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