Whenever confronted by a critical press, political leaders find themselves at a loss as to the ways of responding and hence a typical answer would be to blame the “negative” section of the news media. When China expelled Wall Street Journal reporters earlier this year, The New York Times complained that Beijing was heading toward “a great leap backward”.
Despite the American daily’s complaint, communist China’s record so far is better than most of the United States-led NATO’s closest allies in West Asia, including Saudi Arabia. Jamal Khasoggi’s fate at the hands of the Saudi officials in their Istanbul consulate in Turkey and the West’s lukewarm response reduces to shreds the principled policy so loftily proclaimed when attacking countries of lesser strategic values or considered opponents for power and profits.
A tool sharpened and wielded by many a government, disinformation drips at a speed and volume prompted by the strategy drawn up by intelligence agencies, brand promoters, political parties and the like.
Singapore’s founder Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew moved the city state’s court against some of the leading English-medium press, including The International Herald, Newsweek, Time, The Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review and Asia Today, for the contents they unfairly edited or carried out of context. The court slapped fines to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hence, press comments on the Lee government were conspicuously sedate, whereas the same section of the fourth estate would have battered with a sharper edge of its mighty pen wielded against others without the power or desire to hit back Lee-like.
Motive & mission
No economic sanctions were imposed on that Asian economic tiger whose Prime Minister Lee was widely sought after across the world for quiet advice on financial matters. The same treatment was not applied to weaker states that did not serve the big West’s interests. It is no secret that intelligence agents are planted in the news media. To avoid its own embarrassment, the international press does not dabble into this issue much.
In the post-World War II years, some of the top western news outlets, including BBC and The New York Times, have had bumpy rides of unprofessional type. Reports of intelligence agencies planting their officers as reporters on some of the leading news media have not been denied credibly by the governments concerned. In a manner of the pot calling the kettle black, international English news media recently reported Chinese officials using social media as tools of propaganda.
The United States intelligence officials, in February, warned members of the US Congress that Russia was attempting to interfere in the 2020 election campaign to ensure that Donald Trump got re-elected next November. The US State Department charged that Russia sowed online fakes in South America through trolling activity aimed at fomenting discord. Whatever the merit of the charges, the fact remains: Do the US and its allies refrain from resorting to tactics of interference in the electoral process of other countries?
Edward Snowden, an IT expert formerly working under contract for the American Central Agency, supplied massive scale surveillance information, as if the US government was trying to run a police state. The policing spared hardly anyone held under its scanner. Foreign leaders of countries that Washington deemed friendly were not spared. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, was furious when she came to know of her conservations being tapped.
Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted of introducing new constitutional measures at restructuring some provisions for strengthening the prime minister’s office. The announcement was quickly followed by his loyal friend and former President Dmitry Medvedev who tendered his resignation, and Putin asked him to continue until further arrangements were made through parliament. If Medvedev had fled the country and accused Putin of seeking to introduce unearthly changes, the West would have lapped up it with great glee and gospel truth.
Former California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher admitted having offered to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in August 2017 presidential pardon if he handed over evidence showing that the Russians were not the source of e-mail documents of the National Democratic Party Committee.
The Pentagon kept ten million documents a year as state secrets until the start of this century. The amount is believed to be considerably higher today. Had an avid Snowden or an aggressively professional Julian Assange emerged in Russia, China, Iran, Syria or Venezuela, how would might have the major forces in the West reacted? No prizes for guessing. On the other hand, Snowden was denied asylum by 27 countries, either intimidated by, or siding with, the US. The American whistleblower said: “We have the same technological capacities as the Chinese government, and we are applying them domestically—just as they are.”
Mounting anti-Americanism could threaten to create a disturbing imbalance. The US accounts for 40 per cent of world’s total military spending. Using the media for political interests is an accepted practice among governments across the world, whatever the type of political system in a given state. This has been covertly or overtly done since long.
Rick Dunham, Co-director of Tsinghua University’s global business journalism programme, points out, “U.S. presidents have vented their frustration at the media for about as long as the nation has existed.” Journalism students often quote Thomas Jefferson for the high pedestal on which the main author of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence placed journalism. Jefferson, who said if he were to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would prefer the press that eventually came to be widely recognised as the Fourth Estate.
Ironically, Jefferson, after becoming the third president of the US, lamented in a letter to an editor in 1807, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” He was not the first — nor, by any means, the last—to make such complaint against the contents in a free press. Political leaders try stunts to attract press attention for favourable coverage by granting regular interviews, comments and selective information tips to editors, columnists, broadcast news anchors and press tycoons.
Early this year, Western media compared China’s efforts at controlling coronavirus with an approach similar to concentration camp discipline. When Italy was for weeks locked down in its severe fight against the virus, the same media stopped making any nasty comparison. Beijing might have had the last laugh in this round. Regular interactions between journalists should enable their community to be professionally updated by sharing and learning from their collective success stories and challenges confronting profession. This would require the press to operate independently and credibly as a public platform of trust.
– The Rising Nepal