Media imperialism in the global era

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We live in a new world order: One where history according to Fukuyama, has supposedly come to an end with one dominant political, economic and cultural power superimposing itself on the rest of the world’s political, economic and cultural entities, both large and small.

But the new world order, arriving soon after the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and making itself visible during the Gulf War, is really an extension of the old and familiar world disorder: one of social and economic parities, of wide gulfs and yawning divides, of colonialism and neo-colonialism and of cultural imperialism and its complicated but ever-present derivatives and manifestations.

Three distinguishable foundations support the new world order today, which is unmistakably and unequivocally led by the United States and all that it represents. These foundations are globalization (through the triumph of capitalism and the free market system); the information revolution (satellite TV, the Internet, the mobile phone) and last but not least media imperialism.

This trio of a single global economic system, an information outpour, and media monopoly is the driving force behind the new world order. Ironically, absent from all this are democratic values, human rights, rationalization of consumption, respect and care for the environment and equality among nations. It is a world order that was defied in Seattle some years ago and in Genoa more recently; criticized by thinkers and intellectuals, students and labor unions, but equally defended by governments and leaders as a good thing. So which is it?

Globalization as a world phenomenon began to gain credence as early as the 1960s. The great communicator Marshall McLuhan was among the first to popularize the term and point to its effect when he wrote in 1967 that “Time has ceased. Space has vanished. We now live in a global villageé..a simultaneous happening.” He talked about the arrival of a global culture; the homogenization of culture, of language, values and knowledge.

Critics from all over the world began to attack the concept referring to terms such as ‘cultural imperialism’, ‘media imperialism’, ‘electronic colonialism’ ‘ideological imperialism’ and ‘economic imperialism’. The crux of all this is cultural imperialism in its widest definition; from economic and political principles to values and language, to the kind of food we eat, the clothes we wear, the books we read, the TV shows we watch.

In the 1970s the debate over cultural and media imperialism was so hot that it was the driving force behind the movement for a New World Information and Communication Order involving the UN and its various organizations. It tackled the great imbalance in the flow of information between the nations of the world.

This was a pre-CNN, MTV and internet world. One prominent British scholar J. Oliver Boyd-Barret defined media imperialism as “the process whereby the ownership, structure, distribution, or the content of the media in any country singly or together subject to substantial external pressures from the media interests of other country or countries, without proportionate reciprocation of influence by the country so affected.” Other definitions followed, but the initiative to address the imbalance in the flow of information had never really taken off.

As in the 1970s, today the rich and mighty have the final word, the loudest voice, their message is the one that is being heard, seen and received. And while the debate continues until today, it has moved beyond media imperialism and more into the realm of the great divides that separate the rich from the poor, be they economic, social, digital or otherwise.

Proponents of globalization speak of social and economic equality, removal of trade barriers, jobs for the poor and an end to plagues in the form of AIDS, famine and regional wars. But that is not the case so far. Globalization also means economic domination, dilution of unique differences that distinguish each and every nation, the triumph of a universal culture and set of values over defenseless cultures, traditions, languages and value systems. It is not clear that globalization will bring prosperity to all, but it is definitely changing our lives at an ever-increasing rate.

Change is not all bad. The information revolution has empowered the common man, but what is knowledge without economic self-determination? Globalization does not mean the instant promotion of democracy and human rights. It is evident today that globalization does not lead to altruism when it comes to serving the political interests of the leading power or powers in the global era. The current US administration, the champion of globalization and its promised fruits, defies world will in areas of the environment (the Kyoto deal on global warming), regional disputes (Palestine, Iraq), nuclear proliferation and the arms race (the disputed missile defense initiative).

Today the debate oscillates between the issues of cultural imperialism, and what it entails to all societies rich and poor, and the problem of the digital divide which the information revolution is creating. But where does media imperialism falls? It is only natural that the economic superpower of the world is also the cultural and media superpower of our times.

This humungous assault on indigenous cultures is penetrating the very fabric of our social and economic existence. Some societies are putting up a fight, others like the Arabs, welcome globalization with open arms. We are passive participants in the great debate that is taking place today; conforming to the new realities and priding ourselves in embracing the new value system that is being dumped on us.

In the age of media imperialism the notion of the sovereign state is quickly disappearing. Satellite dishes are now a familiar part of our urban landscape, a sign of a new world where governments no longer have the undivided attention of their citizens. State-run media are yet to recover from the condition of paralysis that has left them with a dwindling audience. Even when they try to compete they soon discover their limits. How can they compete when competition requires transparency, freedom of expression and objectivity? It also requires a lot of money.

But while the liberation of local audiences from the yoke of centralized information, or disinformation, machine is a good thing in itself; it does not necessarily mean an end to information monopoly. Powerful conglomerates now control the most influential media empires–and empires they have become. Just look at the Time-Warner/AOL merger which brought together some of the most powerful and hottest print, cable and satellite TV, film, radio and internet media properties in the world under one roof.

‘Cultural genocide’

Who is to compete with a multi-billion dollar media set-up such as this? The medium, as McLuhan had said, has become the message. With an audience of hundreds of millions, think of how powerful CNN has become today. For the majority, the world is seen through the eyes of CNN. If CNN did not report it, then it didn’t happen. Again to quote Marshall McLuhan who put it so aptly: “Societies are shaped more by the nature of the medium by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” The driving force behind the propagation of cultural imperialism is the media. It is the vehicle which delivers new thoughts and ideas. Media imperialism is central to cultural imperialism. And media imperialism is not all about delivering news. It also brings foreign customs, fashion, lingo, food and others right into our living rooms. It certainly does not preclude the powerful entertainment industry from Hollywood blockbuster movies to the MTV music culture. At the top of the media pyramid sits television, without doubt the most powerful medium of mass domination ever invented. It has been called ‘the instrument of cultural genocide.’

But how do media dominate? There is evidently a great imbalance in the flow of information between North and South. Almost 80 percent of the world news flow originates from the major news agencies of the rich North. One UNESCO report puts the ratio of information flow from North to South at 5 to 1. We have become passive and avid consumers of information manufactured and packaged in the West. In addition we are always the source of bad news. The South is where famine, civil wars, violence and wars take place, rarely there are good news coming from our neck of the wood.

We have become instant witnesses to events taking place around the world. This immediacy as seen in the brutal competition among satellite stations to deliver breaking news color our perception, and that of other recipients, of how the world looks like and what the issues are. Who is to say what the real story is in the Chechen or Afghanistan or Algeria for that matter? CNN’s role in the Iraq War will require volumes of research and study. Was CNN impartial in its coverage? Or did it play a major role in demonizing the Iraqis and justifying the American-led attack against it?

We are living the age of the conglomerates with their rich coffers and unlimited resources. How can local media compete against them? And then whose interests do media conglomerates serve? Are they really impartial, or are they part of the political game of influence and global domination? Pakistani media analyst GP SM Hali lists a number of ‘techniques’ used by conglomerate media to control their audience, among them: repetition of lies, opinions as fact, half truths, misleading headlines, biased photographs, censorship, wrongful attribution and of course yellow journalism which is after all a Western invention.

In the past decade we have seen a rapid parting from local and distinctive cultures, no thanks to the repetitive waves of cultural globalization. We have seen American fast food chains pop up in our cities, satellite dishes becoming permanent fixtures of our cityscape, mobile phones in the hands of teens, movie theaters parading Hollywood blockbuster moviesé.But this is only one side to globalization. In addition to the transfiguration of our social structure, our economic realities are changing too and so are our values and goals in life. We think we are becoming global citizens but we are not.

We still have unique problems to grapple with and they are not going away any sooner. The myth of the global citizen is just that: a myth. The reality is that we our identity is being diluted, our culture is under siege, our language rendered useless and archaic, our traditions and customs are being chased away.

The end of localization is also manifested in our media. Sooner or later locally owned media will become easy prey for the large conglomerates, and if they survive then they will have to conform to the dictates of global media ethics and traditions. CNN Arabia may soon make an appearance just as it did in Turkey, Japan and elsewhere and the medium will become the message.

Who knows what’s good and what is bad in all this. The information revolution has introduced new things, free access to information, appreciation for democratic values and pressured governments to become more transparent. But in the absence of local alternatives media imperialism is the only reality. Globalization comes as one package; you take it all or reject it all. So what do we do?

Maybe we are living in a global city, not village, with affluent neighborhoods on one side and slum areas on the other. Cultural domination has become a reality and media imperialism has been instrumental in promoting it. Can we accept the slow and imminent demise of our indigenous cultures as a sad fact of life? Some nations seem to resist this, even in the West.

As young westernized people we may find it difficult to come up with a straight answer, being in the eye of the storm ourselves. But if every action summons a reaction, if every thesis generates an anti-thesis leading eventually to some sort of synthesis, we may begin to understand the reasons behind the rise of fundamentalist and so-called reactionary movements in our region and elsewhere. We may begin to appreciate the reasons why we still see young men blowing themselves up to serve their cause, when their peers are busy chasing up the American dream.

For the time being we have to move from being mere passive recipients of the message to participants in its shaping.

Mr. Osama El-Sherif is the Editor-in-Chief of arabia.com.

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