Video Images: the Strategic Dimension
D.Sivaram, 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
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
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
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
It has been argued quite plausibly that the CNN effect has been used
selectively by the US to create favourable 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
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 half were 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
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
The US Navy realized and counted on the fact that the Iraqis
"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, in effect, 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