Back to Orwell’s ‘1984’

Any discerning public constantly keeps a critical mind when it comes to the flow of information being dished out daily by local media and mainstream international press agencies. This is the more so as catchy headlines on front pages may reveal but part of the story. Similar circumspection is adopted as regards loads of information flowing regularly on social networks. Readers are aware of the complexity of information and prefer not to jump to hasty conclusions on so-called « breaking news » which are delivered without any in-depth preliminary inquiry carried out.

Yet, quite a big chunk of the public is not sufficiently alert to the effect of sensationalism and may get carried away by it. Such persons may make random judgements on complicated issues, especially as topics which draw public attention hog the headlines and are repeatedly hammered up in press columns without really adding valuable information. Sometimes, it all boils down to keeping the media business thriving, deliberately whipping up negative sentiments in people and wasting their valuable time.

Social networks have opened doors for the average citizens to participate in the process of information creation, thus enabling them not only to search for deeper information across the world by just a click on a mouse but also to become contributors to information. For lack of time, and due to daily work stress and week-end activities, few people are likely to thrash out all these information flows to get correctly informed on national or global issues.

However much we read between the lines and prefer to reflect with hindsight, there is always the risk of getting oneself manipulated by the media. In a powerful big democracy such as the US, few papers take the risk of not kowtowing to the government’s foreign policy. Most of them called the late Hugo Chavez a ‘clown’; yet, he achieved a lot for his country; his only « unforgivable sin » was to hold the American government in deep contempt and to provocatively let his opinion be aired in the media.

Most US newspapers supported their country’s intervention in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows by a US-sponsored puppet government without being given the opportunity to make revelations to the world. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches were scarcely given international media coverage. We were told all the way that he was a big threat to world peace but we were not given the opportunity to listen objectively to his views. His sin is probably to have reinforced the rise of Iran as a leader in the Muslim world rather than leaving this role to Saudi Arabia alone and also to have undermined Israel’s sense of hegemonic security in the region.

By now, we are fully aware that the freedom and partiality of what is called international press agencies, most of which are based in Western countries, is to be taken with a strong pinch of salt. You will see this reporting bias even in today’s news when Mohamed Morsi, a democratically elected president of Egypt barely a year ago, is being ejected from his position by those who lost in the elections with the help of the army. Conversely, higher spheres of power and influence in rich countries can, for reasons of their own, be manipulative, deciding what should be withheld from and what should be disclosed to the media.

George Orwell drew his inspiration for his novel ‘1984’ from his observations of how the media could be manipulated while he was working at the BBC. If he were still alive today, George Orwell would not be surprised to see ‘Big Brother’ having shifted to Washington.

What happens when an ordinary citizen takes the initiative to reveal to the world what his government is hiding from the media and public scrutiny is being enacted in the recent Snowden whistleblower case. This former technical assistant of the CIA stated that it was out of disgust that he decided to blow the lid off the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret spy programme and to denounce the grotesque double standards of his government. The recent revelation about how far the NSA was going to eavesdrop others, including friendly governments, dwarfs the hue and cry that was only recently being hammered out by the US on China’s alleged hacking of US strategic industries and key public offices.

Is Snowden a traitor, an American patriot, a world citizen or a freedom fighter? Right now, he has gone into hiding and Washington has cancelled his passport. It’s time to redefine the limits of patriotism. The Pakistani doctor who leaked evidence to the US about Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan was considered a traitor in his country. What is the limit of subservience to one’s government?

Ecuador acted as non-aligned countries used to by giving refuge to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for a year. The US itself has been a refuge to dissidents from China, Cuba, etc. Britain and France have been havens for dissidents from different countries. But it looks harder for America to take it cool when information about its own doings embarrasses its government. The Snowden case demonstrates that it’s even harder to obtain political asylum when one’s country is still a powerful global cop.

Snowden is only an ordinary citizen telling his compatriots and the world that they are being spied upon inordinately. His revelations recall Mc Carthy’s witch-hunt of potential Communists among trade unionists, writers, demonstrators, etc., in the 1940s. Up to 1989, the Stasi in East Germany spied just the same on their own citizens, and so did other Communist countries.

The Cold War belongs to history. The current war of information manipulation is devoid of ideology. Indian foreign minister Salman Kurshid denies the US is snooping on the specific content of anybody’s message or communication and states that information obtained from US scrutiny was used to prevent terrorist attacks. Since September 11, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in more than hundreds of cases has been justified as being part of the fight against terrorism.

What is the point of spying on embassies of European partners of the US is hard to comprehend. A piece of information leaked out by a single individual is likely to have long-term consequences on external security issues in the West.

At a time when economic power is shifting away from rich western countries, why the US feels entitled to resort to undemocratic means and have unlimited rights to use a secret data-mining programme to closely monitor world-wide internet data remains an open question.

* Published in print edition on 5 July  2013

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