US Dominance of Propaganda War due to Unequal Playing Fields

Mathatha Tsedu’s popular Black Eye column, “It is now a war of propaganda” (The Star, 31 December), appropriately refers to the flurry of accusations and counter accusations by America and the victims of her war in Afghanistan as a “battle for the hearts and minds of world public opinion”.

As Chairperson of SANEF (South African National Editors Forum) and also as Deputy Chief Executive: News at the SABC, and of course the enormous experience attained over many years of struggle, Tsedu is ideally well-positioned to offer his profound observations.

In this propaganda war, America enjoys all the advantages that befits its status as the world’s only remaining superpower. This unrivalled superiority is enhanced by its ability to demand and reward uncritical patriotism. However, the inherent danger in this unequal state of affairs, Tsedu certainly would agree, is when independent journalists and commentators suspend their sense of commitment to fairness and balance, in lieu of state-pedalled propaganda.

This misplaced sense of patriotism where misguided policies are sanctioned in the “national interest”, is possibly best understood by many in South Africa, for such shameful conditions existed during the apartheid era. Just as it was not countenanced then so too must US policies be vigorously interrogated. In this regard, organisations such as SANEF and the SABC as a national broadcaster have a distinct responsibility. For a start we need to know why America’s chief instrument of propaganda, CNN, enjoys extensive coverage courtesy of SABC é on two channels simultaneously, nogal! Yet, SABC’s own vibrant Channel Africa is denied to ordinary South Africans, except satellite dish owners.

This unhealthy state of affairs in the domain of the public broadcaster ignores fundamental minimum requirements sought by the Comtask Report (1996), the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press (1994) as well as the Declaration of Principles on Information, Power and Democracy adopted in Cape Town on 10 October 2000.

The following set of ground rules from the Reconstruction and Development Programme’s (RDP) base document best explains the varied challenges SA media still faces: ” Open debate and transparency in government and society are crucial elements of reconstruction and development. This requires an information policy which guarantees active exchange of information and opinion among all members of societyéThe democratic government must encourage the development of all tiers of media é public, community and private. However, it must seek to correct the skewed legacy of apartheid where public media were turned into instruments of National Party policy; where community media were repressed; where private media are concentrated in the hands of a few monopolies, and where a few individuals from the white community determine the content of media. New voices at national, regional and local levels, and genuine competition rather than a monopoly of ideas, must be encouraged”.

It would therefore be incorrect to disregard calls for more thorough investigative journalism as well as for a greater diversity of opinions, particularly in the case of America’s war in Afghanistan, following the September 11 attacks.

It is therefore encouraging that a credible international media institution Reporters Without Borders has published a significant new report, which documents how the freedom to dissent has become the war’s first casualty. The report says that the tone of US coverage of the events of September 11 and their aftermath changed as soon as President Bush announced his “War on Terrorism”. The norm became patriotic and propagandistic. This has been confirmed by Richard Hetu, a journalist with La Presse, a Canadian daily who remarked that broadcasts became all “beating the drum and flags flying in the wind. It was no longer news”.

Instead of news broadcasts, South Africans are unfairly saddled with two parallel CNN transmissions, which unashamedly compel its viewers to watch advertising spots to the glory of their country night after night. By implication it amounts to tolerating a television network that by succumbing to the American government’s censorship of information, has directly contributed to a violation of our Bill Of Rights.

We concur with Jane Karpley, Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, who said that the US government’s attempts to pressure the media regarding the airing of Bin Laden’s statements are “totally illegitimate”. We must not allow the Bush administration to be the arbiter in deciding what is appropriate for the public to see and hear. Mathatha Tsedu correctly anticipates a new salvo from Washington to show that they are on top of the propaganda war. The question remains whether South Africans should meekly acquiesce or vigorously contest it?

(Mr. Iqbal Jasarat is Chairman of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)