Alarmed by the growth of state-financed English language television news channels across the globe, some U.S. officials are warning of a new “global information war” that seeks to wield “soft power” in influencing global public opinion.
“We are engaged in an information war and we are losing that war,” declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her testimony on the State Department budget to Congress earlier this year. In Clinton’s view, “Al Jazeera is winning” that war. Al Jazeera is financed by the tiny Middle Eastern emirate of Qatar, but other much larger governments are also joining the fray. “The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multi-language television network, said Clinton. “The Russians have opened up an English language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive.”
The speed with which these satellite channels are mushrooming, signals that world leaders view the role of “information” as pivotal to their global ambitions in the 21st century. In addition to competing for military & economic supremacy, global and regional powers now view information as another battle ground through which they can grow their influence.
“Clearly countries that want to play on the global stage feel they have to have a voice,” says Simon Wilson, Washington bureau chief for BBC, explaining why governments are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on global TV channels in an era of economic austerity. Wilson argues that some of these channels may not have a big global reach, but do find a niche. France24, for example, the state-financed company that operates 24-hour news channels in French, English, and Arabic, is popular in northern Africa and in Francophone West Africa – just as BBC remains popular in former British colonies around the world.
Clinton’s testimony in Congress reflects a gradual recognition in some quarters that America needs to actively compete in the “global media marketplace” to get its message across to the world. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger recommends a revamping of publicly-funded broadcasting in the U.S., to create a service modeled on the BBC.
“Americans certainly do not want government propaganda,” wrote Bollinger, in a recent article on foreignpolicy.com. “But they do need both a credible voice and source of information about the world. The fact is that Russia Today, China's CCTV and Xinhua News, Qatar's Al Jazeera, and others are already competing aggressively in this new global media marketplace.”
P.S. This is something I wrote as part of a drill for international newsroom (a class at the J-school). Next month, I'll share a link to a larger project on global information wars that our class has been working very hard on for several weeks now.