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Diverse ownership, diverse media
You own it, you control it

April 18, 2001
The Iranian

Freedom of the media ultimately belongs to those who own one. Increasing concentration in global media ownership is clearly a threat to that freedom. So is the huge chasm in media distribution around the globe.

Tokyo has more telephone lines than the entire continent of Africa. Ninety percent of the world population has access to only 10 percent of the world media. About 50 percent of the world population has never made a phone call.

Under the auspices of President Johannes Rau of Germany, an international conference in Berlin met for two days (March 29-30, 2001) to deliberate on the ethics of journalism in the new global environment. Although the conference was mainly focused on the relations between Islam and the West, issues that surfaced were of a broader interest.

Considering an ever-growing control of world media channels by nine transnational media conglomerates (seven American, one German, and one Japanese-based), responsibility of the journalists to inform the world freely and fairly became the subject of intense discussion.

"There are one billion Muslims in the world," the Lebanese Minister of Culture Gattan Salame asserted, "but no single monolithic Islam. There are millions of people living in the Western world, but hardly a unified and monolithic West."

Salame rejected such categories as "Islam" and "the West" as ideological media constructs that must be demythologized. Ziuddin Sardar of London University argued that national, racial, and ethnic prejudices of global media are inevitably framing world problems, setting the agendas, and marginalizing the less developed countries and peoples.

In an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune (March 31-April 1, 2001), William Pfaff presented the evidence on the media framing of the world primarily in terms of U. S. foreign policy agenda. Pfaff concluded that anti-Americanism stems in part from a feeling by the rest of the world that its interests and perspectives are being ignored.

In contrast to Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the media are the message," another scholar argued that "the structure is the message."

Media content in general, and news in particular, follow media ownership and control patterns. Government media tend to spread government propaganda. To gain larger audiences, ratings, and profits, commercial media tend to cater to the lowest common denominator of taste in which news gravitates towards infotainment.

Public media such as BBC and NHK cater to the highbrow tastes of the cultural elites in Britain and Japan. By contrast, the community media owned by such groups as the religious, trade union, or political parties try to disseminate their own perspectives and tastes. To ensure content pluralism, a democratic media system requires structural pluralism in media ownership and control.

In countries where the media system is dominated by commercial (e. g. U.S.) or government (e. g. Iran) interests, media programs conform to the perspectives of the dominant owners-censors. In countries such as U.K. and Japan where the media system shows a greater balance between commercial and public media, we witness greater checks and balances.

To ensure media freedom and responsibility, we don't need more government regulation as much as we need greater diversity in media ownership and control. Global media coverage of the Middle East affairs demonstrates how Anglo-American media control has systematically distorted the realities.

The Islamic revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan as well as the rise of Saddam Hussein can be directly attributed to Anglo-American policies of the past few decades. The 1953 CIA intervention to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran and to impose the Shah produced a radical Islamic movement leading to the rule of the ayatollahs.

U.S. arms, Saudi Arabian petrodollars, and Pakistani military training combined to produce the Taliban in Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein is a Frankenstein monster that was created by massive Western support combined with Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti petrodollars in his 1980-88 war against Iran. Washington has massively supported Israeli intransigence against Palestinian national aspirations.

Yet, in each instance, the global media has portrayed the Middle Easterners as irrational extremists and terrorists who can be checked only by periodic Western interventions. This media portrayal also happens to neatly fit the commercial media's need for sensational news in order to attract larger audiences, advertisers, and revenues.

Instead of contextualizing the news, the commercial media thus tend to dramatize, dichotomize, and demonize by playing goodies against baddies, and cowboys against Indians.

Truth is the first casualty of most international conflicts covered by a global media that is owned and controlled primarily by government and commercial interests. Is there a way out of this predicament? Diversifying media ownership and control appears to be the surest path to a democratic media system of checks and balances. Balancing media ownership and access ensures that all voices can be heard.

To finance media freedom and balance in order to counterbalance the current domination of government and commercial media, taxation on such global commons as the electromagnetic spectrum and geo-stationary orbit might be necessary. To regulate global media, commissions consisting of major stakeholders (government, business, professionals, and audiences) must be established to exercise democratic media monitoring.

Media freedom, balance, and responsibility are clearly too important to be left to their own devices.


Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.

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