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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

Online Access to the War Zone   

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

TELEVISION BROADCASTS delivered Vietnam, with all its bloody, muddy anguish and fatigue, direct to our living rooms. CNN gave us rooftop views of Baghdad and Pentagon-sanctioned glimpses of the Persian Gulf War that liberated Kuwait. Now, the Internet has emerged as a force in bringing the Kosovo crisis up close and personal.
With a few keystrokes, Internet users can chart the forced exodus of ethnic Albanian refugees from the Kosovo countryside to camps along the Macedonian or Albanian borders, hear their pleas for food and information, or call up pictures of Serb tanks and canine patrols. On sites such as ABCNEWS.com, they can access the history of centuries-old geopolitical tensions or learn about the firepower of the F-15 Eagle and other weapons in NATO's arsenal. They can read a harrowing e-mail account of bombing in Belgrade by Slate's anonymous correspondent, or, on gov.yu, get the Yugoslav government's take on NATO actions. Through the Kosova Crisis Center's alb-net.com, they can search for missing relatives or, on MSNBC.com and countless other sites, post messages debating American involvement. And, if they're moved to donate time or money, they can access www.DisasterRelief.org or one of the charities to which it links.
The Internet "allows [Americans] to have a unique perspective and an up close and personal view," says Michelle Bergman, manager of communications for ABCNEWS.com.
The Net provides a heightened sense of access and immediacy unknown to the American public during any previous military action, including the December dustup with Iraq that ended when the United States launched a few strategically placed cruise missiles.
"How the Internet's playing differently in this story, as opposed to Iraq, is that Yugoslavia is a wired country," explains Kerrin Roberts, CNN Interactive spokesman. "It wasn't that our coverage was different. But the reaction is different. In this conflict, people are able to communicate directly in chat rooms with people in the conflict zone.... Here, it is a global community."
Roberts shares figures that help gauge the Internet's--as well as CNN.com's--growing prominence as an information and communication source. On March 24, the first day of NATO air strikes, "we had 31 million page impressions"--just shy of the 34 million record set September 11, when Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr dumped his report on Monica Lewinsky's involvement with President Clinton. Still, the site's Kosovo followers logged a record-breaking 154.5 million page impressions, or views, during the week ending March 28.
"And then a really interesting [aspect] was how sharp the increase in our traffic from Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries was," Roberts adds. Yugoslavian usage soared by 963 percent at the end of March. The country, which usually ranks 30th among foreign countries in visits to the CNN site, rose to sixth place.
Likewise, interest in Kosovo has increased measurably at other sites. At the State Department, Webmaster Anita Stockman had to add a new electronic mailing list, or listserv, to the previous seven, which range from travel warnings to the daily press briefing. It's the only one dedicated to a single country or province. The Kosovo home page alone had more than 93,300 page views from the onset of bombing through April 7.
At ABCNEWS.com, "our traffic is up about 60 percent from before the action in the Balkans started," Bergman says, proudly noting that the online service has, for the first time, sent its own reporter into hostile territory. (Mike Porath has filed live reports from Macedonia.) Like other major news operations, it offers a primer on the conflict, with maps, history, video and audio clips, chats and message boards. "Since the incident started," Bergman says, "we've had nearly 20,000 postings to that message board."
Thanks to the Internet, Kosovo represents one big interactive action. "It's tailor-made for disaster relief work,"says Doug Rekenthaler, managing editor for DisasterRelief.org. "We can get to a disaster zone very quickly, write up some compelling copy about families victimized by the war, get in some digitized pictures. One advantage we have over television is that the reader, wanting to help, can act: just point and click."
Along with staff-written news reports, DisasterRelief.org--underwritten by IBM Corp. and focused on natural disasters--posts messages and funnels offers of help to major relief organizations such as CARE, UNICEF and its own partner, the American Red Cross. From April 2 through 7, the Red Cross collected $314,584 via the Internet for its international relief fund alone, says spokesman Darren Irby. That doesn't include collections from the 1,300 local chapters, many of which have their own Web pages.
Such interactivity has obvious benefits. But, with most foreign journalists and neutral observers barred from Yugoslavia, it leaves unsuspecting users all the more vulnerable to propaganda.
"It's a very powerful tool, because you reach a lot of people at once," observes Chris Tennant, a social scientist in Laurel, Maryland. A member of the Bosnia Support Committee, she says the decade she spent in Eastern Europe researching "Hope in the Midst of Hardship," her book about post-Communist Hungary, enables her to weigh information critically. But, like the rest of the wired masses, "I don't know if it's information being passed along by a primary source.... You have to be very careful on the Net to determine what's fact."
"Disinformation? I'm sure there's tons," says Jonathan Landay, a Christian Science Monitor staff writer who has been covering the Balkans for nine years. "I don't use the Internet for reporting purposes unless it's an official statement from the Yugoslav government or the Albanian government, statements that you can confirm.... People aren't sending me allegations of atrocities that I then slap into my story.... You've got to be able to filter [information]. The same old rule of thumb applies: two sources."
Isuf Hajrizi seconds the importance of a journalistic filter, not just an information funnel. As managing editor of the Albanian American newspaper Illyria, a 10,000-circulation, twice-weekly tabloid published in the Bronx, he and his small staff turn to the Internet for news tips and e-mail reports from the front lines.
"We used to have a lot of information coming from the e-mail from Kosovo. Unfortunately, that has dwindled dramatically since the bombing began," says Hajrizi, who emigrated 15 years ago from its provincial capital of Pristina. He still gets limited news from Kosovo Liberation Army troops and other sources with cell phones, who relay messages via Web contacts in Europe. (As of mid-April, the KLA's Web site, kosova.com, hadn't been updated since March 24.) He finds leads in chat rooms and news groups. But everything has to be corroborated, everything verified.
Hajrizi no longer bothers to consult official Yugoslav sites: "We really don't trust anything they put out. It's too painful for us to read what we consider pure lies."
For instance, tap into the Media Centar Pristina at www.mediacentar.org, which carries the Yugoslav government's party line, and you'll find articles that challenge Western perspectives. Its lead story April 6 reported that "[t]here are no more people from Kosovo and Metohija who want to enter Macedonia at the Djeneral Jankovic border crossing" between Yugoslavia and Macedonia. In contrast, U.S. media reported that the refugees had been forcibly turned back by armed troops.
Especially since the Serb parliament passed a repressive new media law in October, independent news organizations such as Belgrade-based Radio B92 have had to struggle to operate. Dissident voices are being shushed and sometimes silenced--but the Internet offers the potential for continued existence.
"It's possible to work around censorship," says Max Cacas, senior online producer at the Freedom Forum. Cacas reminds that the Internet was developed by the Defense Department and university researchers for the speedy, reliable exchange of information. "If the network went down in one place, it would automatically reroute itself.... It's why any effort to censor it worldwide is doomed to failure."
The Internet obviously has been indispensable to journalists, many of whom have been kept out of the country by the Yugoslav government.
"For me as a reporter, it's been tremendous,"says the Christian Science Monitor's Landay, citing his reliance on e-mail correspondence and on listservs sponsored by the State Department, the Pentagon, an Albanian news and information network, and Human Rights Watch, among others. The Web also has helped in identifying credible sources. "Suddenly, there [are] Balkan experts all over the world," Landay says with a derisive chuckle. By sifting through Net information, "that helps you whittle your way through the ever-expanding list."
At a small operation such as Illyria, with 10 employees including Hajrizi, "we wouldn't have been able to survive" without the Internet, he says. It has been vital not only for gathering news but consolidating it in an easy-to-publish form. "We didn't have the Internet when we started the paper in 1991," Hajrizi says. "We went through hell trying to get stories over the fax," placing repeated phone calls to get the faxes and then manually typing the information.
But Hajrizi fears the technology he calls a "lifesaver" nonetheless may trigger Illyria's demise. "Now I go on the street, and there are people who are just as informed as I am," he says. "It did not used to be like that.... We're worried that people will say, `Why should I read your paper? I find everything on the Internet.' "