War by other means

October 12, 2007

While the conflict in Iraq grinds on, a parallel 'soft' war is being pursued by a host of new indigenous and Western-backed Arabic television, radio and internet services. Annabelle Sreberny says media studies courses must take note.

The mediascape of the 21st century is undergoing a major realignment. There are profound challenges to the (long taken for granted) hegemony of Western media, particularly in the Middle East. Today, a seriously engaged and globally focused media studies needs to re-engage with questions about the state, about propaganda and about new forms of diplomacy as conflict- inducing. An examination of how Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty "internationalised" Celebrity Big Brother is an inadequate response to the crucial issues looming on the global media horizon.

Western media channels have been globally dominant, establishing the core genres and setting the news agenda. In 1977, Jeremy Tunstall wrote an influential book whose very title argued that The Media Are American . This year, however, his new volume claims The Media Were American , a provocation supported with considerable empirical evidence about the shift in mediatic and informational power away from the US. Of course the US remains influential. Many of the top internationally extensive media conglomerates are US based, with none in the global South. But we are also witnessing the spread of global culture industries to the South and the emergence of new media channels with different agendas.

The media studies political economy critique of the reach of Western media channels was - despite its name - fundamentally economic, concerned with the commercial power of media moguls and the proliferation of consumer- oriented pap. But the emerging global battle for audiences, especially English-speaking ones, is for political and ideological reasons. Beyond competing for regional audiences, increasingly inflamed propaganda wars seem to be developing between the West and the Middle East in a call-and- response triggered by Western panic in the "War on Terror" and misunderstanding of political Islam.

The Middle East has experienced huge changes in its mediascape. The 1991 Gulf War was a major trigger. The absence of an Arab perspective on the conflict prompted the establishment of al-Jazeera, funded by the Qatari emir based in Doha, followed by al-Arabiyya, financed by the Saudis, as well as the expansion of broadcasting channels in the United Arab Emirates. At the same time, more obviously ideological channels also went on air, such as al-Manar, the voice of Hezbollah. These channels have opened up public debate and discussion, al-Jazeera famously proclaiming that it offers "this and the other opinion", and cover conflicts such as the second Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq with very different stories and images from Western media channels. While the various national channels compete for Arab audiences, they have also begun to look outwards. In 2006 al-Jazeera started its English-language television channel, seeking not just regional but transnational audiences and opinions.

International broadcasting, of course, has a long history that is deeply imbricated with shifting international relations. Western countries have long felt it worthwhile, indeed a necessary part of transnational public diplomacy, to broadcast in local languages, particularly to those parts of the world that are "non-democratic". The BBC World Service, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, recently cancelled a number of radio services to Eastern Europe and Thailand in line with shifting Foreign and Commonwealth Office priorities but is now developing Arabic and Persian television. The Voice of America, broadcasting since 1942 and significant during the Cold War, specifically targets radio and television audiences in Cuba, the Arabic-speaking world and Iran.

As US President George Bush's rhetoric has shifted to "waging war for democracy", there is intensified US effort to use "soft power" through government-sponsored channels such as al-Hurra (satellite television) and Radio Sawa. Yet even the Rand Corporation, a global think-tank, has recognised that this is not a successful strategy, while Joseph Nye, the originator of the notion, has been at pains to argue that soft power needs to be used as part of a coherent and contextualised strategy. And, despite the continuing imbroglio in Iraq, the emerging focus of US political rhetoric and arms deployments appears to be directed towards "regime change" in Iran.

US relations with Iran, frozen in a hostile silence since the hostage crisis of 1980, show little sign of thawing. A letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Bush in May 2006 was ignored, while a brief encounter between US Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi in Baghdad in July 2007 has not been followed up. Furthermore, Congress has voted millions of dollars towards the "soft topple" of the Iranian Government, and there is growing evidence of well- developed plans for military intervention. In August, Bush not only argued that Iraq would not become another Vietnam - in that the US would not withdraw early - but also roundly blamed the Iranians as the major sponsor of terrorist activity, with al-Qaeda and the Saudis receiving no mention at all. And while British military strategy in Iraq moves towards the maintenance of a barely functional presence in Basra, our own "public diplomacy" efforts in the Middle East are also expanding with the new BBC World Service television channels and greater outreach by the British Council.

The emergence of PRESS TV, the Iranian 24-hour English-language television channel, is a response to increasingly heated US rhetoric. The war of words between the two countries has already been used to powerful effect inside Iran. Much as the old Soviet Union blamed all internal critique as stemming from the West, the Iranian regime has employed a similarly invidious tactic. This spring it arrested and imprisoned a number of prominent Iranian-American intellectuals and journalists. People connected to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation or the Soros Foundation were labelled as spies and "soft topplers" and imprisoned. Although most have now been released, it was a stark reminder of state power, a warning to Iranians at home and abroad, and another indication of political polarisation between Iran and the US.

The Iranian Government also tries to limit British influence. It has blocked the BBC Persian-language website since January 2006, although sophisticated hackers had broken this within a hour and any regular web user in Iran has access to a range of filter-crackers. Indeed, the game of internet cat-and-mouse has helped create a powerful cadre of Iranian computer aficionados who would be far more productively employed in developing a national software industry.

Of course, new media voices are a mixed blessing for any authoritarian system. The Iranian Government has waged a long-standing battle against a range of internal opposition voices since the revolution. Even under the Government of "liberal" President Mohammed Khatami many newspapers and journals were closed, student activities quashed and political groupings banned. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran's investment in the communications revolution has meant the expansion of internet access and a massive emergence of bloggers, estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands.

Ironically, while an opposition constantly struggles to be heard inside Iran, Ahmadinejad is amassing a popular following outside due to his defiant stance towards the US. The substantial Iranian diaspora - more than 2 million people and a large chunk of Iran's educated middle class - finds itself trapped in royalist nostalgia or caught between the excesses of the US and Iran. "Tehrangeles" and "Tehranto" and other globally dispersed communities of Iranians play an immediate role in the political life of Iran. Indeed, more than 30 television channels broadcasting from California are funded by wealthy Iranians, many eager for an opening in private broadcasting inside Iran, which has long been anticipated.

The political economy critique in media studies has been more concerned about privatisation and conglomeratisation than state-defined media agendas and politicisation. Yet the emergence and strengthening of media channels in the West aimed at Middle Eastern audiences and English- language channels in the Middle East mean that we seem set for an extended period of propaganda battles across the region and beyond that appear to be softening populations up for new wars.

The paradoxes around media and democracy need to be engaged at an international level. Examination of how these ideological struggles are waged - and their possibly terrifying consequences - must be central to the more globalised media studies of the 21st century.

Annabelle Sreberny is professor in global media and communication at the Centre for Media and Film Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies. A 75th anniversary conference on the history and current role of the BBC World Service will be held at Soas in December as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project.

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