Against the grain: The media and cultural imperialism

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 1, 2021 - February 07, 2021.
Against the grain: The media and cultural imperialism
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Almost 50 years ago, an interesting and still-relevant article about the media, entitled “Is the Asian broadcaster serving two masters or one?” was published. Written by YVL Rao and PRR Sinha, the article, in the journal Media Asia (Vol 1, No 4, 1974), deals with the question of how the broadcast media meets the national interest.

The piece is relevant to us as it speaks more broadly to concerns with all media, and not just broadcasters. Furthermore, the question that remains pertinent today is whether the media, in particular, the state-run media, has two masters or one.

For Rao and Sinha, to perform a positive function, the media ought to act as if it has two masters. It needs to see itself as a medium between the government or planner, and the public. The duty of the media is to “take messages back and forth between the two masters that he serves”.

In order to do this, the media needs to take into account both the priorities of the government and the needs of the public. The reason for the negative perception that the public often has towards the state-run media is that it is seen as government-controlled and, therefore, unfree. It is seen as a tool for government propaganda, refracting or hiding the truth and promoting the interests of the state and the ruling elite, as well as pandering to the whims and fancies of reactionary and populist forces.

Such media neither functions to mediate between the interests of the public and the state, nor plays the role of educating the public by raising its intellectual and cultural standards. As noted by Rao and Sinha, government-controlled media tends not to pay attention to the public’s needs and aspirations, or to their views and attitudes concerning the main issues of the day.

The question of one or two masters is further complicated by the reality of the influence of the Western media in Third World countries. This refers to the problem of media imperialism.

A former Indian minister of information and broadcasting, Vidya Charan Shukla, said that “indeed, the growth of most of the international news agencies appears fully linked with the political and economic power which the former colonial countries have tried to wield over the rest of the world. The theme of ‘free’ flow of information, which was chanted in chorus, was aimed to enable all countries in name, but only the powerful in reality, to pump their information into all regions of the world without let or hindrance. Non-aligned countries till today have been able to do almost nothing to protect their national interests against such onslaughts”.

In fact, the media and communication does have a role in cultural domination. It has long been recognised that the doctrine of the free flow of information has an imperialist nature to it. It is part of the larger phenomenon of cultural imperialism. The consciousness of the public is indeed manipulated and programmed. Media imperialism refers to the domination and over-presence of the mass media of economically and politically powerful nations in weaker nations. The nature of the domination is such that national and regional identities of the nations are felt to be eroded.

Sometimes, the damage is done due to ignorance. For example, it is often the case that the Western media is ignorant of basic Islamic beliefs and practices, as well as of important facts and events in Muslim history.

More serious than ignorance, however, is the orientation of the media. What makes the headlines is not so much the realities concerning the Muslim world but rather the Orientalist stereotypes and misconceptions of Islam.

Many Muslims around the world are convinced that the West is against them, to the extent that media reports of Muslims, Hollywood’s trafficking of the stereotypes of Arabs, Iranians and other Muslims, and the writings of Orientalist-type journalists in a way that demonises Islam, all influence public opinion in the US and elsewhere in the world.

Consider the song from  Aladdin, which refers to Aladdin’s birthplace as a place “where the camels roam ... where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. It is also interesting to note that whenever there are attacks against Western media by extremist Muslims, such as the Charlie Hebdo incident, the move to self-censure also serves to stereotype Muslims. The subtle message conveyed is that “all Muslims are alike and are easily and will be offended, and will react violently”.

Related to the process of the demonisation of Islam is the “moderate-extremist” and “modern-backward” Muslims dichotomy. What do we make of the notion that there are two versions of Islam, as we often hear about in the media, that is, moderate and extremist Islam? Muslims themselves do not understand Islam in that way. There are, of course, Muslims who act in an extremist way, but the problem with the extremist/moderate dichotomy is that it implies that those who are stricter in the practice of Islam are the ones more prone to extremism.

The problem with that line of reasoning is that it further implies that the greater the devotion to Islam, if you measure this in terms of the strictness in following the tenets of Islam, the greater the propensity to extremism. It is because of this kind of thinking that some people get alarmed when they see Muslims being concerned about saying their prayers on time, or being uncompromising in their dietary restrictions. For such people, it is better for Muslims to be moderate, that is, to be less devout, less observant Muslims.

The media tends to portray Islam as oppressive (hence, women in hijab); that Islam is outmoded (hence, hanging, beheading and stoning to death); anti-intellectualist (hence, book burning); restrictive (hence, ban on post- and extra-marital affairs, alcohol and gambling); extremist (hence, the Taliban); backward (hence, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia); causes conflict (hence, Palestine, Kashmir); and dangerous (hence, Iran).

There is a need for media workers to be more conscientious in how they go about reporting on Islam and Muslims in a more ethical manner. The image of Islam as constructed by the media and its impact on the formulation and implementation of the US’ foreign policy are also serious problems.

All of this is not to deny that much of the media in Muslim countries are equally, if not more, guilty of distortions and half-truths, to the extent that many citizens of the Arab and Muslim world prefer to rely on foreign news services like the BBC or CNN for their news. It has been noted in the Malaysian context that the coverage of Islam takes place to the exclusion of other religions.

Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister of India, had said at The Ministerial Conference of Non-Aligned Countries on the Press Agencies Pool in July 1976 in New Delhi that “rather than unguardedly excepting versions put out by news agencies and publishing houses of the Western countries, we should get to know one another directly and keep in touch to have first-hand acquaintance with our respective views”. Although that was said almost 50 years ago, her statement is still relevant as media imperialism is still our problem.

To return to Rao and Sinha, there is clearly a need for the media to serve two masters. It is only in this way that it can act as a medium between the state and the public. Ironically, it is also in this way that the media can exert autonomy and strive to counteract the Eurocentric elements trafficked by some of the Western media.


Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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