A new actor in world politics

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN the aftermath of the   horrendous bombing of   the World Trade Centre   in New York, the most significant   development to   have taken place is the   war psychosis, which is   calculatedly being whipped   up. This could spin   out of control, bringing   devastating consequences   not just for the region   around Afghanistan, but   also for the whole world.

The media, both electronic   and print, national and foreign,   have played a key role in creating   this climate of hatred and   fear. They got the cue from the   Bush administration’s strong   response to the events of Black   Tuesday. One could have hardly   expected the American president   to have reacted differently   in the initial moments of the   tragedy, given the magnitude of   the devastation and the   grave implications of the   breach   of American intelligence.

What comes as a matter   of   deep concern is the   emergence of the media as   a new actor in international politics. From a tool to disseminate information (at times also a propaganda weapon), the electronic media are virtually using their newly-acquired power to propel inter-state relations in the 21st century. This is frightening, given their enormous reach and ubiquitous presence in the age of cable and satellite television.

This trend first came to the fore during the Gulf War in 1991 which coincided    with the birth of the   CNN. The CNN brought   the war to the sitting   rooms of not just the   Americans but of viewers   all over the world. This   was the period when economic   and communications barriers   were coming down. Hence the   mushrooming of television channels   controlled by media barons   of different nationalities. The   BBC which had previously   enjoyed immense respectability,   credibility and influence by   virtue of its independent, and   objective reporting, responded   to the competition in due course.   Others followed suit — from   Star TV, Zee TV to the multitudinous   channels whose names   are hardly known.

How has this trend affected   world politics? The most immediate   result has been the transformation   of the news media   from a political instrument to an   international actor. Previously   the media were used by policymakers   to promote their own   agenda. They did it in a sophisticated   manner by using what   philosopher J.L. Austin called,   “performative language”. Thus   the issuing of a statement came   to acquire the force of action.   They could also channel public   opinion in specific directions by   being selective in the issues they   chose to focus on.

Now the media monster has   grown and spun out of control.   There are interest groups which   control the media and use them   for their own agendas.   According to Edward Herman   and Noam Chomsky in   Manufacturing consent, the mass   media of the United States are   effective and powerful ideological   institutions which operate by   reliance on market forces, internalized   assumptions and self censor ship,   and without significant   overt coercion.

In a situation of crisis, as at   present, they come to drive the   policies of the government,   rather than reflecting and projecting   them. The television,   specially, takes over control at   one stage and creates the   momentum which leaves the   government little room for   manoeuvre. Official statements   — “performative” ones — issued   for the galleries trap the policymakers   in a crisis of their own   making. This provides more fodtoder for the media enabling them   to sustain the high pitch which   has come to characterize television’s   performance.

Since Black Tuesday when the   World Trade Centre and the   Pentagon were attacked by suicide   bombers and President   George Bush issued his kneejerk   ultimatum to Islamabad, we   have been trapped in a mood of   fear, anger, helplessness and   despair. It started with   Washington’s firm response   which received as much coverage   as the heinous act of terrorism   itself. This was further reinforced   by the media by telecasts   of discussions and interviews   with ‘intellectuals’ who share   the same views as the establishment.   It is significant that the   views of right-thinking people   found no projection in the   American media.

Next came the Pakistan government’s   positive response to   the American demand for cooperation   in its fight against terrorism,   which could be expected   to   alienate a section of opinion   in the country. It was duly   played up. When the religious   parties reacted angrily, they   were given more than their   share of television coverage, as   though they represented the   majority which they don’t. They   were waiting for such an occasion   to mobilize public support   and they got it. 

 Looking at the portrayal of   these events in the media (the   Internet is the latest entrant in   this field), one would get the   impression that the two sides are   getting set for a crusade   between Christianity and Islam.   But in between the champions of   democracy on one side, and of   jihad on the other, is a strong   and significant voice of moderation   and sanity in Pakistan as   well as in the West. It has deliberately   been drowned in the   cacophony of madness generated   by those on the fringes.

A few specific examples   should suffice. The impression   is being created that carpet   bombing of Afghanistan is imminent.   This has evoked a massive   response from the Islamic parties   which have seized on this   heaven-sent opportunity to further   their own political goals.   Posing as the friends and sympathizers   of the Afghan people,   they are trying to mobilize public   support. Their reaction is   exactly what the vested interests   in the West have been looking   for to justify a confrontation.   The media help them. Thus   the vicious circle goes on endlessly.

Now is the time to pause and   think calmly. Should we allow   ourselves to be trapped into a   situation of media’s making? In   the heat and passions that have   been roused the biggest casualty   has been rationality and logical   thinking. Our own media, both   electronic and print, have also   contributed to this atmosphere   by their hype.

First of all, it is not difficult to explain the underlying motive of   western interests creating a climate   of fear in this country. The   Bush administration wants to   ensure the fullest cooperation   from Islamabad which it can do   by striking terror in the hearts of   Pakistanis. This stance would   also help assuage the pain anil   insecurity of the American people,   which one can understand.   Additionally, this war psychosis   suits the Pakistan government   as well because it can take the   plea that it had no choice but  side with Washington, as the former   army chief Aslam Beg was   given to understand by the president.

But General Pervez Musharraf   himself conceded in his address   to the nation on Wednesday that   the Americans were still in the   process of planning their military   operation. This seems to be   a logical assessment. Jane’s, the   security intelligence group   based in London, has very categorically   ruled out a knee-jerk   American military response,   though it expects some action   sooner or later. Unlike the conceived   and botched missile   strike undertaken by Clinton   against Afghanistan in 1998. Jane’s believes this will be a better planned operation. It hardly needs to be pointed out that a repeat of the 1998 offensive could leave Osama bin Laden unharmed, the American war machine humiliated and George Bush’s political standing seriously damaged.

Jane’s assessment is that the Americans would go in for neater operation this time involving the expertise of their intelligence agencies to track down their target. Some commanders might be used to hold onto a slice of Afghan territory to strike at Osama. This is not implausible. It would explain why the US has asked the Pakistan government to share its intelligence information and provide logstics support

What is intriguing again is   the media publicity being given   to what would essentially be a   strategic operation. The   Americans have adopted a   strategy of targeting individuals   before and Pakistan has   extended its cooperation. This   was accomplished quietly.   Ramzi Ahmad Yusuf was   arrested in Islamabad in   February 1995 and extradited   to the US for his involvement   in the World Trade Centre   bombing of 1993. Aimal Kansi   was captured on Pakistani soil   in June 1997 and taken to the   US for his involvement in the   killings of CIA personnel in   Virginia in 1992. Why this   media brouhaha this time?

No one in his right mind   would advocate a clamp-down   on the media. The freedom of   the media to provide information   is sacrosanct. But there are   two aspects of this freedom   which need to be addressed in   all earnest. One is the need for a   new information order which   was first mooted in the late seventies   soon after Houari   Boumediene had championed   the cause of a new international   economic order. The globalization   of the media has made it all   the more important that a measure   of impartiality, objectivity,   independence, and fairness be   introduced in the dissemination   of news.

Third World countries which   are at the receiving end of   skewed media blasts have failed   miserably in this respect Many   of them have destroyed the credibility   of their own media by   exercising stringent controls   over them. Others lack the   expertise and professionalism to   compete with the well-established   media of the West.

To counter the force of the   media it is important, as   Herman and Chomsky suggest   in Manufacturing consent, to   democratize our social life and   bring about meaningful social   change through the “organization   and self-education of groups   in the community and the workplace,   and their networking and   activism”.

Source: Dawn, 25 Sept 2001