The false face of reality

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AT a time when image building is the buzzword in Pakistan it would be interesting to note how others are faring in this exercise. In this age when capitalism, the brand name and consumerism have emerged as the salient features of a market economy and the so-called free society, image is the key factor that determines the worth of an item and also of a person or an institution.

If a brand has a good image in public perception, it will sell, even though it may not actually have the qualities it is supposed to have. Sometimes the image makes a product/institution/personality a status symbol which one must be seen with.

Similarly, a person who manages to project a certain image of himself will find himself to be acceptable irrespective of his true values. Conversely, if a country or a product or a personality has a negative image, it loses out on the advantages its forte should offer. But doesn’t all this presume that one can fool everyone all the time? This, we know, is not possible even if the government in Islamabad tries to sweep all the dismal aspects of our national life under the carpet. Be it Mukhtaran Mai, the low literacy rate or the prevailing poverty, each of these is bound to surface at one time or another and bring a bad name to Pakistan.

Just look at the United States, the only superpower in the world. It has all the resources to spend on polishing its image. And what does it achieve? A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC gives results which would dishearten Mr Bush and his associates. In the last five years — from 2000 to 2005 — America’s ‘favourability’ rating has shown a drastic slide in many countries of the world. In Tony Blair’s Britain, those viewing American foreign policy favourably have gone down from 83 per cent to 58 per cent in this period.

This fall has been worse in other countries. In Germany it went down from 78 per cent to 38 per cent, while in France it slid down from 62 per cent to 37 per cent. Even in Pakistan, where President Musharraf, the so-called close ally of George Bush, rules the roost, American popularity went down from 23 to 21 per cent.

The most disconcerting aspect of this scenario for the American image makers is that the American people generally realize their unpopularity in foreign countries. According to the Pew Research Centre, only 26 per cent of the Americans surveyed said they believed their country to be well liked abroad. It was this knowledge that had prompted them to ask in the wake of 9/11 the famous question, “Why do they hate us?” But one cannot be certain if they have the correct answer.

Pakistan has something to learn from this ugly American phenomenon. Howsoever much we may try to build up our image, it is not possible to sell it abroad if it is not based on reality. Every society has its good qualities as well as its negative points. If the two are balanced — or nearly so — the image factor becomes very important. By emphasizing the former and downplaying the latter, it is possible to project a positive image of the country. But in this age of communication and technology it is not so easy to conceal the facts, at least not on a long-term basis.

A few decades ago image-building was relatively easier, especially when the media technology was controlled by a few centres of power. They manipulated information and dished out disinformation. Not so today. Even the mighty Americans are having difficulty in controlling information, even in their own country.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported how an American journalist, George Weller, who entered Nagasaki in September 1945, soon after the atomic bomb had been dropped there, found a “wasteland of war” with hospitals full of victims moaning from radiation burns. Weller described graphically the agony of the Japanese exposed to the bomb. But his dispatches were censored by General Douglas MacArthur, who was commanding the US occupation troops in Japan. George Weller died in 2002 and his son discovered these dispatches in his apartment in Rome. Some of these dispatches have now appeared in Japanese in the newspaper Mainichi and in English on the paper’s website.

What MacArthur could do 60 years ago — imposing a total censorship on news — would be impossible to do today as is now more than apparent in George W. Bush’s America. That is why the American government decided to embed journalists with its forces when the US invaded Iraq. Thus it hoped to restrict the information available to the media. Yet negative news reports leaked out of Iraq. This is one of the prices of globalization America, or for that matter any country big or small, has to pay.

The Pew Research Centre observes, “Anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history. It is most acute in the Muslim world, but it spans the globe — from Europe to Asia, from South America to Africa… the rest of the world both fears and resents the unrivalled power that the United States has amassed since the Cold War ended. In the eyes of others, the US is a worrisome colossus: It is too quick to act unilaterally, it doesn’t do a good job of addressing the world’s problems, and it widens the global gulf between rich and poor.

“On matters of international security, the rest of the world has become deeply suspicious of US motives and openly sceptical of its word. People abroad are more likely to believe that the US-led war on terror has been about controlling Mideast oil and dominating the world than they are to take at face value America’s stated objectives of self-defence and global democratization.”

After this, the Pakistan government would do better to renounce its soft image strategy and focus its efforts and resources on improving the living conditions of the people, upgrading the social sector, uplifting the status of women, and, above all, moderating the extremist stance on Islam adopted by a number of religious parties and groups. Without addressing these fundamental issues, the results of the government’s policy of creating a positive image of the country would be futile.

Communication technology — satellite and cable television, radio, internet — is too powerful today to allow any government to tell a lie and get away with it. Mukhtaran Mai was placed on the exit control list because it was feared that she would go abroad and bring a bad name to the country by telling her story. Let any government functionary do a search on Google for Mukhtaran Mai and he will find 29,000 entries there. How much will the government control?