Is there a propaganda war on?

By Zubeida Mustafa

AS the American war  in Afghanistan moves  from one phase to the  next, a significant parallel  development is taking  place on the media front.  This is the propaganda  war, which has been  unleashed. For the western  television and radio  channels as well as the  press,  the crisis which has  emerged since September  11 has come as the  opportunity of the century  to make news.

Focusing on the frontline,  that is Pakistan’s  border with Afghanistan,  they have served America’s  strategic goals well  — whether calculatedly  or inadvertently, history  alone will tell.

Initially the two major international  news networks,  the CNN and the BBC,  helped soften the ground  for the impending attacks  by creating a climate of  fear and uncertainty. For  nearly four weeks, the  3,000 or so journalists from  the major electronic and  print media who poured  into Islamabad, Peshawar,  Quetta and Karachi, very  successfully reported nonevents  in such a way as to  make them appear to be  events of major significance  signalling the start  of a big war.

It is now being confirmed  that the foreign  journalists on whom their  companies have spent millions  had to do something  to justify their presence in  this ‘war zone’. London’s  Economist writes, “so  scarce has been the news  that some have even  reported upon what they  say have been the first  skirmishes, though more in  the hope of accidentally  being right than because  of any actual information”.

It might not have been  calculated, but the media  certainly conveyed the  impression that war was a  few days away. It actually  took the Americans nearly  four weeks to deploy their forces  and launch the first strikes  against Afghanistan. But the TV  networks started their build-up  much earlier.

This served a useful purpose  for the American war machine.  It facilitated the putting together  of the so-called coalition as  states fell dutifully in line with  it.

Isn’t this the basic aim of war  propaganda? When employed  skillfully it seeks to influence  the actions of individuals and  groups. The propagandist has a  message to put across and he  may even try to do that by  resorting to distortion of facts. In  the Second World War, the Axis  powers as well as the Allies had  extensively employed propaganda  as a psychological weapon to  destroy the morale of the people  — civilians and soldiers alike.  Aircraft were used to drop  leaflets which were very scientifically  prepared.

A leaflet dropped by the  Germans on the Italian front  even carried an inscription in  Urdu for the benefit of the  Indian soldiers in the Allied  armies.

In the present situation, the  Americans have not been  required to go to this extreme,  because the satellite and cable  television has performed this  function for Washington remarkably  well.

 

It might have been quite inadvertent,  but the fact is that it has  served the American interest by  demoralizing the people and  governments in the vicinity of  Afghanistan.

 

The repercussions of this  media exercise are now coming  to the fore. The most dramatic  development has been the use of  Al-Jazeera television by Osama  bin Laden, the main target of  the American offensive, and his  protagonists, the Taliban, to  launch their own psychological  warfare. This hitherto obscure  satellite channel launched in  Doha in 1996 was making ripples  in the region by its independent  political reporting in Arabic —  something quite new in the  Middle East.

It has now shot into international  fame when it telecast messages  from Osama warning the  US and Britain of further  attacks.

Since Al-Jazeera is the only  channel with a live link with  Kabul in these momentous  times, the CNN and the BBC link  up with it when there is something  to report from inside  Afghanistan.

The impact has been shattering,  so much so that the  American government has even  advised the CNN not to broadcast  Osama bin Laden’s messages  unedited.  This psychological sparring  might not be propaganda in the  conventional sense of the term.  As the Economist was quick to  point out, propaganda disseminates  untruths and America’s  task is to disseminate the truth  about its motives and intentions.  But in today’s world of information  overload, one doesn’t have  to resort to blatant lies to influence  the minds and thoughts of  people. The channels ‘manage’  news in subtle ways.

First, they focus heavily on  the events which they want to  project as the major developments  of the day. For instance,  doesn’t a JUI protest rally which  is telecast repeatedly throughout  the day make a strong  impact?

The images of awesome  expressions and defiant gestures  of bearded men burning effigies  and chanting angry slogans convey  the impression to those not  familiar with our society that the  whole country is up in arms in  support of Osama bin Laden and  the Taliban.

The worried messages from  friends in the West and the surprise  expressed by visitors here  confirm that television is creating  the impression worldwide  that Pakistan is a Talibanland.  Shopkeepers and others have  confirmed that some channels  are known to have sensationalized  a situation by actually getting  people to pose for them for  shots which create a dramatic  effect.

Secondly, to lend credibility to  their news reports the media  have either sent their staff here  in large numbers — some have  virtually set up camp offices in  Peshawar/Islamabad. Excepting  the foreign correspondents  posted in Pakistan, the others  who have flooded our cities  have little knowledge of this  country.

 

They depend on local sources  of information not all of which  are reliable and a lot of money is  said to be changing hands.  As a result, all the news as it  appears in print or on television  screens is not intelligent journalism.

Is this calculated policy (propaganda) or is it to appease the  insatiable appetite of round-the-clock  news channel for sensationalism?  The most negative  repercussion of the phenomenon  of the news channel with the known  compulsion to fill in viewing  hours is that it has an addictive  effect on its viewers who are  gradually robbed of their analyzing  faculty.

In one way the advent of Al- Jazeera has had a very pronounced  and positive impact on  the reporting of the western  media. They are now being  forced to be more objective and  non-partisan. They have learnt  that propaganda is a double edged  sword. It can do harm to  the West too when it travels  home.

The Vietnam war is an  example. With no CNN  around at that time, it  had arguably taken some  time for the media to  have an impact on  the American public  opinion.

 

How has satellite and  cable television affected  the course of events  since September 11? It is  creating the impression  in the West that the  entire Islamic world is  getting set for jihad  against the “Christian  West”. This can be  expected to inflame feelings  in the western countries  specially when people  there generally have  limited knowledge about  Islam and the Third  World.

 

The media have had a  destabilizing effect  around the globe. How  else can one explain the  communal violence  which erupted last week  in northern Nigeria — so  far removed from the  scene of action in  Afghanistan. They have  whipped up fear and  intolerance in the West  which will prove destabilizing  for its economy  . ‘ and society” The anthrax  episode gives the impression  that the public is in panic.

 

Given the fact that western  societies have enjoyed  a higher degree of development  and freedom, they are more  vulnerable to fear and uncertainty.  Before the media circus gets  out of hand, it is time for the  major actor in this game, the  Bush administration, to stop and  thinkThe media thrive in a climate  of crisis, melodrama,  uncertainty and insecurity.  These are the conditions being  created by the United States’  ill-considered policy vis-a-vis  Afghanistan today. Is the  war achieving any strategic/  political goals for  Washington?

 

In Robert Frisk’s (The  Independent, London) words, we  have “the most powerful military  force on earth” bombing  “the world’s poorest, most  ravaged Muslim nation” with  missiles costing billions of  dollars. The bombardment came  as a boon for prime time television.  But will it really help in the  capture of Osama bin Laden?  The Arab world’s most respected  political commentator,  Mohammed Haikal, former editor  of al Ahram, has the answer:  “As a symbol of American imperialism,  the attack on  Afghanistan is potent. But there  are likely to be far-reaching  repercussions. Inevitably, when  there is a vacuum, Islam — a  ready-made cultural unifier arid  the answer to the region’s multiple  identity crises — is there to  fill it.”  Not exactly what President  Bush had in mind when he  launched on his Afghan adventure.

Source: Dawn 21-10- 2001