Media: Do you read me, comrade?

In a time of war, the Internet has proved a useful contact point. But how reliable is its information? By Charles Arthur
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The Independent Culture
A common aphorism among Internet geeks is that the network "treats censorship as damage, and just routes around it". That is, if you try to stop the flow of information, all that happens is that you get less information - but nobody else does. If the war in Kosovo is truly the "first Internet war", as is being claimed in some papers, how does it measure up against the geeks' rule of thumb?

The early signs are: very well. Both newspapers and television have found that e-mail, especially, is a godsend when it comes both to keeping in touch with their journalists, and finding out what public opinion is like within the embattled territories both of Kosovo and Belgrade. The Web, similarly, has been a boon - especially to B92, an independent radio station which operated in Yugoslavia. Despite being stopped from broadcasting over the air on 24 March, it kept sending audio and video messages to a website - www.b92.net - which anyone with a Web browser could look at.

Clearly, the Serb authorities thought this was not good: on 2 April they shut down the station altogether, sealing the premises and dismissing the station's director, Sasa Mirkovic, by court order, replacing him with a new one chosen by the government-controlled Council of Youth, which sounds like something named by George Orwell.

The Internet has come to the fore in this war, principally by making it possible for correspondents and even ordinary citizens to keep in touch with their friends in the West. Universities and Serbian institutions have been thrust to the forefront, as Western media organ- isations have targeted them with e-mails in search of authentic-sounding vox pops from as close to ground zero as possible. They have got replies, too. Sky News discovered early on in the campaign that hundreds of people in both Kosovo and Belgrade were e-mailing the news channel with their views and feelings - finally demonstrating the value of satellite transmission.

Yet is all this so very different from previous wars? Isn't the Internet just replacing the old ham radio - as satirised by Tony Han-cock, spending an age muttering at his radio set to a contact across the world before leaning back and declaring: "He says it's raining in Tokyo!"

Well, yes and no. Yes, it is a limited means of communication, dependent on high technology and electricity, and as John Dowdney, foreign editor of The Mirror, told Press Gazette: "It's very difficult to know whether you can take these accounts at face value because there has been so much propaganda, particularly from the Serb side, and it's hard to check information coming in that way."

Duncan Furey, project officer at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) agrees. A number of sources in the region have supplied the IWPR, set up in 1992, with reports during the war; those, he trusts. Others he doesn't.

"A lot of stuff that comes over the Internet is untraceable. We knew the individuals who were providing us with copy before this conflict started. But if you look on our website at www.iwpr.net we have a comment page, and I wouldn't trust 90 per cent of the remarks made there about what damage has and hasn't been done by the war." The geeks have a phrase for that too: on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

However, The Express was quick to latch on to the possibility of e-mail as a source; The Independent, too, has benefited by publishing reports sent via the IWPR. Their first-hand accounts have the grainy texture of a war report, but without the distancing of emotion that is more familiar in war correspondents.

In that sense, the Internet offers far more, and to far more outlets, than ham radio - or indeed any former means of communication - could. Even telephone conversations could not reach millions of people in the way that pictures or voices stored on B92's website can; and a single e-mail account containing 1,000 words takes far less telephone time to send than a picture, and can pass just as freely around the world's media via the Net. Even in Kosovo, far more people can afford computers and get access to phone lines than would ever have spent money on a shortwave radio. That means that, for a while, data could pass in and out of Yugoslavia far more easily than in any conflict in the past.

It couldn't last, though. "Milosevic tends to operate via cronies, and one of these owned the Internet service providers and the mobile phone network. It was only a matter of time before they were turned off," said Furey. "The Internet made a huge difference in the early stages of the conflict here. But I would not be sure of how far the Serbs in Belgrade even know those reports exist."

The reason, he explains, is that the Internet relies on phone access: "So, until everybody has access to a mobile phone that doesn't rely on a government-controlled network, this problem will remain." That day might not be far off: satellite mobile phone networks are already in place. For Western journalists, GSM mobile phones already do the job.

It's very interesting, even if fruitless, to speculate about what the Second World War would have been like if we had then had the current level of Internet saturation. Could it have started? Would it have been contained? When the bombing started, would the inhabitants of Dresden and of Coventry have been drawn closer? Or, more likely, would the two sides' propaganda machines have attempted to use each possible listener as a lever against their government, to try to weaken any resolve?

What the Internet clearly cannot do is clear the fog of war. Even with the best, more ubiquitous mobile technology, each individual only gets a small picture of what is going on; and generals are usually in the dark about their opponents' real movements. For the person on the ground, confusion will still be the rule. "The Net has made a marginal improvement to war reporting," said Furey. "But you still need to know who's sending it, and how trustworthy they are."

Or as the geeks would put it - in another favourite aphorism - garbage in, garbage out.

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