Revisiting Media Imperialism – Evaluating the Disparity in International News Flow

An escalating extremist insurgency in Northern Mozambique has displaced more than 3 lakh people creating an urgent humanitarian crisis and food insecurity; catastrophic floods ravaged Sudan displacing over 500,000 people, the worst in over 30 years; fires have destroyed Greece’s largest migrant camp in Lesbos leaving about 13,000 people unsheltered. These are some drastic events that happened in the last 3 months around the globe, which have failed to make any headlines in our major news outlets. Head to the home page of any major new sites today and one will get the impression that Trump’s unlettered tweets are more newsworthy than the state of people being torn apart by civil wars and violence in other parts of the world.

This dominance and influence of Western media structures gave rise to the term ‘media imperialism’. Media imperialism and globalization has now become a challenge as it is maneuvering the developing countries on every front including economical, cultural, political and ideological. Although some might argue that this creates a heterogeneous trove of information for people to pick and choose, in practice it isn’t this rosy. The vertical flow denies the public an opportunity to participate in the production of communication and information content. Certain organisations have been empowered to determine the flow as to what goes out and comes in. This news coverage is designed to meet the national needs of the country of origin, blatantly disregarding the impact of such news beyond their territorial frontiers.

Discourse around NWICO

This debate about imbalanced flow of news has been raging for decades now, after gaining momentum in the Post World War II phase. After disintegration of the Soviet Union, free trade and free flow of information emerged as dominant philosophies under the pretext of ‘globalization’, and the West especially United States was the chief protagonist of this idea. However, even prior to this, the rapid advancement in the communication and technological resources facilitated the Western dominance in global news flow. Almost 80% of the global news originate from major news agencies of developed nations and devote only 20%-30% of their coverage to the developing nations. As a result of this, the developing nations called for redistribution of news flow due to unequal representation, this led to the establishment of NWICO (New World Information and Communication Order) on the recommendations of the MacBride Commission, under the aegis of UNESCO.

One of the main concerns articulated under this Commission was the one-way flow of information from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’, which created a wide gap between haves and have-nots. This vertical flow was dominated by the Western based transnational corporations which resultantly created inequities between the core and the periphery. One would have thought that NWICO would address this imbalance in news flow, but even after almost 45 years of its inception, the global news coverage has now only grown more skewed, essentially widening the gap rather than narrowing it down.

Structural imperialism and impact of 9/11 news coverage

Reinforcing the need to restructure the global news system, a study was conducted to prove that the change in United States news coverage after the 9/11 incident could be explained by the prevailing structural imperialism that determines news coverage. As predicted a major news event projecting a ‘core’ country, further strengthened the news patterns that was already inclined to provide greater coverage to the core. Thus, there was a trend post 2001 which showed a direct proportion between the economic development of a nation and the news coverage allotted to it. This has a dramatically negative impact, as a large part of the world is marginalised by the US based news agencies, further perpetuating the power of the core countries at the cost of neglecting the periphery.

Had the media coverage, related to events in 9/11 been more accurately and judiciously covered, US would have a hard time pursuing its unpleasant agendas in Western and Central Asia. Following this, the American media projected the need of the Administration to protect the US in particular, and its allies from such attacks henceforth. No concrete evidence was ever provided that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 events, yet the US administration’s ‘War on Terrorism’ was justified by almost every media agency. Misinformation from the battlefield was relayed immediately and uncritically, and often not revoked when discovered to be false. The administration dismissed reports by the Iraqi State Television (along with Aljazeera and other independent global sources) as ‘evil propaganda’, further wielding their global telecommunication dominance to legitimize their own interests. The media, majorly CNN, BBC and Reuters usually portrayed Saddam as a ‘Dictator’ to justify the allied forces attack on Iraq as a ‘War for democracy’ and ‘Fight for Human Rights’. It did not focus on the humanitarian aspects of killing of civilians, trying to reason it under the notorious term ‘collateral damage’. This phenomenon has also been called the ‘CNN Effect Theory’.

Likewise, when US attacked Afghanistan in 2001, coverage was provided mainly by US Media. Similarly, when a bomb was dropped by US in an Afghan wedding, killing scores of people, it went largely unnoticed by sources like CNN. Not a single Afghan source or other countries media houses were even allowed to enter the war zones to report. This suggests that mass media content is like a commodity without reflecting any objective reality, we consume as meek recipients.

Contemporary perspective and outcome

There is no denying the fact that the initial incapacity and inability of the colonised and under-developed nations (aka Global South) gave head way to the Western nations to hegemonize their communication and information resources after the industrial revolution. However, as things began to unfold and the dependency on the Western programming began to decrease, the imbalance of flow continued to exist. Even after labouring efforts through NWICO, there was no major transformation, and we continued to build this fictional hierarchy of industrialized nations as top superiors and the cultures of other nations at the bottom. On this account NWICO has been devitalised by raging debates accusing it of infringing freedom of press, encouraging censorship, and state control of the press. The entire NWICO movement died due to these reasons as protested by US and UK’s withdrawal, reasoning a threat to their right to communicate.

A sharp look at this same issue can be witnessed even today. While the COVID-19 pandemic has impaired the entire globe, we’ve all received regular updates about the abysmal conditions in America and some parts of Europe, whilst conveniently side-lining the LIC (lower income countries) in Asia and Africa, without any concern or awareness. The idea of social distancing and timely sanitation assume a very middle-class world. Countries including Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia started contact tracing and isolation from the first week itself. On the contrary, countries like US and France started contact tracing only in the fourth month of the outbreak. Instead, Senegal did what most countries couldn’t, they developed an immune-based diagnostic kit for $1 each that gave results in 10 minutes. With this, they emerged as the third largest country globally in-patient recovery. Quite predictably, this was not reported by our so called ‘diverse’ media because third world countries are seen as less newsworthy, due to their perceived primitive level of civilisation, as portrayed all along.

Instrument of cultural paramountcy

Another characteristic about the free flow of media, is that media globalisation and cultural invasion are unidirectional. Media imperialism is also used as a tool of cultural domination, to maintain the supremacy of western culture. The cultural dimensions in different countries wary immensely, particularly in the advancing social concepts today like feminism. Mainstream feminism in contemporary times places reliance on the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomena which was led by Hilary Clinton. This has been grounded at the very outset in women who are fundamentally on top of the ladder and are able to pursue it to further shattering the glass ceiling. This mainstream concept privileges’ those who are already superior and privileged, and is bound to be irrelevant to coloured women, women in lower income and emerging nations, trans women, ethnic women, etc. Therefore, the proliferation of this kind of feminism worldwide, only works in the interest of women belonging to affluent countries, disregarding the rest.

Emerging economies can uncolonize the current global media agencies

During the colonial era, media was organized to gratify the needs of the colonial powers; and following the end of colonialism, the media hasn’t yet let loose on this agenda. The reason for this partly is also because those with great power tend to exercise greater influence. Quite undeniably stronger the developed world grows, the greater its ability to wield the information communication apparatus in its favor. Presently, this is where the emerging nations can factor in a few measures such as: investing in an independent information mechanism of correspondents that can monitor and publish pieces to counter the negative propaganda; stronger reliance on regional journalists and media content; build their own communication facilities and break their dependency on global media; and develop strong networks of information to avert electronic colonialism (for instance propaganda).

News does not operate in a vacuum, we know that there are several factors that shape its behavior. Today, the developing countries are not seeking to patronize the dissemination of information, but rather a balanced approach that reflects their standing. Plurality of representation in media content will go a long way in developing international harmonization and cooperation that is so urgently needed in times of crisis.

-Avisha Pawar (Freelancer)

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