From air raids to air waves - NATO TV goes to war

Other News Materials 2 April 2008 20:10 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - The lights dim, the cameras roll, and a tank rumbles across the screen as a NATO soldier shakes hands with a bearded tribal elder on the plains of Afghanistan.

"Accurate. Timely. Engaging," a tense male voice reads. It could be footage from any TV news station in the world.

But this time, the broadcaster is NATO itself - and the aim of the broadcast is to put right the image of a campaign which, NATO leaders say, risks losing much of its military success because of its inability to gain the media advantage.

"When it comes to video, NATO was in the Stone Age when I took up my post ... We were simply not on the field," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said while launching the alliance's new online TV news service at a summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest.

"The extremist groups we face in our operations (in Afghanistan) are very quick to successfully utilize the new media platforms. We had to ensure that NATO can meet the media challenges of the 21st century," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose government spearheaded the programme, said.

NATO has been leading the UN-approved International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since August 11, 2003, with the stated aim of "assisting the Afghan government in extending its authority across the country and creating a secure environment."

The alliance claims it has scored notable successes, with six times more Afghan children now attending school than in 2001, over 4,000 medical facilities opened since 2004 and NATO forces having trained over 50,000 troops for the Afghan army since 2005.

But those successes have, to a great extent, been overshadowed by reports of botched attacks and civilian deaths in the war-torn south of the country - reports which, while often unsubstantiated, have been spread with great energy by Taliban forces.

"NATO does have an image problem in Afghanistan. It's not necessarily just due to its own media problems, (but) there is a certain problem, because the Taliban have quite an effective media campaign and ways to distribute information," Matthew Clements, Eurasia security expert at Jane's Information Group, said.

NATO's answer, natochannel.tv, offers online video footage, analysis, breaking news and archive material from the field in Afghanistan in an attempt to turn the information tide.

The alliance aims to deploy five mobile video teams to Afghanistan. Their goal will be to produce "a steady stream of a number of news-worthy video, stories, clips, raw footage every week," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said ahead of the launch.

The move has been welcomed by analysts, who identify a lack of public support for the mission as a key challenge for the alliance.

"There definitely is a media problem in (troop) donor countries," where governments have not always explained to their voters why their soldiers are in Afghanistan, Dr Citha Maass of the Berlin-based SWP Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

With infrastructure, including internet services, in Afghanistan unreliable at best, the channel's main target audience is likely to be journalists and voters in NATO members, Clements said.

But analysts question whether the channel will be able to convince viewers that it is balanced enough to be convincing.

"The idea of a TV channel in itself is good, but it depends on what they show and how it will be presented. NATO has really focused on the positive news recently, but the question is whether that reflects the situation on the ground," Maass said.

NATO leaders on Wednesday acknowledged the challenge, with de Hoop Scheffer saying that "there is a responsibility we all have to see to it that (viewers) are not going to see it as propaganda."

But with NATO now openly taking its war to the air-waves, experts say that that responsibility could be hard to fulfil.

"The question is whether it will be credible," Maass said.