The flip side of information

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT was some time in the early nineties when the high commissioner for New Zealand in Islamabad said, while launching a book his mission had funded, that the coming decade would be the age of information.

Those were days when information technology had barely picked up in this country, cell phones were a rarity and a status symbol of the elite, only the CNN had started its round the clock worldwide channel and not many knew about the wonders of the Internet. But the high commissioner’s words were prophetic.

Today, it takes no time at all for news and information to travel from one end of the globe to the other. E-mails, satellite television, modern phone services equipped with cameras and the worldwide web have made the world a global village. Communication has enabled people to cross boundaries with ease and has broken down cultural and language barriers. This has brought people closer and promoted greater interaction between them than has ever happened before in human history.

Technology has also changed the shape of the media. It is now more interactive. Viewers can ring in to ask questions on talk shows and the Internet allows people to send in their feedback instantaneously, without much of a hassle. Anyone can, making a small payment, set up a website which can be accessed by anyone. These are positive developments because they have stimulated human interest in information.

But this also has its flip side. Communication technology has led to an overload of information — an information explosion as one may say. The worst part is that embedded in the information is a massive load of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. With so much information floating around, most people now have no time to absorb it, think about it, evaluate it, sift out the grain from the chaff and then accept only what seems plausibe. Instead, the media has emerged as a dangerous tool.

The media is now doing more than just providing the news. It is virtually playing the role of an actor in international and domestic affairs. Until the information age was ushered in with a bang, those who could use the media — at least in Pakistan — were a selected few. Of course, the government was the key user, and unfortunately, by gagging the press and controlling radio and television it exploited the media to project its own point of view, suppress the oppositions voice and manipulate public opinion. Now, the reverse is possible. The government has lost its monopoly over the media, thanks to the technology which has made it difficult to control the various channels through which information comes in. Moreover, a new trend has set in internationally. Live and continuous television coverage has empowered the media. It is influencing the decision-makers quite profoundly and decisively.

Stephen Hess and Marvin Kalb write in their book The Media and the War on Terrorism about the “CNN effect” (a term now applied for all television channels), “In 1992, President George H.W. Bush saw television images of starving children in Somalia and he felt obliged to send US troops there to distribute food.” They add, “Less than a year, later President Bill Clinton saw television images of Somali fighters dragging the desecrated body of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu and he felt obliged to withdraw the troops.”

With more serious implications has been the media’s propensity to project an image which may actually misrepresent the truth. The images could be positive or negative, but not accurate. John Simpson, a BBC correspondent, has disclosed in his book News from No Man’s Land that the anti-American demonstrations in Peshawar, after 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, were actually not as violent and angry as the television pictures made them out to be. He feels that this distortion has reinforced the “wrong-headed and shallow paranoia” of the West vis-a-vis Islam.

Small wonder then, that President Musharraf’s government has become overly mindful about projecting the “softer image” of Pakistan. The general belief seems to be that if you paint a rosy picture of the country and push all the unpleasant aspects of life under the carpet, all will be well. That would explain why advertisements were placed by the federal ministry of information and broadcasting in some English language newspapers last week stating that it was looking for “seasoned professionals” in evolving a “soft image of Pakistan”.

A beginning has already been made. Various government departments, especially those which do not have good reputation, such as NAB, have already appointed such consultants. The government also imported a host of journalists from abroad for Expo 2005, assigned officers from the ministry of information in Islamabad to act as escorts to their media guests in Karachi, fed them with information of the “soft image” of Pakistan and sent them home. Lo and behold, the foreign media (albeit not the top newspapers which had their credibility to guard) was flooded with stories giving only one side of the picture in Pakistan. Good they didn’t see the traffic jams the Expo caused. When it was pointed out to one television representative looking for the soft image that there is a bleak side too, she said that what she was doing is not journalism.

This is an age when the role of the media is changing. What is disturbing is that the lines between information, misinformation and disinformation are becoming blurred. As a result, many unscrupulous people are using the media, especially the Internet, to spread a host of lies. Since there is no professional check — an editor for websites, a code of ethics for television and radio — just about anyone can acquire a medium and put anything up there. All the information so released becomes an article of faith because it has been well presented and is believed by the gullible reader/viewer/listener.

Here, one example would suffice. A lot of noise is being made through the web about “a questionnaire the Aga Khan University Examination Board has distributed among students”. Newspaper editors have been receiving e-mails quoting some of the questions designed to alarm parents and malign the Aga Khan University. The fact, as this writer has investigated, is something different.

First of all, the e-mails are sent from hotmail addresses and when one writes to them, one does not receive a reply — a sure indication that it is a hoax.

Secondly, on obtaining the original questionnaire, it was found that it was a “Youth Health Survey” developed by the Global Fund, the government of Pakistan (health ministry) and the Aga Khan Foundation (something quite different from the AKU).

Thirdly, the questionnaire does not contain even one of the obscene questions listed in the email. The quality of English should itself discredit the authenticity of the report. Yet this bit of disinformation is being widely accepted and forms the basis of the attack by the religious extremist groups which have mounted the campaign against the Aga Khan Examination Board. So blinded are the people who want to believe the disinformation, that when they saw a television programme on the PTV in which Dr Shams Kassim Lakha said that the Examination Board had not distributed the questionnaire, a particular viewer insisted that he had heard Dr Lakha saying that the questionnaire should not have been distributed.

In fact, if anything, the questionnaire issued by the Global Fund is a very sensible one, keeps our cultural sensitivities in mind and is one which should be filled in by every class IX and X student in every school in the country.

What, however, is not clear is why the soft image pioneers don’t react firmly when such disinformation is dished out. Is it because it has in the past used the disinformation mode to propagate its own point of view or defend itself? Is it because disinformation will be used to create a soft image of the country? One hopes not, for Pakistan does have many many plus points, and one cannot sweep many many of its vices under the carpet. As for the government’s responsibility to refute disinformation, it must like Caesar’s wife be above suspicion.