Democracy and the War on Dissent
Jonathan Lawson and Susan Gleason
The social and
political climate of post-September 11 America has seen intense pressures for
citizens to conform to particular forms of patriotism. Pressures have flowed
from the U.S. federal government’s repeated (and rather anti-democratic) calls
for unity, and have been broadcast and amplified by a national media, which has
shown itself very willing to toe the official line rather than invoke voices of
At the same time,
however, using the Internet as an organizing tool, a distribution network and a
publishing platform, the Independent Media Center (IMC) network continues to
grow in size and exposure as more progressive organizations and ordinary folks
look to its websites for media alternatives.
The IMC’s unique
“open publishing” system, by which independent journalists publish their own
media directly to the web, makes browsing Indymedia sites a mixed bag of
thoughtful analyses, activist dispatches, on-the-street news items, rants, and
reprinted media from unknown publications or organizations. Without a central
editorial authority dispatching reporters (or fact-checking stories), readers
are obliged to think critically as they are reading—to allow a story to provoke
further research, further reading, and—perhaps—further writing.
Even before the
tragic events of September 11, 2001, and before the wave of reactionary law
enforcement measures rammed through Congress in the weeks which followed,
critics of power politics in the United States understood that the Bush
administration was on the lookout for aggressive strategies to promote its
neoliberal economic agenda (inherited from the Clinton administration) while
stifling domestic unrest.
In the Nation
(dated September 17; the last issue published before September 11), for example,
Edward Said wrote that “Bush, Blair and their feeble partners prepare their
citizens for an indeterminate war against Islamic terrorism, rogue states and
the rest,” an example of what he termed “diversions from the social and economic
disentitlements occurring in reality.” At home, Said observed, orthodox
catchphrases of globalization such as ‘free trade,’ ‘privatization’ and so
forth, are repeated over and again “not as they sometimes seem to be—as
instigations for debate—but quite the opposite, to stifle, preempt and crush
unfortunately prescient words were quickly forgotten in the patriotic fervor
imposed after September 11, as forces within the Bush administration rushed to
link a cornucopia of pet projects to its newly-justified anti-terrorist quest.
Before bombs began to fall in Afghanistan, some of the most shameless and
morally bankrupt rhetoric came from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick,
who asserted that anti-globalization protesters have “intellectual connections”
with terrorists and that pursuing free trade was an important way to combat
definitions of terrorism were part of a colossal package of law enforcement
legislation rushed through Congress without debate or other regular processes.
The Patriot Act, as it was passed into law in late October, is 342 pages
long—its many controversial provisions for expansions of police and
prosecutorial power were likely part of Justice Department and FBI wish lists
long before the bill’s introduction as a timely anti-terrorist measure. The
Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) has made a detailed initial
analysis of the act and its potential affects on electronic media.
Reflecting on the
increasing pressure government forces have been placing on anti-globalization
demonstrators since the Seattle WTO ministerial, many activist groups have
charged that the real purpose of this legislation is to criminalize organized
protest, through expanded definitions of terrorism and surveillance authority.
Because of our relationship with the anti-globalization and environmentalist
activist movements, and because we have already had encounters with police and
federal law enforcement agencies, Indymedia volunteers are also taking a hard
look at these new laws.
Most IMC volunteers
probably describe themselves as activists as well as journalists. Credentialed
IMC journalists working in the midst of street protests have relied on their
press badges to distinguish themselves from protesters, although this has not
stopped them from getting gassed, pepper-sprayed, and arrested by police in
Seattle and elsewhere.
In recent months,
the Seattle IMC has covered numerous local stories chronicling recent government
crackdowns or violations of civil liberties. Some of these have directly
resulted from the new anti-terrorist fervor in law enforcement: nonviolent
School of the Americas Watch organizers and anti-globalization protesters have
been denied entry into Canada; residents and supporters of Seattle’s Somali
community protested the government shutdown of several Somali-owned businesses,
one of which was allegedly suspected of having links to international
terrorists. In a ruling that showed remarkable contempt for the First Amendment,
a Seattle judge found constitutional the “no-protest zones” created during the
WTO to foil demonstrators.
these get a much different spin in the corporate media, where restrictions on
subject matter and actual debate have increased in the post-September 11
press, more often than not, takes administration rhetoric at face value, relying
on official sources to describe current events, and allowing its claims to go
unchallenged. As recently reported by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting (www.fair.org), mainstream networks CNN and FOX instituted official
wartime policies requiring journalists to downplay reports of Afghan civilian
casualties. Reporting on domestic approval of the U.S. bombing, NPR’s Cokie
Roberts was asked by the host whether there were dissenting views among the
public. Her reply: “None that matter.”
In its own public
addresses, the Bush administration has foregone thoughtful analysis of complex
issues, offering instead “non-negotiable” policies and simplistic explanations.
anti-war sentiment, including large demonstrations, is systematically marginal-
ized by most mainstream print media as well. When 65,000 demonstrators marched
in Washington, DC on October 26, the Washington Post ran a single
photo—depicting a lone, angry counter-protester. When acknowledged in written
reports, large demonstrations are interpreted as threats to public safety and
often described using prejudicial and unwarranted language. Two years
afterwards, it is common for the Seattle Times to report as fact wildly
inaccurate fantasies about the “riots” and “widespread property destruction”
that accompanied WTO protests.
repetition, this way of marginalizing protest movements has affected even the
alternative press. For example, both of Seattle’s major alternative weeklies
have published articles lightly dismissing recent anti-war protests as
unsophisticated, old- fashioned, or muddled.
What Is To Be
Centers continue to produce and disseminate important stories and critical
perspectives that are overlooked or purposefully ignored by the mainstream. At
the same time, we encourage activists to become more analytical consumers of the
media, to develop mental tools that make it easier to see around the propaganda,
to see how stories are shaped by ideological presuppositions, and to become
articulate media critics, speaking about or publishing one’s own critiques of
the mainstream press.
Here are several
guidelines for increasing media literacy skills, followed by additional
guidelines for media activists who choose to take up the Indymedia challenge.
These guidelines draw from Ali Abunimah and Rania Masri’s critique of Gulf War
news coverage (in Iraq Under Siege, Anthony Arnove, ed.; South End
1. When reading,
watching or listening to news media, become an “analyst.” For every report you
come across, ask, “Whose voices are included, whose are excluded? What hidden
presuppositions helped shape this story?”
2. Read widely.
All news media is shaped by particular political, economic and ethical
positions; get your news from multiple sources and read them comparatively and
critically. Seek out noncommercial and international sources of information.
For those with Internet access, browsing the web makes this easy. Labor unions,
NGOs, and advocacy groups such as the Institute for Policy Studies or Public
Citizen, often post detailed news stories concerning specific issues.
3. Discuss your
findings with others. As you develop your own good habits, share them with your
friends and co-workers. Everyone discusses the news—use these discussions to
sharpen your own thinking about the media we consume as well as to educate
1. Stay awake. We
are all affected by the propaganda pushed by corporate America—activists need to
be vigilant in keeping themselves and each other alert.
2. Learn the
battlefield and choose your battles. None of us can read or listen to
everything; none of us can cover every story. Choose a topic or situation that
interests you and learn about it. As time goes by, you will become more expert
in your chosen area and readers will learn to trust your writing.
effectively. Write down your observations, make a radio or video piece. Whether
you are writing a current events story, a media analysis article or an opinion
piece, present facts as accurately as you can. If your piece contains movement
jargon or comes across as a rant, readers may put less stock in what you have to
networks. Make contact with other journalists, activists, or organizations
interested in the same issues. Support and advocate for independent media
5. Be persistent.
Make things happen. Submit your writings to independent media sources. Publish
your articles, photos, video and audio pieces to any Indymedia site (look for
the publish button on the front page). Once an article is posted to an IMC, it
remains archived there—readers can search for your writings and link to them
from elsewhere. Z
Lawson and Susan Gleason are journalists, educators, and organizers at the
Seattle Independent Media Center (seattle.indymedia.org), part of the global IMC