Volume , Number 0
Europe in Ten Questions
Redistricting Returns With A Vengeance
Repairing the damage
Democracy and the War on â€¦
Jonathan lawson and susan Gleason
Unions Must Tap Young Workers
2001 In Music
The Fruits Of NAFTA
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Journal of 15th Year
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Democracy and the War on Dissent
Jonathan Lawson and Susan Gleason
The social and political climate of post-September 11 America has seen intense pressures for citizens to conform to particular forms of patriotism. Pressures have flowed from the U.S. federal government's repeated (and rather anti-democratic) calls for unity, and have been broadcast and amplified by a national media, which has shown itself very willing to toe the official line rather than invoke voices of dissent.
At the same time, however, using the Internet as an organizing tool, a distribution network and a publishing platform, the Independent Media Center (IMC) network continues to grow in size and exposure as more progressive organizations and ordinary folks look to its websites for media alternatives.
The IMC's unique “open publishing” system, by which independent journalists publish their own media directly to the web, makes browsing Indymedia sites a mixed bag of thoughtful analyses, activist dispatches, on-the-street news items, rants, and reprinted media from unknown publications or organizations. Without a central editorial authority dispatching reporters (or fact-checking stories), readers are obliged to think critically as they are reading—to allow a story to provoke further research, further reading, and—perhaps—further writing.
Even before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and before the wave of reactionary law enforcement measures rammed through Congress in the weeks which followed, critics of power politics in the United States understood that the Bush administration was on the lookout for aggressive strategies to promote its neoliberal economic agenda (inherited from the Clinton administration) while stifling domestic unrest.
In the Nation (dated September 17; the last issue published before September 11), for example, Edward Said wrote that “Bush, Blair and their feeble partners prepare their citizens for an indeterminate war against Islamic terrorism, rogue states and the rest,” an example of what he termed “diversions from the social and economic disentitlements occurring in reality.” At home, Said observed, orthodox catchphrases of globalization such as ‘free trade,' ‘privatization' and so forth, are repeated over and again “not as they sometimes seem to be—as instigations for debate—but quite the opposite, to stifle, preempt and crush dissent.”
Said's unfortunately prescient words were quickly forgotten in the patriotic fervor imposed after September 11, as forces within the Bush administration rushed to link a cornucopia of pet projects to its newly-justified anti-terrorist quest. Before bombs began to fall in Afghanistan, some of the most shameless and morally bankrupt rhetoric came from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who asserted that anti-globalization protesters have “intellectual connections” with terrorists and that pursuing free trade was an important way to combat global terrorism.
New, expanded definitions of terrorism were part of a colossal package of law enforcement legislation rushed through Congress without debate or other regular processes. The Patriot Act, as it was passed into law in late October, is 342 pages long—its many controversial provisions for expansions of police and prosecutorial power were likely part of Justice Department and FBI wish lists long before the bill's introduction as a timely anti-terrorist measure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) has made a detailed initial analysis of the act and its potential affects on electronic media.
Reflecting on the increasing pressure government forces have been placing on anti-globalization demonstrators since the Seattle WTO ministerial, many activist groups have charged that the real purpose of this legislation is to criminalize organized protest, through expanded definitions of terrorism and surveillance authority. Because of our relationship with the anti-globalization and environmentalist activist movements, and because we have already had encounters with police and federal law enforcement agencies, Indymedia volunteers are also taking a hard look at these new laws.
Most IMC volunteers probably describe themselves as activists as well as journalists. Credentialed IMC journalists working in the midst of street protests have relied on their press badges to distinguish themselves from protesters, although this has not stopped them from getting gassed, pepper-sprayed, and arrested by police in Seattle and elsewhere.
In recent months, the Seattle IMC has covered numerous local stories chronicling recent government crackdowns or violations of civil liberties. Some of these have directly resulted from the new anti-terrorist fervor in law enforcement: nonviolent School of the Americas Watch organizers and anti-globalization protesters have been denied entry into Canada; residents and supporters of Seattle's Somali community protested the government shutdown of several Somali-owned businesses, one of which was allegedly suspected of having links to international terrorists. In a ruling that showed remarkable contempt for the First Amendment, a Seattle judge found constitutional the “no-protest zones” created during the WTO to foil demonstrators.
Stories like these get a much different spin in the corporate media, where restrictions on subject matter and actual debate have increased in the post-September 11 patriotic fervor.
The mainstream press, more often than not, takes administration rhetoric at face value, relying on official sources to describe current events, and allowing its claims to go unchallenged. As recently reported by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (www.fair.org), mainstream networks CNN and FOX instituted official wartime policies requiring journalists to downplay reports of Afghan civilian casualties. Reporting on domestic approval of the U.S. bombing, NPR's Cokie Roberts was asked by the host whether there were dissenting views among the public. Her reply: “None that matter.”
In its own public addresses, the Bush administration has foregone thoughtful analysis of complex issues, offering instead “non-negotiable” policies and simplistic explanations.
Reporting on anti-war sentiment, including large demonstrations, is systematically marginal- ized by most mainstream print media as well. When 65,000 demonstrators marched in Washington, DC on October 26, the Washington Post ran a single photo—depicting a lone, angry counter-protester. When acknowledged in written reports, large demonstrations are interpreted as threats to public safety and often described using prejudicial and unwarranted language. Two years afterwards, it is common for the Seattle Times to report as fact wildly inaccurate fantasies about the “riots” and “widespread property destruction” that accompanied WTO protests.
Through ceaseless repetition, this way of marginalizing protest movements has affected even the alternative press. For example, both of Seattle's major alternative weeklies have published articles lightly dismissing recent anti-war protests as unsophisticated, old- fashioned, or muddled.
What Is To Be Done?
Independent Media Centers continue to produce and disseminate important stories and critical perspectives that are overlooked or purposefully ignored by the mainstream. At the same time, we encourage activists to become more analytical consumers of the media, to develop mental tools that make it easier to see around the propaganda, to see how stories are shaped by ideological presuppositions, and to become articulate media critics, speaking about or publishing one's own critiques of the mainstream press.
Here are several guidelines for increasing media literacy skills, followed by additional guidelines for media activists who choose to take up the Indymedia challenge. These guidelines draw from Ali Abunimah and Rania Masri's critique of Gulf War news coverage (in Iraq Under Siege, Anthony Arnove, ed.; South End Press).
Media Literacy Guidelines
1. When reading, watching or listening to news media, become an “analyst.” For every report you come across, ask, “Whose voices are included, whose are excluded? What hidden presuppositions helped shape this story?”
2. Read widely. All news media is shaped by particular political, economic and ethical positions; get your news from multiple sources and read them comparatively and critically. Seek out noncommercial and international sources of information. For those with Internet access, browsing the web makes this easy. Labor unions, NGOs, and advocacy groups such as the Institute for Policy Studies or Public Citizen, often post detailed news stories concerning specific issues.
3. Discuss your findings with others. As you develop your own good habits, share them with your friends and co-workers. Everyone discusses the news—use these discussions to sharpen your own thinking about the media we consume as well as to educate others.
1. Stay awake. We are all affected by the propaganda pushed by corporate America—activists need to be vigilant in keeping themselves and each other alert.
2. Learn the battlefield and choose your battles. None of us can read or listen to everything; none of us can cover every story. Choose a topic or situation that interests you and learn about it. As time goes by, you will become more expert in your chosen area and readers will learn to trust your writing.
3. Communicate effectively. Write down your observations, make a radio or video piece. Whether you are writing a current events story, a media analysis article or an opinion piece, present facts as accurately as you can. If your piece contains movement jargon or comes across as a rant, readers may put less stock in what you have to say.
4. Develop networks. Make contact with other journalists, activists, or organizations interested in the same issues. Support and advocate for independent media sources.
5. Be persistent. Make things happen. Submit your writings to independent media sources. Publish your articles, photos, video and audio pieces to any Indymedia site (look for the publish button on the front page). Once an article is posted to an IMC, it remains archived there—readers can search for your writings and link to them from elsewhere. Z
Jonathan Lawson and Susan Gleason are journalists, educators, and organizers at the Seattle Independent Media Center (seattle.indymedia.org), part of the global IMC network (www.indymedia.org).