Lose Control of the Media - Lose the War

WHERE once the symbolic target of the mob was the Bastille or the Winter Palace, in Moscow on Sunday, Oct. 3, it was the television headquarters called Ostenkino.

As anti-Yeltsin rebels massed around the TV complex, Ilya Konstantinov, head of the National Salvation Front, announced that television is ``the key to success.'' In the raging battle, the four television programs went off the air, one by one, partly replaced from auxiliary studios in secret locations. Much of the killing took place at Ostenkino - 62 dead and some 400 wounded. When the battle of Ostenkino was lost, the rebellion was lost.

More and more, in the revolutions of our time, television and radio are becoming not only observers of conflict but the arena of conflict.

In Somalia, the turning point between uneasy peace and open hostilities came on June 5 when Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed's forces ambushed Pakistani peacekeepers, killing 24 of them. The Pakistanis were on their way to silence General Aideed's radio station, which had been previously bombed by American helicopters. An Italian official said, ``We had a strong feeling that attacking the radio station was a mistake.''

In Haiti on Oct. 11, the day American troops were prevented from landing, armed thugs in civilian dress called ``attaches'' seized the radio center. Only a week before, the station had been taken back from the military junta by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's transitional government under diplomatic escort.

In Czechoslovakia, in November 1989, the turning point in the anticommunist uprising came when television employees seized control of the facilities and started broadcasting across the country scenes of bloody suppression of demonstrations. One day the demonstrators carried a banner reading, ``Television Lies!'' On the next day, they carried a banner saying, ``Long Live TV!''

In Romania, the downfall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu started when television failed to switch off in time to keep the nation from seeing him on his palace balcony, stunned by a chorus of boos and catcalls. The television studio then became the actual headquarters of the revolutionary government as Mr. Ceausescu's security battalions fought for control of the building against the regular army and the people. The climactic moment came when rebel leaders announced, from Studio Four, that the dictator had fled, and Poet Murica Dinesco appeared on camera shouting, ``We've won! We've won!''

It would be nice to think that once the bad guys lose control of the airwaves, radio and television become instruments of freedom. But not necessarily. Now that President Boris Yeltsin has solidified his control of television, he has banned some of the programs that didn't toe his line. He has suppressed some newspapers; access to TV is denied to opposition parties. In the Czech Republic, television is relatively balanced. But in Romania, it is back under government control. Almost forgotten are the heady days of 1989 when an anchorman in Bucharest apologized to the audience for having lied for years.

From outside, radio and television can leap across borders and have potent effects. Communist rule in East Germany was undermined by the ability of the East Germans to see West German television. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said the Tiananmen massacres in Beijing happened because Chinese students saw antiregime demonstrations in the Philippines and South Korea on Chinese television and thought they could do the same thing. But nothing has become so central to conflict as control of radio and TV inside one's country. So, it is no surprise to find that, more often than not, the battle to dominate becomes a battle for the broadcast studios. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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