacceptable' methods of combating the opposition."

In the end, compromising materials and disinformation sully the political process itself more than any concrete individuals. For while they leave analysts guessing at sources and motives, they exert a disheartening effect on the real participants in the political process -- voters, who are left to blunder about in a haze of insinuation. But if the fog is thickest on the disinformation front, it is also considerable on the front of information generation as well. The fight for control over information dissemination, where most of the battles have gone to ruling elites, forms a further impediment to the political process. Taken together, the shifting fronts of the information war greatly reduce the possibility of a fair fight on the front that is supposed to matter most -- the one that involves ideas.

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