New information order

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE media scene is changing dramatically all over the world. Globalization, accompanied with phenomenal strides in communication technology, has proved to be the catalyst. Had it not been for the fact that capital now flows quite freely across borders and cable and satellite television and powerful transmitters have made it possible for sounds and images to be carried across thousands and thousands of miles, the reach of the media could not have been internationalized with such ease and at relatively affordable cost.

The arrival of the age of the Internet has also made great inroads into the news sector. This has enabled the powers that be — whether they are governments, the corporate sector or ideological groups — to have access to people they could never even have dreamt of addressing directly a few years ago. For instance, before the advent of the CNN how many viewers in Pakistan would have seen the American president delivering live his State of the Union message?

In this race to go global, the print media has not been left behind either. Newspapers have been enterprising and have capitalized on the Internet technology by setting up websites and making their reach global. All major newspapers, even in the most backward country of Asia or Africa, possess their own website. Moreover, cut-throat competition compels the papers, which put up their contents online to update their news at regular intervals, to keep their readers posted with the latest news. Pressflex, a French media institution, recently reported that a survey had confirmed that newspapers with websites outperformed those without sites.

This means that newspapers from all over the world are now just a click of the mouse away. Even though not many people in Pakistan, would go online to read The Washington Post or The Guardian, the local print media is picking up stories of readers’ interest from the press worldwide. With the Berne Convention permitting the reproduction by the press of articles on current issues published in newspapers and periodicals (albeit with a clear indication of the source), we find a globalized print media of sorts emerging.

What is the impact of this phenomenon on Third World politics, economies and societies? The hallmark of the media scene as it has emerged today is that the flow of information continues to be predominantly in one direction — from the North to the South. The situation has not changed much from the decade of the seventies when the MacBride Commission was set up by Unesco under the stewardship of the great champion of Third World rights, Amadou-Mahtar Mbow. Sean MacBride and his associates spoke of the new world information and communication order which would seek more justice, more equity, more reciprocity in information exchange, more self-reliance and cultural identity.

In the last 30 years, the volume of news and views has increased manifold. But as before, it flows from the industrialized countries of the West to the developing states of the Third World. Significantly, a lot of the news about the Third World which emanates from there is being channelled back to it via western agencies. As for the information the West is receiving from the Afro-Asian countries, it is selective and presented with the bias the media brokers want to inject into it.

The industrialized powers have no problems about getting their news and views across to the Third World media. They have the technology as well as the resources and the trained manpower to flood the developing countries with news about the industrialized West. In the battle for the hearts and minds of Third World societies, it has been easy sailing for them. The struggle for a new and balanced information order has proved unwinnable for the Third World.

With the globalization of the media scene, the balance has inexonerably tilted towards the West. Let no one be deceived by the massive and visible presence of the western media in nearly all Third World countries. The false impression created is that they are involved in a gigantic news gathering operation to disseminate it in their home countries. But are they employing our mediapersons to educate their own readers/listeners? We need to disabuse ourselves of this misconception.

It should be clearly understood that the prolific coverage given to third world countries by the television networks such as the CNN and BBC is not designed for their home audience. What we view here on the international channels is not beamed at the US or Britain. Their own programmes continue to be as focused inwards — especially in the US which is famous for its apathy towards the world outside the American continent. Nick Higham, a BBC journalist, who had been sent to New York in the weeks following 9/11, found the general downgrading and marginalization of foreign news staggering. “America’s isolationism (or self-sufficiency, to put it more kindly) has deep roots. The popular media reflect that — and they reflect commercial imperatives…. There is no mass market for foreign news,” he wrote in the British Journalism Review.

Regrettably, Britain is going the same way. Writing in the above journal, Roy Greensdale observed that politics and foreign affairs have become irrelevant to many people in Britain. They have come to believe that “what happens in the rest of the world has no effect on their lives and they can live out their lives perfectly well without the need to know anything about anything from anywhere”.

Even the news magazines, especially the American publications, have different editions for Asia and other regions. The idea ostensibly is to highlight news and views in keeping with the interests of the readers. But the fact is that there is a slant in what is presented in an attractive and professionally produced format to readers in Third World countries. The gullible and unsuspecting among them can swallow it all without any further analysis or questioning.

So powerful and insidious has been the influence of the western media and so extensive the resources at their command, that they have been able to virtually draw upon the local professional expertise to collect information in scores of developing countries, recycle it and send it back to the Third World.

Since no analysis has been done of this new development, it is difficult to draw any conclusion. But it seems plausible that this information explosion which we witness today influences policy-making and opinion formation profoundly in every country. In view of the processes used for news gathering, news transmission, news processing and news presentation — quite a bit of it done mechanically or with the help of technicians who are not journalists — the implications of the new media trends need to be taken more seriously than they are.

It is heartening that at a time when we have a surfeit of the electronic media, the newspaper — the oldest medium of news — has not lost its readership. According to the World Association of Newspapers, circulations grew by 4.8 per cent between 1997 and 2001. According to the same source, there was a growth in newspaper jobs even though advertising declined.

Where does all this take us? First of all, it is important that the Third World governments should not commit the mistake they first did which gave the western media a foothold in the developing societies. They should not clamp down on the indigenous press and television/radio. Only when the local media lacks credibility and is not taken seriously as a source of authentic news that the foreign media emerges as a more reliable purveyor of information — right or wrong. Just as bad democracy must be treated with more democracy, bad media must be countered with more freedom so that the reading public can itself develop the capability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Here it may be added that literacy and education also have a direct bearing on the performance of the media. When the people are educated and have learnt to analyze and think, they are more discerning in what they accept as the truth no matter where it comes from. By promoting professionalism and an ethical approach in the media and guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression any society can counter the inroads from foreign quarters.