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