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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Quand la propagande défigure le débat public

by Henri Maler

Libya: When Propaganda Disfigures Public Debate

Translated Wednesday 6 April 2011, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Gene Zbikowski

Henri Maler, a member of the Action-Critique-Médias association (Acrimed), analyzes the media treatment given in France to the beginning of the war in Libya.

What are the first observations made by Acrimed on the media treatment of the war in Libya?

Henri Maler: Even before the bombing began, we witnessed veritable war fever. Immediately on the vote of the UN resolution, most of the Internet sites of French dailies and weeklies impatiently warned: “the countdown has begun.” It’s no exaggeration to say that the little world of the major media was happy at the perspective of the bombing of Libya, seeming to forget that a war is above all a war. Between the journalists who puff up their chests and those who, if not putting on camouflage uniforms, begin to talk like military men, we were spared nothing. Hawkish rhetoric was backed up by chauvinist fever about the role of “France.” Who “struck first,” is what you could read on the front page of most of the dailies, the day after the first bombings. Hurrah for France, it’s war!

A war that was presented as indispensable.

Henri Maler: Inevitable and unquestionable. Now, whether you back it or you condemn it – whether you think that a military intervention was necessary (to prevent Qaddafi’s armed forces from crushing the revolt in Benghazi) or on the contrary, that the war should and could have been avoided – you have the right to expect that the media will not be the after-sales service of the ministry of Defense, repeating the slightest of its information and the least of its terms, without any critical distance. The main media barely dare to speak of a “war,” whereas hundreds of missiles were launched from the very beginning. They speak, not of bombings, but of “strikes” – “targeted” strikes, the latest avatar of “surgical strikes.” They show us, with lots of images furnished by the army itself, the high degree of precision and technology of “our” weapons.

And yet, this war raises at least a few questions. How much space was accorded to disagreements? Did the media respect the pluralism of the opinions and analyses regarding this intervention?

Henri Maler: In their enthusiasm, most of the media “forgot” to begin by posing those questions. And when partial questions came up, after the euphoria of the first days (on the dissensions, the command, the objectives), the questions as to the necessity and legitimacy of this war that is not called a war – presented, fundamentally, as a humanitarian operation and not as a military intervention – had become “irrelevant.” They repeated to us ad nauseum that this operation was backed by the “international community.” Did the governments of China, India, Russia, Germany, and Brazil indicate their reservations? No problem, since they abstained! Others declared themselves frankly hostile. What does it matter – the “international community” will exist without them. Rather than providing information about their arguments and attempting to understand them, before backing or condemning their positions, they were all treated with scorn as refractory. As for the arguments of those who, in France itself, expressed fundamental objections or who opposed this war, they were relegated, at best, to the op-ed pages.

How can this media treatment be explained?

Henri Maler: You may be tempted to explain this treatment as due to the importance of the arms merchants in the French media. The case of Le Figaro, which is owned by Serge Dassault, who supplies the French air force (and who also sold airplanes to Qaddafi) is almost a caricature. But this would be an over-hasty conclusion. What dominates is the follow-the-leader attitude of the major media with regard to three sets of institutions: 1) the supposed “international community,” 2) the military and political institutions, and 3) the unanimity of the dominant political parties in France. This institutional deference is fed by beliefs that are shared, if not by all the journalists, at least by editorial staffs. When that is the case, propaganda threatens to displace news and to disfigure the public debate.

Henri Maler is the co-author of l’Opinion, ça se travaille. Les médias et les guerres justes : Kosovo, Afghanistan, Irak (with Serge Halimi and Dominique Vidal), published by Agone in 2006.

See also www.acrimed.org

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