30th May 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

Propaganda on the March: Political Control of Journalism and the Threat to Ethics

Aidan White

Political propaganda is making news again in Europe.

In the conflict between Ukraine and Russia mainstream media, with echoes of cold war propaganda, have been vitriolic in support of their governments.

Russia set the tone for this information war with the appointment of Dimitry Kiselyov, an aggressive spin doctor who has put in place a media strategy based upon deceptive handling of the truth with no time or space for the other side of the story.

Everywhere in this dispute propaganda has become the weapon of choice, reducing the complex political agenda to simplistic sound bites and encouraging rumour, speculation and public uncertainty.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, media coverage of territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, is less about analysis, context and careful reporting than megaphone politics and belligerent nationalism.

None of this should be surprising, after all propaganda is thousands of years old. But in the digital age the scope for misinformation, hate speech and malicious demonizing of political opponents has never been greater.

Propaganda has no attachment to ethics other than to serve the self-interest of those behind it and journalists who challenge it face victimisation. In Egypt, for instance, where news media in unholy alliance with the government have been happily self-censoring themselves following the ousting of President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, journalists who have voiced criticism of the official line have faced isolation and removal.

Impartiality and independence may be cornerstones of credible journalism, but there are signs that pressure on media to submit to the political spin of their governments may be about to increase.

A debate now emerging in the United States may lead to yet more propaganda.

In a recent foreign policy speech Barack Obama has outlined a future strategy based less upon military intervention and more on public diplomacy. Less war-mongering will be welcome and it will almost certainly lead to more investment in media and information services. But this change in strategy may also lead to new pressures on independent news reporting.

This issue is already causing controversy in the US Congress where lawmakers are carrying out a makeover of Voice of America (VOA). Like the BBC World Service, Radio France Internationale, and Deutsche Welle in Germany, VOA has long been caught between its mission to support the government and its journalistic duty to provide credible and independent news.

Governments in Washington, Berlin, Paris and London like to think of themselves as world leaders in building respect for democratic values, but when it comes to state-funding of media for foreign coverage, they sometimes draw the line at giving journalists their full independence.

Last month the Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress, launching a plan to overhaul VOA, decided to tighten controls on the agency so that its new coverage “is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.” In others words, less news and more propaganda.

Few journalists in the United States journalists outside VOA may regard it as a serious news organisation, but the network does have a commitment to journalistic standards and has internal rules that spell this out. The law of 1976 which established the agency made it clear that it is not just a government mouthpiece. It is expected to be an “accurate, objective and comprehensive” source of news.

Journalists working at VOA – and those employed at other major western state broadcasters – are rightly alarmed over plans to interfere with its news coverage and to downgrade its journalism.

It’s a sign that some western lawmakers, in the face of the more openly biased and pro-governmental coverage of networks such as Russia Today and China’s CCTV, think that the answer to propaganda is more of the same.

If Washington starts dictating the news to the outside world then there will be pressure on governments elsewhere to press their own state-funded media to follow suit.

It’s a dangerous strategy that undermines the credibility of journalism and will narrow the scope for careful, unbiased and informed reporting.

Even worse it will validate the propagandists in Kiev, Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere. It will lead to even more hate-speech and distortion in the news.

To counter this development the Ethical Journalism Network is promoting more debate within media in regions of conflict to strengthen journalism in the face of calls to patriotism and political pressure to toe the official line.

We have been suggesting, for example, that independent media in Ukraine and Russia should have dialogue on how to overcome the threat of propaganda. The same could happen in India and Pakistan, and in other regions where long-running political disputes have created obstacles to professional solidarity.

Other initiatives along these lines have been tried and some have worked – such as the solidarity centre for independent media established during the Balkan war in the 1990s which brought together independent media from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia and prevented the elimination of the small, but vital community of ethical journalists in the region.

It is not easy, but counter information strategies are essential if politicians turn to propaganda to solve their information challenges rather than place their faith in ethical and independent journalism.

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Photo credit: DonkeyHotey