Great Betrayal: Western Media Duplicity

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A fundamental challenge that requires critical reflection and action, if international understanding and cooperation is to be fostered in today’s interdependent global village informed by supersonic information transmission, is how to colonize the powers of the media to serve common and greater public good. Surely, it cannot be too onerous on the powerful mainstream Western media to ask that they slough off their Pharisee syndrome and instead play a Samaritan role in their vocation.

[On Media Matters]




The Western media, from their Plato’s allegorical cave, have often preached to the world in general and to Africa in particular about the virtues of freedom of the press and opinion.


And significantly, they have always held themselves up as the model for the world to emulate. People from various regions of the world have often taken this diet of the Western media and believed as gospel truth that the Western media are more or less the paragons of professional if not ethical good practice. With the passage of time and on the basis of evidence of their practice, can the Western media legitimately boast of their exceptionalism to the world?


The traditional claims by Western media need to be probed into, not least because in this era of the new technological revolution, where whoever controls the transmission of information sets agenda and establishes the dominant ideas in circulation, the mainstream Western media that belong to conglomerate corporations can literally play second gods to the lives of millions in the world.


The assertions need to be examined critically also because with virtually unchecked power to shape opinion and events, the Western media can easily frustrate reasonable causes for the betterment of humanity and independent thinkers whose innovative ideas might not conform to the dominant political and economic orthodoxies of the period.


At the crux of the ways the media operate is how they prioritize and deploy their resources. To critical observers, it is apparent that in making their decisions to prioritize and deploy resources to cover issues, events and individuals, managers base their decisions less on objective set of criteria than on ideological predilection and economic considerations. This is generally true whether the media cover critical issues in national or international politics. 


Let us for a start take the mainstream media in the United States. It is fair to summarize that on balance, today the media tend more to echo and elaborate the official position of the political establishment than to raise relevant questions that could shed light on some of the critical issues of peace and war and of freedom and accountability in a democratic society.


The collaboration between the media and officialdom is perhaps well captured in the word used to describe journalists who are accredited to cover the war in Iraq: embedded. The situation has become so bad that if one reads 10 mainstream US newspapers on any given topic, it is likely that all would be saying pretty much the same thing, admittedly with variations in tone and accent. This is a sad commentary of the state of the media, given the extraordinary diversity of the country.


A few examples can be given to illustrate the rather morose state of the media in the USA, which indicate that they have certifiably failed to investigate claims made by those in power.


A case in point is the cheer-leading and the jostling for position to outdo one another in hyperbolic praise of President George W. Bush following the attacks on the World Trade Towers. Lest we forget so soon, we must remember that immediately after the terrorist attacks on World Trade Towers, the media, instead of exercising judicious judgment and asking critical questions, embarked on a short-term mission to fuel the fire of jingoism. It became apparent that the exercise was a comical charade with tragic consequences, when the media began, for example, to misuse historical analogies by comparing President George W. Bush with the extraordinary War-time British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. On what grounds could any on with average knowledge of history even think of comparing George W. Bush with Winston Churchill?


But as Bob Marley said in his lyrical verse, “you can fool some people some times, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” So now that the US mainstream media have discovered that facts are staring them in the face, that the emperor is increasingly naked, and that the terminal end of the Bush Administration is in sight, they have conveniently decided to give the impression of being critical and independent of the Bush Administration.


Whether consciously or sub-consciously, the media seem to have found a convenient avenue to demonstrate their “independence.” For most of them, this has come in the form of Barrack Obama’s candidacy for president of the country. Accordingly, a process of over-compensation has been embarked upon by a cross-section of the mainstream media to support Barrack Obama.


It seems that for them, support for Barrack Obama has the double merit of demonstrating that they are colour-blind; and given that Obama opposed the Iraq war from the outset, their support for him is meant to be construed as vicarious opposition to the war. Whether the sophistry will do the trick of recouping the credibility of the media is not clear; time alone will tell.


Nonetheless, it is a duty for those who have a historical perspective to remind the mainstream media that their various somersaults should not be allowed to so easily lull people into thinking they are principled about independence and freedom of the media. For the fact is that these same media were the ones who not so long ago fanned the flames of the war in the first place. If they have any respect for the people, they must come clean on the matter.


It must be recalled, for example, that prior to the war and during the war, the same media did not heed the warning of many experts of the Middle East. One of such people is the refreshingly critical thinker and a scholar with great knowledge about the Middle East, Noam Chomsky. On the contrary, the media often dismissed him as more or less extremist. As a result, although Noam Chomsky is in great demand and admired all over the world, he is known and appreciated only by a small circle of people in the US.


How have the Western media fared on international issues? Here again, one sees a collaboration between the political establishment and the media. In fact, for the most part, it appears that the Western media more often than not promote policy agenda of their home governments rather than work independently to enlighten people and foster understanding and cooperation about critical global issues.


On the international scene, the Western media that have traditionally been regarded as strong advocates of the liberal notions of freedom of speech and diversity of opinions seem to suffer a Pharisee syndrome. This is exemplified by the fact that on virtually all important international issues, whether it is on Iran, or Zimbabwe, or the permanent war on terrorism, or Darfur, or democracy and human rights, or the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Western media seem to read from one scri pt, though again, in different tones and with different accents.


We should take as examples the coverage of the crises in Darfur and Zimbabwe, both of which have received disproportionately higher profile and attention than if the media had not made the political decision to dramatize them. Although the dramatization of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is commendable, it is apparent that the media attention garnered is associated more with the geo-strategic politics of the region than simply with the suffering of the people.


Similarly, although the Western media have done commendable work to highlight the obscene situation in Zimbabwe, it is apparent that the ongoing obsession by British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC) in particular with the tragic saga in Zimbabwe is less about the dehumanization of African people than about British perverted logic and interest in the politics of kin and kith. The role of the BBC is more than interesting because it has been arguably the most successful branch of the British State in the promotion of British imperial interests the world over.


Here are some of the rudimentary and relevant facts about contemporary Zimbabwe’s history and politics, as they relate to the role of Western media. In 1982, two years after Zimbabwe’s independence, the army carried out a series of military operations in Matabeleland. The record shows that during those operations the troops caused mayhem. At the time, the British media did not dramatize the massive violations. Instead, President Robert Mugabe was often praised as an enlightened leader.


At the time of the human rights violations by the troops, for which the British media showed incredible understanding, the Secretary General of Mugabe’s ZANU- PF Party, Edgar Tekere, had called for immediate resolution of the land question, which had been at the heart of the liberation struggle. President Mugabe at the time adopted a more moderate and piece meal approach to the question. For his stand, Tekere was demonized by the British media and sacked from his party position by President Mugabe. During the period and for the next decade, President was the darling of the British media. The treatment of President Mugabe by the British media changed only when he belatedly appropriated Edgar Tekere’s position. It was then that the British media began a campaign to vilify and make him a pariah.


The current treatment of President Mugabe by the British media, as their number one villain, therefore, regardless of the de scri ptive facts of the situation in Zimbabwe, is quite in line with the dominant mission of the British media, which has historically been two-fold. These are, namely, to advance British imperial interests; and to sanitize the image of imperialism. This is not to say that President Mugabe is blameless for the mess in Zimbabwe. In fact, Mugabe, just as a cross-section of African rulers, is guilty of feudalistic tendencies of taking the state as his personal fiefdom, and of lack of foresight to put in place rules of succession well before it is too late.


The treatment of Mugabe by the British media, should not, however, be taken as personal dislike of President Mugabe. Rather, President Mugabe is being excoriated by the British media because he no longer serves the interests of the metropolitan country, pure and simple. It is this abiding logic of raw politics that might explain why the British media that are now shading crocodile tears over the chilling suffering of Zimbabweans and who are dead opposed to President Mugabe, have scarcely uttered a word about other undemocratic and long-serving dictators in Africa, such as President Paul Biya of Cameroon, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.


In the case of Uganda, the ways the British media have covered the Zimbabwe crises are eerily similar to how successive rulers in the country have been praised or demonized, depending on whether they were/are serving over-all British interests. An important and fundamental point to remember is that the British establishment could scarcely care about Africans whom they traditionally characterize as “savage” and “backwards.” It is rather British interests than the human rights of Africans, which prompt the British media to cover issues in the continent in one way or the other.


This rendering of the modus vivendi of the Western media is borne out by evidence. How else can we explain, for example, the thunderous silence the Western media have maintained on equally if not more compelling humanitarian crises around the world? Among these are the plundering of Congo’s mineral resources and the killing in cold blood of nearly ten million people in the past decade. Then there is the horrendous situation in Somalia where the Ethiopian military have been accused of committing crimes against humanity. And in northern Uganda, a conflict that at one point was claiming the lives of 1,500 people weekly has festered for 20 years and has barely been covered in a balanced manner, probably because one party to the conflict appears to have committed himself to superintend external interests in the region.


And then there are other perennial crises, which if the media had paid attention to, the consciences of the people of the world would have been shocked into action. Among these are crises that are captured in the shameful facts that, for example, each year, 36 million people die of hunger or its ravages; that poverty kills a child every three seconds; and that 10,000 people die every day because of water unfit for drinking.


An examination of historical record shows that, even in the case of apartheid in South Africa, when mainstream Western media threw their lot on the right side of the iron curtain of the struggle for human rights, it was when it had become manifestly clear that the tide would change, regardless of the position of the Western media. This is not to say that the Western media at a critical time did not play a positive role is hastening the demise of apartheid by making available to people in the West relevant information, which was used for popular mobilization against what the United Nations had characterized as a crime against humanity.


Similarly, when the media made the choice to expose the depravities of those in power or natural disasters, people have risen up like tidal waves to help mitigate the identified calamities or to offer hands of solidarity. This was the case in some of the great struggles of the twentieth century, such as the struggles against fascism, unalloyed discrimination against women, despoliation of the environment, Ethiopian famines, militarism, totalitarianism, ethnic cleansing, various natural disasters, etc. In those instances, the cause of human rights was served more successfully, with less cost incurred in human resources than would have been possible had the media chosen a different side.


When we examine the records and the ways in which the bulk of the media in general and the Western media in particular have deployed their resources, there is cause for concern that the welfare of the majority might be sacrificed unnecessarily at the altar of hegemonic national and racial interests. What should be emphasized is the fact that the ways the media cover issues are neither preordained nor inevitable; it is matter of conscious choices made, depending on the values of their managers.


A fundamental challenge that requires critical reflection and action, if international understanding and cooperation is to be fostered in today’s interdependent global village informed by supersonic information transmission, is how to colonize the powers of the media to serve common and greater public good.


Surely, it cannot be too onerous on the powerful mainstream Western media to ask that they slough off their Pharisee syndrome and instead play a Samaritan role in their vocation.

Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears frequently on and in the newspaper.

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