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About ANZAC Day
international | imperialism / war | opinion / analysis Saturday April 26, 2008 14:53 by Anarcho-Kyke Federation Of Aotearoa
Occupation Afghanistan and the propaganda system
This article has been first published in www.indymedia.org.nz The article is written before Anzac Day.
As ANZAC Day 2008 approaches, it is worth considering the role the corporate media plays in maintaining public support for New Zealand’s contribution to the NATO-led occupation of Afghanistan, which is over six years old. As the New Zealand Herald calls for the public to send Anzac messages to overseas troops, it’s worth noting, as the following article does, how closely New Zealand’s corporate media conforms to a propaganda model.
A Peace Action Wellington member has a High Court appeal on Tuesday, 29 April, for burning the NZ flag on ANZAC day last year. She was convicted of ‘offensive behavior’ and was fined $500 plus court costs of $130. This is in addition to the 6 hours in the cells on the day of the arrest for a charge that does not carry any term of imprisonment. A second activist was also convicted of obstruction and resisting arrest.
There is also a new web site ‘Lest we forget: remembering peacemakers on ANZAC Day’ at www.lestweforget.org.nz which provides information and resources marking the honourable actions of those individuals who believe war is wrong, and who have risked physical harm, their freedom and their reputations, to bring their message to others that war is never right.
The ongoing North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led military occupation of Afghanistan that followed the United States (US) led bombing and invasion, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. on September 11 2001, now receives minimal media coverage in the New Zealand media, despite our ongoing commitment to the occupation, through the continual deployment of 120 soldiers in a “Provincial Reconstruction Team” based in the Bamiyan province in central Afghanistan. As well as these soldiers there are undisclosed deployments of Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers used in covert special operations. An examination of the media coverage of our state’s involvement in what is now a deeply unpopular, oppressive and violent occupation is important in determining the nature of the media in our society.
Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent put forward the hypothesis that the media in capitalist societies conform to a “propaganda model”, and they demonstrate the effects of this on media coverage of current events. This article will introduce readers to the operation of Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model with reference to New Zealand and global media coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan and will explain how and why New Zealand media’s coverage of the occupation of Afghanistan conforms to a ‘propaganda model’, and how it works to “filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public” (2002, 2). The first filter that Chomsky and Herman (2002, 3) identify in the propaganda model is mass media size, ownership and profit orientation. The fact that 87.2% of New Zealand’s daily press circulation is owned and controlled by two very large, foreign owned, multinational corporations (Rosenberg, 2007) must bear some relevance on how New Zealand print media covers the conflict in Afghanistan.
Chomsky and Herman predicted that because the main sources, “are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented forces; and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government” the media should be expected to toe the elite line (2002, 14). The evidence would seem to confirm this prediction. The New Zealand Herald Assistant Editor and business journalist, Fran O’Sullivan, has close links with New Zealand’s business community and is one of the founder directors of the NZ US Council, a lobby group “funded by business and the Government, and committed to fostering and developing a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between New Zealand and the United States” (NZ US Council). In dozens of columns since September 2001, O’Sullivan has professed her support for the occupation of Afghanistan and New Zealand support for the United States led Operation Enduring Freedom. In a column (May 2006) supporting the use of New Zealand made components being used in United States cruise missile she writes, “They save soldiers’ lives as well, including potentially those of New Zealand’s SAS in Afghanistan.” In another article (March 2002) she describes the occupation as “bolstering the cause of freedom”.
O’Sullivan also makes clear the benefits of New Zealand aligning itself with US foreign policy, “Clark’s …readiness to commit to the war on terror, at least as far as the Afghanistan campaign [is]… A new platform from which to re-establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries” (April 2002). The second filter of the propaganda model, the advertising licence to do business, predicts that media competing for advertising revenue will avoid content “with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the buying mood” and instead will favour content “that will lightly entertain” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002, 17). Bill Rosenberg in his study of the New Zealand media (2007) gives a 2006 quote from Fairfax New Zealand chief executive Joan Withers describing Fairfax, (“probably the largest publisher of New Zealand’s newspapers, magazines and sporting publications”), as being geared towards “advertising and information delivery” and finding new ways to “monetise” its content.” Monetisation of content represents the gradual colonisation of the entire media product by advertisements.
The disturbing trend that Withers describes turns our media from being a condition of open democracy and a tool for informed citizenship into an extension of consumer capitalism. In another example of the gearing of media content towards advertising revenue, APN News and Media sacked the editor of New Zealand’s only left-wing current affairs magazine, the Listener, and replaced him with an editor who revitalised circulation figures, by turning the magazine into an entertainment and lifestyle magazine. Long time Listener staff writer Gordon Campbell had been critical (2003) of New Zealand’s troop deployment to Afghanistan describing the warlords that New Zealand supports as “directly undermin[ing] the political, financial and moral authority of the Karzai government that the New Zealand forces are being sent to assist.” To suit the change in content he was also fired in the move towards what Rosenberg (2007) calls “an increasingly bland lifestyle magazine”.
The operation of the second filter on New Zealand’s media can clearly be seen to be squeezing out the space for critical perspectives in the media. This filtering effect can only intensify as under pressure to monetise content, and televisions drive to entertain viewers and maintain easily distracted audience levels “media [will] concentrate on war news as drama and entertainment, the goodies against the badies” (Tehranian, 2004, 237).
Reliance on government and corporate information sources makes up the third filter of the Model, as “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news” (Chomsky & Herman, 2002, 22). In New Zealand according to the Press Council (cited Rosenberg, 2007), “newspapers are not, on the whole, able to maintain their own sources of reporting major international issues.” As a result local coverage of international issues such as of Afghanistan rely heavily on US dominated international sources, or are based heavily on the only local source of information on the occupation, the New Zealand Defence Force.
Out of the last twenty-five news stories presented on Radio New Zealand National covering the conflict in Afghanistan and spanning from the 14th of January 2008 to the 1st of February 2008; three of the stories relied on information from US officials, three stories relied on US government, two on the Afghan government, four on the Australian government, seven on the New Zealand Defence Force, and one on a non-governmental organisation that provides security to aid workers in Afghanistan. None carried the perspective or an interview with an ordinary Afghani. As Radio New Zealand National had in 2006 a cumulative audience of 474,700, the second largest audience share (Radio NZ), this gives a general overview of the radio coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan that New Zealanders are exposed to.
Flak is the fourth filter identified by Chomsky and Herman. Flak producers are powerful groups in society who are involved in “regularly assailing, threatening, and «correcting» the media, trying to contain any deviations from the established line” (2002, 28). The term flak has taken on new meanings in the context of the conflict of Afghanistan as media outlets that refuse to bend to US military propaganda are routinely attacked by the United States military. In an article by Herman reviewing the propaganda model (2005) he pointed to the case in Afghanistan where “a soldier even threatened to shoot Doug Struck, a Washington Post reporter who was trying to visit a just-bombed site in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon didn’t want anybody looking at the results of those bombings.” The situation is worse when the US military’s harassment of Arabic television network Al Jazeera is considered. As Herman (2002) describes the flak in the early stages of the invasion of Afghanistan, “There has also been a threat that the Arab dissident station Al Jazeera, with an office in Kabul, might continue to show pictures of dead and injured Afghan civilians, and that an independent commercial satellite news service might take pictures of bombed civilian sites that would best be kept under wraps.
The Pentagon handled these problems efficiently. Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul was bombed and destroyed.” Just as disturbingly the Afghani government in 2007 distributed “press guidelines” that stated that “no media could run information about suicide attacks of the Taliban in their news headlines, nor could they criticize the US-led coalition, and no one could air and publish news that would decrease people’s morale and spirit” (Warasta, 2008). Chomsky and Herman, writing during the Cold War described the final filter as the “ideology of anticommunism” (2002, 29). Described as a “control mechanism”, anticommunism as the dominant discourse in the media meant “issues tend to be framed in terms of a dichotomized world of Communist and anti-Communist powers, with gains and losses allocated to contesting sides, and rooting for “our side” considered an entirely legitimate news practice” (2002, 30-31).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of socialist movements in the developing world, the United States and its allies have subtly reframed the world into equally dichotomising spheres of power between the West struggling for freedom and democracy and the “terrorists” and “fundamentalists” who take many forms throughout the world and apparently hate freedom and democracy. Antiterrorism as an ideology is the primary control mechanism of the new war on terror. It silences dissent and ensures that people “conform to one line of thinking about a military operation, or in this case, a war on terrorism” (Snow, 2003, 21). Nancy Snow’s (2003, 24) account of how the only representative in the US Congress to refuse to “issue a blank check to the administration to carry out the war on terrorism” after September 11, resulted in a talk-show host labeling her a “traitor”, is an indication of how this new control mechanism works.
Disturbingly, at work in media coverage of Afghanistan is a suspension of demand for evidence of terrorist abuses in the same way that anticommunism meant “demand for serious evidence in support of claims of communist abuses is suspended” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002, 30). A New Zealand Herald editorial in January 2008 calling for continued commitment to the occupation of Afghanistan described foreign troops leaving as being “a triumph for Muslim fundamentalism”. An oppositional voice, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, released a statement in December 2007, unreported in the New Zealand media, called the US-led forces as having “empowered and equipped the most traitorous, anti-democratic, misogynist and corrupt fundamentalist gangs in Afghanistan”. Antiterrorism, therefore operates to filter out all criticisms of the occupation, especially by Afghanis themselves.
The strength of the propaganda model is that it anticipates how the mass media will portray the abuses of enemy and friendly states. Chomsky and Herman in Manufacturing Consent rigorously set out a number of experiments that test their hypothesis that “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy” (2002, 37). When applying the propaganda model to the last three months of New Zealand Herald coverage of the occupation of Afghanistan, we can see that Afghani victims of the war receive scant coverage compared to that of soldiers in the NATO-led mission. Eight stories in the last three months referred to New Zealand or Australian military casualties, one to Afghan army casualties and none to Afghan civilian casualties. This coverage then glosses over the reality that of the 1, 200 civilian deaths in Afghanistan over the last year more than half have been killed by the NATO-led force (Kroeger, 2007).
With the continuing support of the New Zealand Defence Force for the neo-colonial occupations in Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste and the corporate media’s continuing regurgitation and uncritical acceptance that New Zealand is playing a progressive role, the role of alternative media remains to keep people informed of the hidden realities of the “war on terror”. As ANZAC Day 2008 approaches and the media echoes the insidious calls by the New Zealand Defence Force for, “New Zealanders to show their support for our current troops” it’s worth remembering that the corporate media is a critical tool in ensuring that the US-led and New Zealand supported global system of colonialism and imperialism encounters no criticism or dissent at home.
Campbell, Gordon. 2003. Empire games. Listener, September 13-19, 18-23.
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