Zohaib Hassan

It is argued that media has quite limited impact on international affairs and Foreign policy process and that the political discourse still prevails over the one of the media and the public in the contest of power in democratic societies. Media does not always have a clear cut concept about its function either in foreign policy process or in international relations.

The concept of news values could explain to some extent how the news flow is managed in everyday journalistic practice. This approach to journalism however could hardly explain how media actually work because it is too much instrumental and toe less fundamental. Rather, it is the functional approach that could be more of use when discussing media performance in high politics. The important question is what should be media functions in foreign policy process and in international relations. International communication has endeavored to explain the role of the media in world politics and has come up with different hypotheses that push political theory into media frames. Let’s have a glance. “The free marketplace of ideas” concept that emerged during the Cold War is an expression of the intention of the West to spread its democratic values Worldwide. However in the 80s this hypothesis faces the opposition of “The New World Information and Communication Order” (NWICO) – an attempt of the third world countries and the Soviet bloc to counter the one-sided and dominated by the West news flow. This is the time of the McBride Commission and its famous report “Many Voices, One World” and also the time when the US, the UK and Singapore withdrew their membership in UNESCO.

In addition there comes the modernization theory which presents media as instruments for modernization and democratization of the developing societies in the western model. The dependency theory is another product of the Cold War. Media role is seen as destructive and counterproductive for the development of the third world societies. The media is an important participant in the public debate, which is the best way to produce rational politics.

Most of the hypotheses are strongly influenced by the current developments in international relations and are not applicable either to the past, or to the future. They do not correspond to the international relations theory and therefore they fail to perceive international relations as a stable system where media has its permanent roles and functions, which are changing only when the structure or the dynamics of the international system itself changes. Moreover, the above hypotheses stick too much to the political theory which makes them biased and one-sided.

Finally, such perspective is hardly compatible with media diversity. For a long time now media has not been only Western and their role could not be limited to the West/East. A better way for describing the complex media role on the international scene could be called “media-international relations interaction model”. The basic hypothesis is that media could be both – a part of the international system and beyond the system, i.e. a part of the international environment. It all depends on the functions embodied in the specific journalistic product. Most of the functions of the international news, commentaries and other genres are typically media-centric. Their aim is to inform, to amuse, to analyze, to educate, etc. In this case media are not actors in the international system – they are only a part of the broader social environment, i.e. they are beyond the international system. However, in other circumstances media could certainly act as real international player like other non-state actors. The interaction model suggests that media is international player only when they exert influence on the functioning of the international system. This means that a local radio station in a small NATO country, for example, informing that two NATO soldiers have been killed in Kabul could not be counted an international actor. But a one state’s television broadcasting that this state’s soldiers in Afghanistan have burnt Quran and as a consequence of the report the attacks towards the state’s military contingent in the country have been multiplied could be considered an international actor. In that case the television station has real impact on the functioning of the international system. This is the case when media has an active role during civil conflicts, in cases of mass human rights violations and other developments that provoke international reaction.

If media could affect international relations, the next element of the interaction models to show what this impact is – weak or strong. Generally speaking, media effects concerning international relations and foreign policy in democratic societies are neither strong, nor weak by default. It all depends on the accompanying environment.

Although media has relatively weak effects over world politics and not ‘magic bullet ‘effects over public opinion, they could have strong impact on international affairs under certain conditions. So media dealing with international relations should considerably rethink its functions in a direction towards responsible journalism. Otherwise, news about foreign policy and international relations will continue to be boring, distant, incomprehensible, without context, identical with what have been broadcasted last night, last month or last year, or even dangerous if they reaffirm misperceptions or transmit misleading interpretations. The outside world on the TV screen will continue to be confusing, obscure and distortedly full of scandalous or conflict events rather than of consistent and predictable processes.

In sum, media is an international player only when it exerts influence on the functioning of the international system. Even then, this influence is relatively weak because media is still much more dependent on politics than politics is dependent on media. The perceptions about mighty media that could transform world politics are quite elusive and imaginary. Notwithstanding, this does not remove their responsibility when covering international issues. The hypothesis here is that if media become more autonomous from governments (by ownership, financing and access to information) they will play more positive role on the international scene and will be a better mechanism for checks and balances.

The writer studies in Punjab University Lahore

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