Wired World

Satellite Broadcast (.gif)Communications Technology, Governance,
and the Democratic Uprising

by Adam Jones

[Published as Chapter 8 in Edward Comor, ed., The Global Political Economy of Communication: Hegemony, Telecommunication and the Information Economy (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 145-64.]

[Note: I have restored introductory passages cut for space reasons (though not the footnotes that accompanied them); the text as published in Comor, ed., begins with the third paragraph. For citation purposes, a new page in the text as first published is indicated by bold type and square brackets, e.g., "the power of the visual image overrides attempts at [148] obfuscation ..."]


In the Brazilian Amazon, Kayapo Indians employ video cameras to record encounters with government forces, and to dissuade authorities from interfering with their demonstrations. The tactics have helped to block a huge hydroelectric dam project that would have submerged tribal homelands. Tibetan monks use smuggled videos to carry images of Chinese government repression to the outside world. In New York, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights Under Law launches "The Witness Project," its announced aim to "put hand-held video cameras, fax machines, Polaroid cameras and computers in the hands of grassroots human-rights organizations around the world." In Thailand, affluent protestors join anti-regime demonstrations armed only with cellular phones that enable them to circumvent government attempts to cut their lines of communication. In India, news-starved middle-class citizens turned to "alternative television": privately-produced videotapes with features and information that put "the sycophancy and toadyism" of heavily-censored official news sources to shame. In China, the world's media set up camp in Tiananmen Square to follow - and encourage - the largest opposition demonstrations in four decades of communist rule. In the wake of the Beijing massacre, Chinese authorities moved immediately to place all fax machines in the country under armed guard. The faxes have been buzzing nonstop for weeks with messages of support from, and communiqués to, the outside world.

The conclusion is unavoidable: together with nuclear weapons, the communications revolution is the central cultural and political development of the postwar era. Reinforced by, and reinforcing, the increased reach and pervasiveness of the mass media, this revolution is transforming the relationship between rulers and ruled - but in complex and ambiguous ways.

During the democratic uprisings of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, the personal computer and the modem became indispensable tools for activists, providing access to global information-exchange networks that state officials found impossible to police. Fax technology facilitated communication among groups within and outside transitional societies, and provided a channel for dissemination of information when traditional networks were choked off or placed under surveillance by state authorities. Faxes and electronic mail also encouraged the proliferation of "Urgent Action" networks established by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. Hundreds of messages of protest could flood the offices of state authorities within the first crucial hours of detention of a rights worker or political activist. The hand-held video camera, meanwhile, assumed sudden prominence as a means of recording state repression, evading censorship regulations, and protecting demonstrators from intervention by state forces.

The role of new technologies in the democratic uprisings of the last several years has yet to receive sustained scholarly attention. But it has been much discussed in the news media, always eager to trumpet their own political importance. An admittedly simplistic equation characterises much of this commentary: the easier the process of communication and information-sharing, the more severe the restraints on state repression, and the greater the chances for "democracy" in its Western-style, free-market variant.

[146] Elements of this view are presented with some rigor by Donald Chatfield, one of the few scholars to examine the ability of the latest generation of communications technology to undermine state and corporate monopoly-holders in the information sphere:

The global information revolution influences both the flow of information and the manner in which it is analysed. Governments have historically possessed the ability to control information for propaganda purposes. More recently, corporations have also developed this capacity. The information revolution, however, shows promise to offset the control mechanisms of both governments and corporations. New patterns of information dissemination follow highly decentralised networks, rather than the old hierarchical structure. As a result, communication becomes more interactive, with less opportunity for governmental or corporate intrusion. The absence of "noise" in new communication networks permits the flow of information with fewer ideological filters and allows citizen groups to grasp a more accurate picture of political events.(1)
This standard equation contains some important insights. But the link between communications and an alleged global "democratic uprising" is more complex and ambiguous. In this chapter I will argue that the much-vaunted role of communications technology in sparking and sustaining democratic uprisings is solidly grounded. At the same time, however, important questions need to be raised about these technologies, particularly as they condition (and are conditioned by) an increasingly capitalist global news media.

Some of the difficulty in gauging the impact of the new technologies arises from the contested nature of terms like "democracy" and "authoritarianism." Throughout the discussion that follows, I use the terms "authoritarianism" and "democracy" to refer to political orders that are, on the one hand, characterised by commandist, usually violently repressive strategies of governance - with attendant censorship, limitations on freedom of association, and often direct state control of the judiciary, parliamentary structures, and the news media; and, on the other hand, political orders that allow relatively free political expression and association, comparative immunity from naked state violence, and institutionalised political participation by the mass of the population.(2) Movements - successful or not - that aim to bring about the latter state of affairs I refer to as "democratic uprisings," and their partisans as "pro-democratic" activists or insurgents. Such uprisings are characterised, above all, by the so-called "revival of civil society"(3) and the progressive undermining of state power and (that most nebulous of political concepts) regime "legitimacy."

The Media, Communications Technology,
and Democratic Uprisings: An Overview


The democratic uprisings of 1989 and 1990 were the first electronic uprisings, in the sense that their most galvanising images were transmitted, in real time, to the outside world. It was also true to the extent that satellite television, and other technologies, proved essential in disseminating the revolutionary message to bordering countries and beyond. The role of TV - by far the most important medium during the upheavals - forced a re-evaluation of the traditional mistrust with which political commentators have often regarded television. It became clear in 1989 that "[t]elevision knows no international borders," as Brinton phrases it,(4) and furthermore that TV's global reach could make the medium a catalyst for progressive social change - rather than (or in addition to) an agent of cultural imperialism and/or state propaganda.

In Czechoslovakia in November 1989, large crowds gathered in front of department store TV displays to watch footage of Czech soldiers beating peaceful demonstrators. The impact of the footage was magnified by the eagerness and ability of pro-democracy activists to disseminate the images as widely as possible. Film taken of the demonstrations was transferred to videotape and circulated throughout the country. In the most "open" of state-socialist countries - particularly East Germany and Czechoslovakia - Western news reports were also accessible to the extent that an estimated 85 per cent of the East German populace watched West German TV's broadcast of state violence at demonstrations in Dresden and Leipzig.(5)

The phenomenon touched on here has become known as the "boomerang effect." Citizens learn about events on their doorstep from outside sources that collate and retransmit raw footage that could never be shown on state-controlled domestic media. Foreign TV and radio became "bulletin boards of revolution." A further, still greater political role has been regularly attributed to the news media and other information technologies. Not only did they undermine Eastern Europe-style authoritarianism, but they may actually have rendered traditional totalitarianism obsolete. Control over information has been a hallmark - perhaps the defining hallmark - of totalitarianism. But such absolute control may no longer be possible. There may be no more "closed societies," as Mikhail Gorbachev conceded in a speech to the United Nations in 1988.

These observations call to mind some familiar themes: publicity is the enemy of repression; the power of the visual image overrides attempts at [148] obfuscation by a repressive state apparatus. The excuses for crackdowns offered by state authorities can only be rhetorical. They lack the immediacy and attendant political significance of highly visible repression. For this reason, television (with the associated technology of satellite transmission) stands supreme as the communications technology that has most decisively altered the terms of governance in authoritarian and transition societies. This is so not least because of TV's unparalleled impact on the Western "home" front, where far-reaching decisions are made concerning whether support should be granted to pro-democratic insurgents elsewhere in the world.

Vietnam - the so-called "living-room war" - brought to the small screen, with relative speed, vivid images of the fighting in Indochina and repression by South Vietnamese authorities. Isolating television's first decisive impact on a political upheaval is more difficult. But one is tempted to cite the death of ABC-TV cameraman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua in 1979. Stewart was gunned down at a Managua intersection by the Somocista National Guard. The murder was captured on film by Stewart's colleagues, and quickly transmitted by satellite to New York:

The sequence was run on all three [US] networks that evening, CBS leading its newscast with it and ABC reserving the Nicaraguan war story for the last five minutes of its programme, devoting the time to the memory of Bill Stewart. Television stations across the United States and around the world re-ran the horrifying footage of Stewart's death several times a day for the next few days "until you just couldn't watch it anymore," as one newsman in the States said at the time. "People were numbed by it, and when the numbness wore off, they were outraged. Public opinion quickly registered that Somoza had to go." The few minutes of videotape did more to injure Somoza's reputation around the world, even among conservatives, than perhaps any single incident in the decades-long family rule.(6)
The Stewart killing placed the US government, long supportive of Somoza's rule, in an increasingly uncomfortable position. Foreign policy bureaucracies - in the First World as elsewhere - are notoriously wary of on-the-spot decisions. But in societies where governments are relatively more responsive to popular sentiment, the collective emotional shock administered by certain televised images can move governments to action, however unwilling.

The most recent innovation in international broadcasting is Turner Broadcasting's Cable News Network (CNN), which rose to prominence with its live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Baghdad in 1990-1. CNN has added an almost surreal dimension to the "boomerang [149] effect." During the Gulf War, Baghdad residents could watch live footage of the Allied bombing of their own city, courtesy of a network based in the country leading the attack. Such paradoxes aside, the main impact of CNN and its imitators for present purposes is the enormously greater space it may open for visual imagery compiled either by its own representatives or by ordinary citizens - a phenomenon to which I now turn.

"I-Witness" Video

Historically, two key factors inhibiting the flow of news and information from distant locations have been (1) lack of a sufficient communications infrastructure, and (2) insufficient resources on the part of information-gathering agencies, including diplomatic missions, intelligence services, and news media. In many respects, the former constraints have been sharply reduced, at least in urban environments.

While the second constraint is not so easily overcome, recent developments suggest it can be circumvented. In the media sphere, television news directors in the West - particularly in the US - are under increasing pressure to make overseas news-gathering cost-effective. In the face of budget constraints, the recent emphasis on viewer-friendly "infotainment" at the expense of hard news, and the rising star of CNN, broadcasting corporations have begun to abandon the field. Foreign bureaux have closed; correspondents are "parachuted in" to the outside world in emergencies, usually when disaster or large-scale upheaval strikes. Arguably, though, these developments have been substantially offset by the large-scale increase in "I-Witness Video"-style reporting. The new video technology potentially represents a profound decentralisation of the news- and information-gathering process. Video cameras remain expensive, but they are increasingly lightweight, sophisticated, and concealable (some are now palm-sized). In the last few years, the events these cameras have recorded - in the hands of tourists and citizens - have been used to undermine regimes, demolish official explanations, and sharply constrain the coercive apparatus of the modern state. "In the hands of a human-rights activist," writes Colum Lunch, "the [video] camera will likely come to be perceived as an instrument of subversion, more threatening to the state than a Molotov cocktail."(7) Video technology has also helped to forge bonds and disseminate news among disparate activist groups and projects within and outside national boundaries:

In the less-developed world, the impact of video revolution is magnified by the ease with which video technology enables foreign commentary and domestic opposition viewpoints to circulate.(10) The political impact of video has been experienced in affluent societies also. The police beating of a Los Angeles African-American man, Rodney King, prompted large scale rioting when, in the face of seemingly incontrovertible video evidence, jurors acquitted King's assailants. A weekly newsmagazine, surveying the broader impact of video in the United States, wrote that
ordinary people empowered with ordinary video cameras have blown the whistle on illegal garbage haulers, tuna fisherman slaughtering dolphins and stockyard workers abusing animals ... AIDS activists routinely take video cameras to record possible tussles with police ... Pro-life activists picketing clinics now carry cameras as well as signs ... Taken together, the camcording of America is changing the face of law enforcement, citizen action and news gathering.(11)


For decades, computer technology tended to be viewed as a threat to, rather than a catalyst for, popular aspirations. George Orwell's haunting vision of a world under electronic surveillance was bolstered by the increasing predominance [151] of computers (and the technocratic mindset they allegedly encouraged) in the military sphere. Now World War III could be triggered by a flock of geese transformed by haywire circuits into a nuclear strike. The extent to which the massive American war effort in Vietnam came to be plotted, and its success measured, by computer projections and target selections further increased the suspicion of commentators who lamented the marginalising of human input and ethical standards. No less grisly was the role of computer surveillance in the modes of governance employed by neo-fascist military dictatorships in Central and South America, often abetted by foreign security services.

The technological developments of the last decade, however, compel a radical re-evaluation of the implications of computer technology for governance and, by extension, popular mobilisation. As with video, the central feature of the transformations over the past few years has been the explosive growth of accessible technologies. In this case, the personal-computer industry makes powerful hardware available to ordinary consumers in the First World and activist groups and organisations elsewhere. It has always been within the power of the nation-state to exploit technological innovations to bolster its power. Indeed, for all but the last few years of the modern era, the state - together with the transnational corporation - has held a virtual monopoly in this area. But now these forces and policies can be subverted or circumvented by activists equipped with the new generation of personal computer and modem technology. A vivid recent example was the failed coup attempt in Moscow in mid-1991. Only 2 per cent of the estimated 1.5 million personal computers in the former USSR had modems, but these proved crucial in countering the coup leaders' actions. Soviet citizens took advantage of a loose amalgam of some three dozen computer bulletin boards that gathered and disseminated information and pledges of support from major cities. Boris Yeltsin's government, ensconced in the Russian Parliament buildings, used computers to dispatch messages to aides outside the country, urging them to proceed to London and Stockholm to prepare a government-in-exile if the coup succeeded.

Chatfield likewise points to the power and prominence of computer information networks, first established in the countries of the developed North, but now global in scale. One such network, the Walker Centre's China Information Centre, was founded in the wake of the Beijing Massacre of 1989. In addition to fax technology, the Centre uses computer databases and bulletin boards to disseminate information among activists around the world. Computer E-mail, meanwhile, allows the Centre to circumvent governmental controls on the transmission of documents and statements. Among the well-established bulletin boards are the worldwide [152] PeaceNet, which permits local members to share news of relevant events in their home areas; and EcoNet, an environmental bulletin board accessible to computer owners in seventy countries aiming to increase citizen awareness and co-ordinate political action in the environmental sphere.(12)

Fax machines

In May 1992, the world's first "fax revolution" brought James Mancham, former leader of the Seychelles, back to his homeland after fifteen years in exile. Deposed as prime minister in 1977, Mancham had lived in the United Kingdom until, in 1989, he decided to exploit the new technology to promote opposition views among Seychellese. Mancham waged his campaign against the governing regime from a fax machine in his London home, sending seditious messages to all two hundred fax machines in the island nation. The regime's attempt to counter this information flow implicitly acknowledged that Mancham's faxed polemics had enough substance to merit a response. This in itself appears to have undermined the legitimacy of the regime, which was eventually compelled to commit itself to multi-party elections.(13)

By itself, the use of fax machines in situations of pro-democratic ferment has rarely been as prominent as in the Seychelles instance. But the role of fax technology has received extensive attention in the context of the East European uprisings and Chinese unrest of 1989-90, as well as the failed 1991 coup in the former USSR. As with computer and video, the essential development lies in a formerly prohibitive technology suddenly being made accessible to ordinary consumers in the developed world, and to a more selective - but still significant - range of groups and individuals in less developed countries.

The surge of popular protest in major Chinese cities in early 1989 brought the fax machine to the fore of opposition politics in the People's Republic. Hong Kong Chinese, and students from the PRC based at universities overseas, used the technology to send messages of support to demonstrators, along with uncensored news from the outside world. Business offices and state enterprises in the PRC were also deluged with messages. A sticker proclaiming, "Fax Saves Lives" was plastered over Hong Kong lampposts.(14) In the wake of the imposition of martial law in May 1989, Chinese police allegedly were dispatched to stand guard over every fax machine in the country - though the surveillance likely was not so systematic.

Fax machines were equally prominent in the failed Moscow coup of 1991. One of the first measures of the coup plotters was to clamp down on [153] the independent publications that had sprung up in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. As the censorship orders were issued by coup organisers, the Moscow News, one of the most outspoken independent newspapers, turned to distribute news across the city by fax. Faxes and telephones were also the main means by which Boris Yeltsin's holdouts in the Russian Parliament maintained contact with the outside world.

The wave of popular mobilisation that swept Bangkok in May 1992 similarly utilised fax (and cellular phone) technology as a means of evading state controls. Upper-class Thais - including businesspeople seeking an end to the corrupt and autocratic military regime - were among the most prominent demonstrators. Many turned their cellular phones and fax machines over to pro-democratic activists. The technology enabled demonstrators to communicate after the government disconnected their standard telephone hookups, leading some Thais to refer to the demonstrations as "the cellular phone revolution."(15)


What characterises the new technologies, above all, is their interconnectedness. The armoury of the pro-democratic activist is likely to be a diverse one, drawing on whatever means of communication and information dissemination are available. In this context, consider the "Urgent Action" networks established by Amnesty International and other human-rights organisations. In the past, government seeking to imprison, torture or "disappear" opposition activists had a virtually insurmountable advantage - time. Most torture and extra-judicial execution occurs within hours of detention. Repressive governments have been able to exploit the carte blanche accorded them by the time-lag between the detention itself and news of it reaching domestic human-rights activists or the international community. But with the advent of new technologies, human-rights workers have been able to offset this temporal advantage.

The most extensive and enduring "Urgent Action" network is that set up by Amnesty International. Ron Dart, regional development officer for the British Columbia-Yukon section of Amnesty, explains that within a couple of hours of a detention, a request for urgent action can be filed by a union or a religious community, a peasant group, or a local human-rights organisation. From there, according to Dart, news of the detention travels by phone, fax, or computer e-mail to Amnesty headquarters in London, where the Urgent Action Information Centre is based:

[154] London looks the situation over very quickly, and then, if they decide it's a legitimate Urgent Action, the news is usually sent to all the Urgent Action co-ordinators at the various national offices ... Each [national] section usually has a separate network, so the news is fanned out across the country by fax, telex, and mail. So on the one hand, there's the immediate response, which can usually only come from the Information Centre or head of a section; then there's people who get faxes or telexes from the section; and finally, individual members can be notified and encouraged to send their own protests.
The methods used to deliver these protest messages likewise include "faxes, e-mail - we use the latest technological gimmicks." Dart calls Urgent Action "one of the essential things we [Amnesty] do. If you can catch a government while it's trying to hide its repressive acts, that embarrasses them nationally and internationally. And one of the best ways to stop human-rights violations is to embarrass the violators."(16)


The above portrait is in many respects a rosy one. Activists, inspired by images of struggle elsewhere, exploit new technologies to restrain and subvert the actions of authoritarian states. This section, however, will address some of the less straightforward implications of the communications revolution for governance and pro-democratic uprisings. The discussion follows two main lines. On one hand, I examine the significant and inevitable transforming effect of the new technology when it is applied to situations of anti-regime agitation (particularly its influence on the way the mass media transmit "news" of this upheaval and how this, in turn, affects activist strategies). On the other hand, it is also important to consider the ingrained political and cultural biases of media organisations and personnel who often play key roles in determining what impact the new technologies (especially TV and video) will have. The first line of analysis brings several phenomena to the forefront. The most salient are, first, the possible catalytic effect of a news media/high-technology presence on state actions, encouraging repression or severe crackdowns; and second, the way a perception among pro-democratic activists that "the eyes of the world" are on them directly shapes their agendas, rhetoric, symbolism, and perceived constituencies.

What role might the news media, with their new ability to transmit real-time images of a nation's strife to a global audience, play in destabilising transitions from authoritarianism or in prompting state crackdowns? The evidence [155] is sketchy, but enough exists to caution against the simple assumption that a high-tech media presence guarantees protection for pro-democracy activists. A recent example of a state backlash spawned, in large measure, by a high-tech media presence is the Beijing events in the spring of 1989. It was, after all, the chance presence of the world's news media - particularly electronic media - during the first outbreak of pro-democracy unrest that added a sense of international drama to the protests.(17) Indeed, China scholar Orville Schell believes that "the sheer bulk of the media [at Tiananmen] was an incitement" in itself.(18) Strategies of governance employed by Chinese authorities during the protests and occupation of Tiananmen Square displayed a profound sensitivity to the role of assembled foreign media in publicising dissent. While all governments take umbrage at unfavourable depictions of their policies, this is especially true in the less developed world. The Chinese regime, with its abiding bitterness towards foreign intervention and its decades-long campaign against "bourgeois influences," including Western-style democratic ideology, is a particularly sensitive one. For their part, the protesters, with a sharp eye for media coverage of their activities, allied themselves explicitly and symbolically with the Western (French and American) revolutionary tradition. This seems to have bolstered the Chinese government's perceptions of creeping subversion from within. The ban on TV coverage that was eventually imposed suggested the regime's desire to implement policy free from foreign influence. As New York Times journalist E.J. Dionne notes, "the Chinese Government ... had no intention of fashioning its own response to the student rebellion for the benefit of the cameras, and so it threw them [the cameras] out."(19)

The Tiananmen events also provide an example of the influence of electronic media over pro-democratic activism. Just as US politics in the electronic age has become structured around "sound bites" and camera angles, pro-democratic forces in authoritarian societies have grown attentive to the presence and potential of the foreign news media. But this is not just a case of exploiting a "neutral" medium. Rather, as public-policy commentator Marvin Kalb put it, "To some extent, the event is changed by having the camera trained on it ... You might say that [pro-democracy activists] are fashioning the revolution so it's coverable by the American networks."(20) Indeed, CBS News carried footage of Chinese student activists applauding foreign cameramen and noted the predominance of English-language signs hoisted for the cameras. In symbolic terms, the most obvious act of catering to a global audience was the Goddess of Democracy statue erected at Tiananmen, with its strong resemblance to the U.S. Statue of Liberty.

[156] David Ignatius comments that the Chinese students "felt themselves not just on the stage of history, as revolutionaries always do, but in its floodlights."(21) Fundamentally and tragically, those floodlights appear to have blinded pro-democracy activists and media representatives. A general perception held that the authorities would not dare intervene while the eyes of the world were focused on Tiananmen Square:

[T]he outside-agitator role [in the Chinese pro-democracy movement] was played by the news media, which brought the protesters onto the global electronic stage and encouraged them - and us - to imagine that we were all on the barricades of freedom together. It wasn't any conscious effort by reporters; that's just what TV does ... The Tiananmen protesters knew we were watching; indeed, they basked in our attention. But they were left alone to face the consequences.(22)
In sum, the electronic surveillance, and whatever protection it may have provided, could be stifled by government edict. And although cameras may be "more powerful than guns" in an abstract sense, such lofty mottos are of little use against tanks and automatic weapons. Similar lessons have been learned by township residents in South Africa, Palestinians in the occupied territories, and Haitian anti-government forces, once the cameras were expelled - or as fickle foreign media personnel left for another, trendier trouble-spot.

Turning to the second line of analysis noted above, there seems little point considering the implications of the new technologies for pro-democratic activism unless one also acknowledges the political and cultural biases that determine which uprisings are selected for coverage, and which elements of them receive specific (often disproportionate) attention. Here one is able to draw on an extensive recent tradition of critical scholarship, much of it devoted to media bias in the world's reigning cultural and political hegemon, the United States. I will consider specifically political elements of the bias first, before turning to more deep-seated elements of the Western cultural tradition that also deserve elaboration.

In an article tellingly titled, "The Media's One and Only Freedom Story," Lawrence Weschler examined news coverage of uprisings in Central and Eastern Europe during 1989-90. He contrasted this coverage with that accorded a simultaneous activist upsurge in the countries of the Southern Cone. The popular mobilisation in South America, Weschler noted, reflected rather harshly on the United States, which had installed or sustained many of the region's most repressive regimes. Weschler notes that this second "freedom story" also called into question unrestrained free-market [157] economic policies that had devastated South American societies but constituted a core tenet of United States' political ideology, and an implicit desideratum in US media coverage of the outside world. Not surprisingly, Weschler found the attention paid to Eastern Europe (and the role of Soviet imperialism in bolstering regimes now fallen into disfavour) was markedly greater than that paid to South American democratisation.(23)

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have drawn a similar comparison between the attention and righteous indignation granted "worthy" versus "unworthy" victims of authoritarian repression and state terror. Their well-known study contrasted media coverage of the murder of a priest, Jerzy Popieluszko - kidnapped and executed by Polish security forces in 1984 - with the coverage of one hundred religious workers killed by US-sponsored regimes in South America, including a Salvadorean archbishop and four US nuns raped and murdered by Salvadorean soldiers in 1980. Herman and Chomsky found that

for every media category, the coverage of the worthy victim, Popieluszko, exceeded that of the entire set of one hundred unworthy victims taken together. We suspect that the coverage of Popieluszko may have exceeded that of all the many hundreds of religious victims murdered in Latin America since World War II, as the most prominent are included in our hundred ... [W]e can also calculate the relative worthiness of the world's victims, as measured by the weight given them by the US mass media. The worth of the victim Popieluszko is valued at somewhere between 137 and 179 times that of a victim in the US client states; or, looking at the matter in reverse, a priest murdered in Latin America is worth less than a hundredth of a priest murdered in Poland.(24)
The issue here, then, is not so much the impact of media coverage per se. Any rapidly-conveyed images of popular struggles against authoritarian rule will tend to evoke a visceral sympathy for opposition forces among an international audience. The point is that the bias towards "worthy" freedom struggle directs how the new communications technologies are employed: where the news anchors and video cameras head for their high-profile, on-the-spot reports; how much time and space is set aside for footage shot by participants in the struggle; and so on.

This equation of media coverage with dominant Western perspectives is not perfect. News media attention to the plight of Kurdish refugees in Turkey at the end of the Gulf War, for instance, was highly inconvenient to the Bush Administration and stimulated a retreat from original policy. But even coverage of this event suggests how the media, in reporting news [158] from distant locales, highlight some situations and ignore others. The problem of Kurdish refugee flows to Turkey - a "worthy" NATO member on the European periphery - was discussed at length using live satellite broadcasts. The equally massive influx of refugees to "unworthy" Iran was a virtual non-event by comparison.

There are other, more subtle biases that influence how the new communications technologies are utilised and directed. One is the rural-urban split. The politics - and, demographically, the societies - of most developed nations are strongly biased towards the city. That is where decisions are made; where lobby groups clamour; where the political destiny and cultural identity of the nation is forged. This lean towards an urban environment is intensified by the constraints imposed by an increasingly sophisticated global communications network. While it is true that technology grows ever more mobile, it is also the case - particularly in the less developed world - that what infrastructure exists is likely to be heavily concentrated in urban areas. To the extent that political patterns and processes in these countries mirror those in the developed world, the urban arena is likely to witness the most spectacular demonstrations, and is home to most of the leading activists or intellectual figures in opposition movements. The urban bias will likely intensify as the responsibility for conveying news of foreign events to the outside world shifts further away from the roving print reporter and towards the TV correspondent - with his or her backup camera team, a satellite transmission centre in a downtown hotel, and a nearby retinue of spokespeople and "experts" ready to be called in for the obligatory sound-bite.

The problem here is that too often the urban environment is presented as typifying the country. The events of spring 1989 in Beijing illustrate this point. For weeks, world attention was focused not just on a single city in China, but on a mile-square public space at the heart of the city. The scene at the Tiananmen tent encampment was excitingly reminiscent of 1960s student sit-ins. The Chinese student activists were colourful, quotable, and (with their English-language signs) highly photogenic. But in a country with a population that is 80 per cent rural and deeply distrustful of urban intellectuals and urban dwellers in general, serious questions must be asked about the unthinking manner in which the Tiananmen demonstrations were presented as symbolising the deeply-held aspirations of the people.

In this particular case, the urban bias may well have been magnified by another trait common in the West: the preference for educated, youthful, articulate, and "qualified" representatives of pro-democratic uprisings. In Beijing, the media, with all their high-tech devices, may have missed the "real" story. The catalytic role of student demonstrations was, in fact, [159] quickly superseded by a mass movement composed primarily of urban workers. It was here that the bulk of state repression was eventually directed. Investigations following the June 4 attack indicate that no "significant" violence was visited on students in Tiananmen Square. Rather, several hundred members of the workers' mass movement were massacred on approach roads in western Beijing. The workers did not conveniently congregate for the cameras in a central square. Nor were they well-outfitted with media-savvy organisers who could distribute protest bulletins in European languages or paint English-language protest signs. The fact that the majority of victims were all but ignored is not merely a point of strict historical accuracy: the misrepresentation of events in Beijing may have helped the authoritarian regime re-establish control in urban areas and reclaim its status in the international community.(25)

Similarly, during the Moscow coup attempt in August 1991, Muscovites who demonstrated their support for the Russian government - first hundreds, then thousands - were presented as the vanguard of the Soviet people (numbering more than a quarter-billion) pressing for the continuation of the free-market reform process. Reporters wandering further afield in Moscow during the coup, however, found most Muscovites registering apathy or disinterest both in the coup and the protests against it. Many stressed their desire, above all, for stability and prosperity. The rural population was barely sampled but could be expected to have displayed a similar ambivalence, given the profound economic destabilisation perestroika had caused in the countryside.

The discussion here has avoided the larger question of the politics of representation. The new communications technologies appear to offer a novel alternative to dominant groups' traditional representation of the less developed world (or minorities within developed societies). The means of recording life's events and popular struggles now can be placed in the hands of those actually living them. The footage can then be gathered to feed the growing market for fresh news represented by outlets like CNN. But it must not be forgotten amidst the enthusiasm that most existing exploitation of video and satellite-broadcast technologies is carried out by corporate media in developed societies, with all their particular economic interests and cultural biases - including a stereotypical view of the Third World as an eternal disaster area - and their growing preference for the ephemeral visual image at the expense of substantive investigation or a more contextual framing of events. Though the new technologies may help undermine cultural appropriation in many ways, they also reinforce it by increasing the efficiency, speed, and visual immediacy with which events in less developed and democratising societies are delivered to the outside [160] world. The implications here for hegemony in the international system are not inconsiderable. Ian Parker, for one, views the trend towards the corporate monopolisation of international communication networks as potentially leading to "a sharpening of regional and class divisions, as a consequence of the significantly different degree of access to available forms of information or culture between the rich and the poor." The "quite probable" result is a world in which "economic 'have-nots' will increasingly become informational or cultural 'have-nots.'"(26)

In closing this section, I want to consider other biases associated with the increasing predominance of visual media in selecting and conveying information about, and images of, the world. Western societies are founded on Enlightenment rationalism. They exhibit a preference for "objective" evidence, most reliably apprehended by visual means, as summed up in the cliché "seeing is believing." Today, this manifests itself in a preference for visual imagery over the written or spoken word. As David Ignatius puts it, "Nobody trusts anything unless he can see it with his own eyes, on TV. History happens in front of all of us, in our living rooms."(27) As emphasised above, I acknowledge the potency of many of the visual images associated with recent pro-democratic uprisings. There are, however, inherent limits to this visual communication of information. Events can be staged or misrepresented, and the camera can become a means of propaganda and subversion. State agencies are adept at exploiting the public credulity that visual images evoke. Crowds pressing at polling booths to "cast ballots for democracy" may really be there to avoid having their names turn up on death-squad lists for the "treasonous" act of not participating.(28) The ease or likelihood of misrepresentation is increased by the now-common practice of "parachuting" TV commentators possessing little background knowledge into emergent "trouble-spots." Moreover, the emphasis on visual imagery leads inevitably to a focus on finite, dramatic events rather than broader political contexts or longer-term developments. A growing body of scholarship demonstrates the leaning of the Western mass media towards stories about coups, earthquakes and hostages.(29) Political transformations often lack this kind of ready visual imagery. What images exist may be seized upon and blown out of proportion by the custodians of visual media, presenting a distorted picture of the scale or context of events.

Two other biases seem evident in the transformation of television news into a real-time phenomenon, best exemplified by the rise of CNN. The first appears to require a revision of Marshall McLuhan's celebrated dictum: the medium is no longer just the message, it is also becoming the story. Camera crews take pictures of each other taking pictures of events. This practice, prevalent in coverage of the Gulf War, reached new depths of [161] absurdity with the US landing in Somalia. Media representatives appeared to outnumber troops, and most pictures were framed to show the banks of media in close proximity to the soldiers. The possibility of substantive investigation to explore pressing political realities grows ever more evanescent. Secondly, and more subtly, satellite technology has spawned the phenomenon of "instantaneous journalism."(30) The role of the reporter as interpreter, mediator and framer of the visual image becomes ever more peripheral. The media cease to mediate between the raw image and the distant viewer. This results not in a "neutral" transmission of events, but in communications that are more open to distortion and careless misrepresentation. It also may result in self-interested manipulation by state authorities, with their considerable resources, their ability to provide site access, and their stock of well-groomed, camera-friendly official spokespeople.


This examination of communication technology's impact on authoritarian governance and pro-democratic activism provides much in the way of support for the standard view of technology as potentially a liberating force. The new communication technologies have, on the whole, been a boon to pro-democratic activism the world over. It is also clear, however, that these technologies are by no means discrete phenomena operating independently of the agents who utilise them. Rather, they flourish in an increasingly interconnected world that, for all the decentralisation and "democratisation" of information the new technologies permit, is still dominated by Western state interests and transnational corporations. These serve to bolster the power of the West's cultural and political models, motifs, and values. Corporate media and the "culture industry" - motion pictures, music, television, and so on - have seized on the new technologies in a manner that must, unfortunately, mitigate any comfortable equation of technology with democracy.

The positive impact of the new technologies is most apparent at the grassroots level. The communications revolution has fundamentally transformed the strategies and potential of pro-democracy activism, and has placed powerful constraints on the ability of authoritarian forces to suppress anti-regime organisation and mobilisation. In this sense, the terms of governance have been recast, a phenomenon which is also evident (albeit on a lesser scale) in the developed world. But when we view state-society relations in the broader context of patterns of global hegemony, technology's impact is more ambiguous - even ominous. The new porousness of [162] borders does not simply permit the influx of neutral, disinterested philosophical influences from the outside world. Rather, it intensifies the penetration of ideologies, models, paradigms, and strategies that may or may not be appropriate to a given society's popular aspirations. Of course, this argument relies on subjective notions of the "integrity" and "autonomy" of democratic processes. But certain effects of the new technologies can be isolated with greater confidence. In particular, the extent to which these technologies may exacerbate tensions between a regime and its opponents; encourage unrealistic expectations on the part of activists; and provoke state repression, partly owing to leaders' perceptions that their sovereignty and legitimacy are unfairly undermined by the introduction of outside representatives and ideologies.

The most important variable here appears to be the presence of corporate news media - riding the wave of new communication technologies, but limited by their own institutionalised conceptions of the less developed world, and by an obsession for Western models of democracy. Yet even this bleak appraisal has a positive dimension. It highlights the basic role of human agency in exploiting the new technologies. The challenge for pro-democratic activists and their sympathisers in the international community is to maximise the liberating potential of the new technologies, while working to constrain the manipulations of those for whom "democratisation" is treason - or just another sound-bite between commercials.

Books about media and politics from Amazon.com


1. Donald Chatfield, "The Information Revolution and the Shaping of a Democratic Global Order" in Neal Riemer (ed.), New Thinking and Developments in International Politics: Opportunities and Dangers (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991) p. 159.

2. These definitions ignore the contentious issue of economic democracy, an inevitable shortfall given the limited space available. I do, however, consider massive disparities in resource distribution to be inimical to a democratic order. This perspective is perhaps implicit in my later discussion of the new communications technologies as potentially redressing such inequalities in the information sphere, and also in the concerns I raise over the increasing monopolisation of the mass media by First World (i.e., disproportionately privileged) members of the global community.

Only when significant transformations in economic power occur does a democratic uprising become a "revolution." I avoid this latter term as much as possible since much of my evidence is drawn from instances where democratic uprisings have clearly taken place, but where the "revolutionary" balance-sheet is a good deal more uncertain. In any case, no revolution takes place without an uprising of some kind, even if relatively few uprisings can spark the deeper transformations that revolution entails. And it seems to me that the uprisings themselves are worthy of study (and usually support), even if they succeed only in mitigating the worst aspects of authoritarian governance.

3. For discussion, see Guillermo O'Donnell, Philippe Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) ch. 5.

4. William M. Brinton, "The Role of the Media in a Telerevolution," in William M. Brinton and Alan Rinzler (eds.), Without Force or Lies: Voices from the Revolutions of Central Europe in 1989-90 (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1990), p. 468.

5. Brinton, "The Role of Media," p. 460.

6. Bernard Diederich, Somoza and the Legacy of US Involvement in Central America (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), p. 271.

7. Colum Lynch, "Recording Repression: The video is mightier than the sword," in The Globe and Mail (14 November 1992), p. 43.

8. Joseph D. Straubhaar, "Television and Video in the Transition from Military to Civilian Rule in Brazil," in Latin American Research Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1989), pp. 150-1.

9. Barbara Crossette, "In India, News videotapes Fill a Void," in The New York Times (2 January 1991), p. A6. The quote is from Madhu Trehan, creator and an anchor of one of the video news programmes, "Newstrack."

10. Douglas A. Boyd, Joseph D. Straubhaar and John A. Lent, Videocassette Recorders in the Third World (New York and London: Longman, 1989).

11. "Video Vigilantes," in Newsweek (22 July 1991), p. 43.

12. Chatfield, "The Information Revolution," p. 146 and p. 149.

13. "Fax revolution helps bring back democracy," in The Guardian (10 May 1992), p. B5.

14. See "China tries to pull plug on fax machines - and the outside," in The Gazette (12 June 1989), p. B1. The report does not specify whether the stickers' slogan appeared in English or Chinese.

15. Philip Shenon, "Mobile phones Primed, Affluent Thais Join Fray" in The New York Times (20 May 1992), A10. Unlike fax machines, however, which utilise existing telephone lines, cellular technology relies on an infrastructure that must be created from scratch. Its role has thus been strictly limited in the most recent round of pro-democratic uprisings, and limited further to relatively affluent urban areas.

16. Personal interview with Ron Dart, Vancouver, 11 December 1992.

17. Recall that the news media were in Beijing to cover not anti-communist popular rumblings, but Mikhail Gorbachev's first state visit to China.

18. Quoted in David Ignatius, "Media were actors in Beijing tragedy," in The Washington Post (2 August 1989), p. B3.

19. E.J. Dionne, Jr., "TV Steps into the Fray, and Alters It," in The New York Times (21 May 1989), p. A18.

20. Quoted in Dionne, Jr., "TV Steps into the Fray" (emphasis added).

21. Ignatius, "Media were actors."

22. Ibid.

23. Lawrence Weschler, "The Media's One and Only Freedom Story," in Columbia Journalism Review (March/April 1990), pp. 25-31.

24. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), p. 39.

25. Robin Munro, "Who died in Beijing, and Why," in The Nation (11 June 1990), p. 811.

26. Ian Parker, "Economic Dimensions of 21st-Century Canadian Cultural Strategy," in Parker et al. (eds.), The Strategy of Canadian Culture in the 21st Century (Toronto: TopCat Communications, 1988), p. 224. Similar concerns have been raised over the last two decades by Third World proponents of a New World Information Order. See, for example, D.R. Mankekar, Media and the Third World (New Delhi: Indian Institute of Mass Communication, 1979).

27. Ignatius, "Media were actors."

28. The tradition of obfuscation and misrepresentation here is a long one. For an overview, see Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections: US Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador (Boston: South End Press, 1984), esp. "The Role of the Mass Media in a Demonstration Election," pp. 153-80.

29. See Robert A. Hackett, "Coups, Earthquakes and Hostages? Foreign News on Canadian Television," in Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 22, No. 4 (December 1989), pp. 811-25.

30. The phrase is Michael Kamen's, quoted in Barbie Zelizer, "CNN, the Gulf War, and Journalistic Practice," in Journal of Communication, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 1992), pp. 66-79.

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. Copyright 1994 by The Macmillan Press Ltd.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.