For U.S., managing foreign media is a no-win proposition

April 25, 2011

When is the Defense Department going to quit trying to manage other countries’ media?

This month, the United States Forces-Afghanistan is back in the market for a contractor to assist the command’s deputy chief of staff of communications in carrying out “proactively” public affairs activities and countering “misinformation in the media,” according to a solicitation notice.

It carries the same old slogans: “The information domain is a battle space and it is one in which [the U.S. Afghan command] must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception.”

This not the first of these multimillion-dollar Pentagon PR contracts. Nor is it the first one that potentially could run for five years. By the way, that would it expires in 2016, two years after our combat troops are scheduled to have left.

Face it. The overall U.S. record of influencing media in a foreign country — particularly those where U.S. troops have fought — is not very good, and recent attempts by U.S. military units have been even worse.

Take Iraq, for example.

“Despite massive infusions of cash from the U.S. government for media development — more than $500 million by most estimates — the country’s media future does not look promising on several fronts.” That’s a finding from a study, “Iraq’s News Media After Saddam,” released last month by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Pentagon’s pre-invasion planning for Iraq’s media, in a post-Saddam environment, was about as off-target as the rest of the effort from Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department team. There was to be a $2 million Rapid Reaction Media Team for six months, which would serve as a bridge between the old state-controlled journalism and the new, free one. Another $49 million would be thrown in to start radio and television stations and run them for a year.

The team’s mission would be to “inform the Iraqi public about the USG [U.S. government]/coalition intent and operations; stabilize Iraq [especially preventing the trifurcation of Iraq after hostilities]; and provide Iraqis hope for their future,” according to a Jan. 16, 2003, Pentagon white paper that was released years ago by the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University.

Eventually, the Pentagon spent $200 million between 2003 and 2005 on Iraq media, initially through U.S. contractors who had technical but no media background to run what had been Saddam’s television, radio and newspaper operations. In 2004, the U.S.-supervised media outlets were turned over to the interim Iraqi government. Today the stations and newspaper are euphemistically referred to as “Maliki TV,” after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As for the rest of the Iraq media, the CIMA study found many “have become mouthpieces for ethno-politico factions with the potential to inflame sectarian divisions that have led the country to the brink of civil war.”

Tight Baghdad government control of the media, ironically, is traced back to the time when former ambassador L. Paul Bremer ran the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and signed off on CPA Article 14 in June 2003. Titled the “Prohibited Media Activity,” it sought “to prevent the misuse of media to promote violence or undermine public security generally.” It even allowed “on-site inspection of media organizations without notice in order to ascertain compliance . . . and seal off any operating premises.”

“Order 14 remains on the books, and Iraqi authorities continue to use it,” according to the CIMA study.

In addition, Order 65 of March 2004 established the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission, which required broadcasters to give equal access to political parties. But in the March 2010 elections, all media members were required to register with the commission and pledge not to incite violence or sectarianism — the latter being a goal of one political party.

The Arab Spring demonstrators in other countries have their counterparts in Iraq, and the Maliki government has cracked down on journalists and their outlets. In late February, following Iraq’s “Day of Rage” protests, Iraqi security forces detained 300 people, including journalists who took part in or covered the protests, according to al-Jazeera.

One final note in the CIMA report: “Iraq is the worst country in the world for bringing killers of journalists to justice. Of the 93 murdered from 2003 to 2010, there have been no convictions.”

Back in Afghanistan, the United States continues its multifaceted media approach. The U.S. embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development are spending millions for their own ambitious Afghanistan Media Development and Empowerment Project.

In seeking contractor help, the U.S. Afghan command wants to expand its 24-hour-a-day monitoring — in Pashto, Dari and English — not only radio, television and print, but also Internet and “audio,” which likely means cellphone transmissions.

The public affairs tasks associated with the contract call for individuals who will help “assist efforts to connect [Afghan government officials] to the Afghan populace by contextualizing communication outreach at the district and province level.”

Against all these strained American efforts, it may be worth looking for a moment at Saad Hohseni, the chairman of Moby Group in Afghanistan, which owns a media conglomerate including radio and television networks, a film production company and an advertising agency.

According to Kenneth Auletta, who profiled Mohseni last year in the New Yorker magazine, a USAID grant worth several hundred thousand dollars helped get him and his brothers started. Since then, ads from U.S. and other foreign governments, including those recruiting volunteers for the Afghan Army and police, have helped keep the company going.

Its programs include an Afghan version of “American Idol,” plus soap operas and other reality shows that have made it popular in a country where illiteracy is near 90 percent. Auletta wrote Mohseni’s programming “has a more profound impact than a newscast about a story in Kandahar.”

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