On the control of information
By Toh Hsien Min
First of all, two apologies. Everything was on track for this issue to come out on time, but early in April my computer fell victim to a cocktail of nasty viruses, and I was sans ordinateur for 9 days. To give you an idea of the difficulties this put in our path, it's as though the Straits Times printing press failed between the hours of midnight and six am. Secondly, I really didn't want to talk about Iraq, for all manner of reasons, not least because I had spelt out my stand clearly enough elsewhere... but time (or not enough of it) and occasion both brought me back to it. And it's occurred to me that there is a link between the virus and the war to tease out.
The underlying premise is simple. Without the means of production, we were unable to disseminate our information.
One of the outcomes of this war is that it has never been clearer just how much of a war of information our conflicts have become. Although political leaders and military commanders have always known the value of propaganda, information battles had previously been limited in scope. Short of dropping leaflets from airplanes, the Allies had no means of communicating with the populations of the Axis powers. Napoleon didn't even have that option. In today's connected world, however, it's possible to read weblogs posted by an Iraqi national in Baghdad or by a tank commander on the frontline from anywhere in the world. Before April, the Arab nations could receive both Iraqi TV and CNN at the same time. The availability of information was a major reason why a majority of people around the world did not believe the fat porkers being told by the White House ("we are going in to: get rid of weapons of mass destruction / rid Al-Qaeda of an ally / liberate the poor suffering Iraqis / bring democracy to the region / ok, enough already, tell me what you'll believe and we'll tell you that"... incidentally, I believe consistency follows true motivations, and inconsistency is the mark of duplicity). So after the "propaganda reason for starting the war", to quote a certain historical figure who should know, it's no surprise that US policy has included a slow suffocation of information channels.
To begin with, most of the US networks were already to some degree or other ready to be complicit, in the name of patriotism; this was essential for keeping the American public misinformed enough to support the war effort, but the disproportionate reach US media has, through M&A activity and content sharing or syndication agreements, meant that there were bonus points for preaching to the world (for example, Channel NewsAsia kept on screening Fox's war coverage despite the fact that Fox had been kicked out of Iraq). As a second step, the process of 'embedding' journalists with soldiers meant the former were both more clueless and more sympathetic... on top of having had to sign a contract with the US military on what they could and could not report. But then the US began to tighten the screw. American bombs took out Iraqi TV, despite the fact that it was a civilian and not a military facility, and despite the Geneva Conventions banning such actions.
Most insidiously of all, the evidence available suggests a deliberate policy to take out journalists who could not be relied upon to report the US version of events ("no reports and pictures of casualties = no casualties"). Terry Lloyd, of ITN, was the first to perish, killed by US Marines who fired at his car; two of his colleagues are still missing. Al-Jazeera's correspondent was killed in an air attack on the organisation's office in Baghdad, even though - or because - one of his colleagues at the Central Command office in Doha gave the Pentagon the co-ordinates of their Baghdad location in return for a promise it would not be attacked. Needless to say, this Baghdad office had been providing a graphic and devastating account of Iraqi civilian casualties in the war to a pan-Arab audience. A few hours later, an M1A1 Abrams tank on the Jumhuriya Bridge took aim at a room in the Palestine Hotel and fired an explosive round that killed two cameramen and wounded four other Reuters staff. When this action was reported, military spokesmen claimed the tank had come under fire and had simply fired back... an outright lie caught by the France 3 television film of the whole event, which confirmed by its silent soundtrack that there had been no shooting of any sort before the deliberate murder. Many other journalists have reported their own arrests, abuse and even torture by American thugs masquerading as liberators.
In a final symbolic claim of victory in the war of information, the Americans encouraged the looting and burning of the Iraqi national museum and library. Never mind that the artefacts of the cradle of civilisation formed an invaluable world heritage, never mind that all of Iraqi history was bound within the library. A country without a past can be made to believe that the Starbucks and Exxon-Mobil were always part of its destiny, while a country without an objective news media can be made to believe the most outrageous propaganda.
At the same time, it has been moving to see how many people have come together in mass protests as a response to the information available. It has been made clear, at least to the governments of the United Kingdom, Spain and Turkey, that there is a political cost to supporting the war; in the latter country, it has had the effect of dramatically reducing the support the Turkish government was willing to give to the US. That one way of influencing politicians' decisions is controlling the information feed to the populace is a principle that the US has evidently grasped.
I can think of one present institution, now under attack for being out of date and incapable of meeting the challenges of the new geopolitical reality, that can use this principle to reform itself. It is clear that the United Nations cannot function in response to military actions in a coherent fashion consistent with its Charter, because diplomacy can go only so far, and it does not have a standing military force to deploy. Perhaps one route it could consider is the creation of a global media network under its auspices, to rival the likes of CNN, the Beeb and Al-Jazeera - with one crucial distinction, viz. that it proscribes alignments based on wholly unilateral interests (whether national, corporate or individual interests) . The UN could influence every country to take a stakeholding in the new media network, put in a decentralised infrastructure spread across the globe with a multinational journalistic staff and strict regulations against deliberate censorship, and require member countries to broadcast the new UN channel. It can push through more stringent protections for journalists, making the status of wartime journalists equal to those of medical staff (one of the things that struck me was that journalists had a parallel to Médecins sans Frontières called Reporters Sans Frontières).
The advantages are clear: no one country would be able to set the agendas and control the flow of information, as the arbiter of information would be global consensus, and this would channel a multiplicity of perspectives and insights into other countries and peoples to otherwise isolatable populations, which can only help promote global understanding. I know this sounds idealistic, but the need to think beyond accepted constraints is drawn from the necessity for the world to find a new multilateralism to balance up a dangerous new world order. Perhaps former Irish president Mary Robinson will be proven right: the next superpower is global public opinion.
QLRS is influenced by similar ideals, that openness to a multiplicity of perspectives will promote understanding for all. It's why we've been careful to let the quality of the writing be the yardstick, rather than the positions taken by the writers. We do not censor opinions; for example, we have offered space in the past to someone who felt that QLRS was a negative development for Singapore literature (regrettably he did not take up the offer - it would have been an interesting read).
In a time that has encountered such remarkable transformations of words ("freedom", "liberation", "coalition", "war on terror", "embedded"), we believe still in the transformative power of words in literature: that they can move us, rouse us to action, give us pause to think and allow us to safely disagree. This is where a literary journal projects its relevance beyond its stated aims, in promoting thoughtful, attentive, authentic and disciplined use of language.
We are fortunate, in this issue, to have a number of writers considering similar ideas. In his essay, 'In praise of multilingualism, bad French and the canoe instructor', which he delivered to a mixed Swiss, French and Singaporean audience at the Alliance Française in March, Swiss writer Daniel de Roulet investigates not only the use of language but the interactions between languages, particularly in a small pluralistic country not unlike Singapore. There is a literary account of cross-cultural engagement in Desmond Kwok's short story 'Beijing', and an investigation of the conditions of empathy in Felix Cheong's new collection and his interview with Alvin Pang. A review of a groundbreaking book, People Like Us reminds us that language is the way people represent themselves to the world, and lets us reflect that understanding begins at home.
Here's to better times.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003
Can a media network be truly independent? Discuss in the Forum.