Thursday, June 23, 2005

Return of the Media Guerrilla: Propaganda Lives!!

Bula (greetings) from the Fiji Islands. After a week of trying to login in and many bad thoughts regarding the life of a hitchhiker on the information superhighway, I finally managed to log on to this site and blog.

Here in the southwest Pacific, the latest rave is about the "Pacific Plan": strategies for Pacific Island countries to protect itself against the tidal waves of globalisation. Rumours of all Pacific island currencies being pinned to the Australian Dollar and visions of an economic trading block a la the European Union have rattled many an NGO. Pacific Island leaders will meet in a few months to ratify the plan.

But what has this to do with Media and Communications? Well the first time my small community of Pacific Islander theologians and pretty much the rest of Fiji heard about the Pacific Plan was via a television commercial promoting the plan. I say promoting and not informing about the plan because the TVC, funded by the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, was a glossy, feel good 30-second ad telling of a need for the plan and that we should participate in it - Pacific Ownership. A public forum on the plan to raise awareness of something that will affect every man, woman and child in the Pacific and perhaps beyond, was held weeks later with only about 100 people in attendence, mainly from NGOs - not much public. The forum secretariat highlighted that media campaigns are and integral part of the plan, a statement followed by a 25-minute current affairs discussion programme on Fiji Television that Sunday night.

Access to information is still a commodity denied to many in the Pacific. It's a shame that those who purport to protect the interests of the Pacific deny their own people the information on which important decisions are made. Glossy ads are the propaganda of today. Short 30-second ads with information about the effect of the plan have yet to air...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The vision and mission of mainstream media?

The vision and mission of mainstream media?
Sell the world to an audience and sell the audience -- you and I -- to big corporations.

(This is an ad by a telephone company for cheap international calls, KL(Malaysia), 21 June 2005. Useful service for more connectivity between people but consider the value on which the connectivity is being promoted.)

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Demonising for Dummies (Malaysia)

Demonising for dummies

by Mustafa K Anuar11:31:42 AM Sep 10, 2002

Hurling names and labels such as ‘extremists’ by government leaders against their perceived political foes has become a regular feature in Malaysia’s political culture over the years to a degree that demands unpacking, as writer James Wong Wing On had done recently, of this ugly phenomenon ( In need for an objective definition of 'extremism').

Labelling or (derogatory) categorisation of certain groups of people is symptomatic of a society where unequal power relations prevail. This is because labelling primarily involves language, and given that language is often a site of contestation, there’s bound to be a number of individuals and groups competing to influence, nay dominate, public discourses on certain issues of public interest and significance through discoursal devices such as labelling and stereotyping.
Those in a position of power and authority tend to have an edge over others in terms of popularising and perpetuating certain terms and labels whose original meanings may have been deliberately blurred.

This is why government leaders such as Dr Mahathir Mohamad are at a vantage point to not only vary meanings to certain labels and categories, but also to disseminate these modified definitions over a period of time when some of these terms may become eventually acceptable to some extent by a substantial number of people.

Hence, as rightly pointed out by James Wong, Dong Zong chairperson, Quek Soon Hiong and adviser, Sim Mou Yu were painted as ‘extremists’ by the prime minister over the proposal to teach science and mathematics in English in Chinese medium schools as well.

In contrast, Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir of Umno Youth who threatened to burn the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall was not categorised as such by the ruling elite even though his planned action is anything but non-violent and democratic.

To use another example, students critical of the government are given a broad brush of ‘anti-government’ paint, a word that is impregnated with such negative connotations as nagging dogmatism, violence, ungrateful elements, misguided youths, radicals etc.

Cruel forms of social control

In this context, the mass media are a significant institutional tool that assists the group in power in spreading and legitimating labels.

Indeed, labels or categories that are produced have a high tendency to sustain themselves and to gain currency if they are propagated consistently and ingeniously especially through the mass media.

In this, opposition parties have an uphill task basically because they aren’t likely to get ‘help’ from the mainstream media.

But it’s more than just merely changing definitions, this labelling. It involves attempts by the groups concerned to offer their own ‘explanation’ about a particular issue or phenomenon so that at the end of the day members of the general public could make sense of things happening around them — through the former’s lenses.

Such a labelling — and its attendant explanation — is intended to give an impression to the rest of society that an ‘aberrant’ group has deviated from the norms, values, and beliefs that ‘we’ all share and treasure. In other words, this particular ‘deviant’ group is a threat to ‘society’ and therefore has to be dealt with accordingly by the authorities concerned.

To reiterate, labels that have connotations of deviance can evoke a strong sense of outrage in the public mind because ‘deviant’ people are often associated with people who break laws or transgress social values. They can bring havoc to peace and prosperity, and law and order in society. And therefore these demon-like people, so goes the argument, deserve harsh punishment. In other words, demonisation, via labelling, lends legitimacy to cruel forms of social control.

Legitimate dissent criminalised

Political developments of yesteryears suggest that ‘extremists’ and ‘extremism’, for instance, are categories that have been framed by the powers that be in such a way that they would also encompass other than those who are violently dogmatic in their worldviews and practices. That is, people who basically differ with the government in their views about how to run the country, and whose views are normally expressed in ways that are peaceful and persuasive. In other words, people who are seen to be a threat to the interests of the dominant groups in society.
It is generally accepted that people who are found to have worked towards destabilising the country especially through the use of violence, and thereby jeopardising the security and interests of the country and its people, deserve to be penalised.

In the case of Malaysia, the form of punishment meted out by the government to these people is the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA).

And yet, over the years we have noticed that those who have done anything but the above have been categorised or called rather liberally such as ‘anti-national elements’, ‘traitors’, and ‘a threat to national interests or security’ and given similar form of punishment Ô detention without trial under the ISA.

In other words, the ISA net has been widened to consciously lump together political dissidents, opposition leaders, social activists, religious leaders, intellectuals, students, etc. with individuals and groups who have no compunction about using violence in order to achieve their objectives. One implication of this merging of two different categories of people under the ISA is that it has criminalised legitimate dissent in the country.

Commonsensical notion

Labelling seeks to short-circuit serious attempt at trying to understand in a logical and composed manner certain groups and phenomena. What is on offer, usually via the mainstream mass media, is the ‘commonsensical’ or short-hand notion of who, in this case, these groups or what the phenomena are, an impression that is primarily geared at securing the consensus of the ordinary people in the context of the powers that be trying to ‘deal with’ such ‘recalcitrants’.
As intimated above, for a label to ‘stick’, the spin has to have some degree of plausibility or credibility. Otherwise, ordinary people may not necessarily be convinced of the label and definition offered.

To take a recent example, the sudden outburst by Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, who screamed ‘traitors’ and ‘communists’ at cab drivers who allegedly cheated tourists, would not carry much weight if the ordinary people thought that such an expression was downright stupid. This explains why the cabbies themselves, among others, have in turn boldly demanded an apology from the minister.

One of the dangers of labelling, as already implied above, especially when it is committed continuously over a considerable space of time and with its amplification by the mass media, is that, it could help build up in the popular imagination a picture of a society that is under siege by these ‘deviants’ or ‘law-breakers’.

If and when some degree of panic prevails as a consequence, members of the public could fall victim to the shenanigan of the powers that be by giving tacit or open support to the latter’s design to enforce religiously restrictive laws that are purportedly meant to maintain so-called law and order in society. In short, such a political climate provides a convenient pretext for the group in power to exercise social control as a way of protecting their vested interests.

War against terrorism

Unstable political situations across the globe, such as the case after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US, can only serve to further heighten the sense of insecurity among the citizenry of a country.

US President George W Bush’s war against terrorism (the definition of which is being thrust upon the world), for example, has provided a convenient opportunity and ‘cover’ for certain national governments worldwide to weed out their opposition leaders, political dissidents and critics all under the guise of waging a war against terrorism and protecting national security. Overnight, one has seen a series of arrests made on individuals and/or groups deemed, for instance, ‘extremists’ or ‘supporters of terrorism’.

One can indeed be ‘bedevilled’ by the art of labelling.