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TO BE TAKEN WITH A PINCH OF SALT

A newly appointed American correspondent in New Delhi asked a veteran New York Times newsman stationed here for advice. 'India is a very complicated country', he was told, 'and often very difficult to understand. Therefore only report what you can clearly see.'

That bit of professional advice would help not only in India, but also elsewhere. But the world, especially after 9/11, has become a place where the line between what we are able to see and what is really out there has been nearly obliterated. For journalists now, it is no longer simply a matter of spin. It is no longer a matter of emphasizing things that are favourable and ignoring things that are not. What the people now are confronted with is a mix of lies, reality and fantasy, put together with inventive skill and a sense of purpose, and for which there are no apologies.

To the question whether we know what is going on in the world, the only possible answer is 'very little'. Even of that we are increasingly unsure. On 9/11, the planes that brought down the twin tower were hijacked within a gap of half-an-hour. Flight deviations alone should have alerted the defence. It was thirty-five minutes later that the first attack occurred, followed by the second twenty minutes later. Who was alerted, and when, has not been revealed. Nor has there been any explanation why the president continued to linger at his school meeting. Was he stunned' Was he desperately trying to figure out what he should do'

As intriguing was the sudden authorized exodus of well known Saudi citizens from America, about which many questions have been asked. Then there was the 'weapons of mass destruction' fantasy that was sought as a justification for the war on 'terror' that has dangerously destabilized west Asia. It was a 'reality' that became progressively unreal, provoking many questions. If the United States of America truly believed that Saddam Hussein had WMD, would it have so blatantly invited a nuclear retaliation' Or was unilateral action launched precisely because it knew that Saddam was innocent and could be toppled' Robin Cook, who one must suppose knew what he was talking about, has confirmed that Tony Blair privately conceded two weeks before the war that Iraq 'did not have any usable weapons of mass destruction'. How are we to sort this out' At what stage does misinformation become 'manufactured reality', and finally unabashed falsehood'

In Afghanistan and Iraq, at Guantanamo, the detention centres in Kabul and Abu Ghraib, a cover-up culture is plainly at work. Jessica Lynch is supposed to have shot at the terrorists until her ammunition ran out, and she was 'rescued' by brave, enterprising American commandos. All this is more than 'embedded' journalism. It is a deliberate subordination of information to serve predetermined political objectives.

According to a survey, 80 per cent of Fox viewers are convinced that WMD were found in Iraq, that Iraq was in collusion with al Qaida, and that the world community had not only supported but had taken part in the operation against Saddam. Yet another survey has revealed that a high percentage of Americans get their world news from 'comedy' programmes by Jay Leno and his tribe.

Go through the reports of how Saddam was allegedly captured and again the conflict between truth and fiction comes into play. How ironic that at a time when 'transparency' and 'free flow of information' are on everyone's lips, all we have is obfuscation, if not unseen indoctrination.

Take the magic word 'demonstration', a favourite in the political vocabulary of neo-conservative publicists, that suggests that the people's verdict is spontaneously expressed out in the streets. Demonstrations have erupted in recent times in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Lebanon. A publication by the Congress-funded US Institute of Peace alleges that UStrained non-violent volunteers were responsible for the mass movement against Slobodan Milosevic. Much the same happened in Georgia during the removal of Eduard Shevardnadze, and in Indonesia as a prelude to the removal of Sukarno. The Bush administration itself has confirmed that 'freedom' is being promoted in west Asia by a US-financed programme to which rich Arab states were asked to contribute.

When South Koreans marched against their president seeking his impeachment, the role of the US was immediately suspected. True, the US alone is not solely responsible for this particular form of intervention. But today it alone has the money power, resources, pressure skills and political clout to stage-manage demonstrations against what it summarily calls 'dictators' who need to be removed for America's interests.

Apparently, $ 58 million were spent by the US in Ukraine to 'promote democracy' in the run-up to ousting the government. In cooperation with the European Union and the Polish president, the White House is supposed to have successfully organized Viktor Yushchenko's victory despite Vladimir Putin's resistance.

Bush calls this a transformation process and is dutifully echoed by Condoleezza Rice, who assures us that 'we have the power to do it and we'll just do it'. Since no event is considered 'real' unless it is reproduced on the TV, demonstrations in particular are tailor-made for this. Naturally, pro-Yushchenko demonstrations were described as spontaneous and the ones of the opposition were either ignored or badly covered. Never mind the reality of the Syria-Lebanon conflict, and much can be said for both sides, the anti-Syrian demonstration was thought to be a massive one.

It is in Asia that the most damaging victimization takes place. Post-9/11, we have had to increasingly ask which events or happenings concerning the East, in particular the formerly colonized nations, have been truthfully reported. Asia has depended and continues to depend on the Western media for the 'authorized' versions of global events. Yet, looked critically, these versions can no longer be blindly accepted. One thinks of the Opium wars, the sack of Peking, the Nanking massacre, the Indian 'Mutiny', Pearl Harbour, and one begins to realize the extent to which a revisionist view of the past is essential as a corrective to the motivated distortions of the present.

If, for example, the Tiananmen affair is not replaced in the right perspective, and continues to remain a piece of 'opinionated reporting', no sense can be made of the Communist Party's role in China today and its views on democracy. The former UN secretary-general, Javier P'rez de Cu'llar, has dismissed reports of the crack-down in 1989 as 'exaggerated'. Mediapersons themselves like Phillip Knightly and academics like Phillipa Tristram have made a point-by-point refutation of the fiction of the uprising being a pro-democracy student movement.

True to form, the US has brought all its manipulative skills to bear on this early pre-Bush bid to push democracy in Asia. It is supposed to have instructed the right quarters to inform the Chinese president that he should not be upset by what America felt obliged to say publicly on this subject.

Such is the dominance of the Western media and the extent of its control on both the extent and quality of the information flow that an Asian version of global happenings is something that is rarely heard. The current split between the EU and the US over lifting the arms embargo imposed on China after Tiananmen has as its basis a narrow obsessive concern with registering disapproval on the US. Lifting the embargo will have a positive symbolic significance for the Chinese, although it will not necessarily lead to a major flow of heavy arms to Beijing.

During the Spanish civil war George Orwell remarked that 'History stopped in 1936', meaning that after this year, history ceased to be what it was and became a manufactured product. And the consequences of this are now fully upon us. The advice of the New York Times journalist can perhaps be usefully re-written as follows: 'The world is a very complicated place and often very difficult to understand, therefore only report after reconsidering what you clearly see.'

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