“People are not stupid, they are simply misinformed”

Image courtesy of US Department of Defense, © 1992, public domain
Image courtesy of US Department of Defense, © 1992, public domain

The short attention span of current media is overwhelmingly frustrating. In our age of constant connectivity, it appears that the values of consistency, genuine interest and media responsibility are diminishing. For example, the lack of active western coverage of Venezuela is alarming. Yet it is not the only event which has suffered from sporadic public interest. The Syrian conflict has enjoyed extensive coverage in the past but now has disappeared from mainstream media.  Despite the many devastating consequences of the Syrian violence, there is one positive side-effect: making the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) relevant in the eyes of the public. Too often and too easily, the public and the media attack the United Nations (UN) for its ineffective bureaucracy. Thankfully, the vital role that the OPCW has played in the Syrian conflict can start a healthy debate on the role of the media, public perception and international crises.

The OPCW has been instrumental in ensuring that Damascus’ stockpile of chemical weapons is taken out of Syrian territory to be destroyed in several parts of the world. Despite Damascus failing to meet two deadlines, in January and February, and missing its own deadline in April, as of the 27th of April, only 7.5% of the 1,300-tonne stockpile remains. This means that there is a very high probability that the UN deadline of the 30th of June will be met. Regardless of deadlines being missed, this is an impressive result that has been reached thanks to the efforts of the OPCW, recognized by its laureation for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Unfortunately this by no means indicates a resolution of the conflict in the near future. The American administration and the mainstream media have been too quick to characterize the Syrian conflict as the ‘good’ rebels versus the ‘bad’ Al-Assad. There is often a lack of understanding in the public, due to media oversimplification, of the dynamics of the conflict and the complex relationship between actors, whether through their objectives or sources of funding. The implications of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are often overlooked, and this leads the public to be misinformed. This hinders the negotiation process, vital for conflict resolution.  Furthermore, conflict resolution is currently being hindered by Damascus’ suspected use of chlorine gas, which is not included in the deal with the OPCW.  This has occurred despite Syria signing the Chemical Weapons Convention.

This follows a long precedent of disrespect for international law, such as the Houla incident when civilians, and particularly children, were the targets of a government-backed onslaught. Yet, Al-Assad’s defiance in the face of western pressure must be understood in light of the fact that actors such as the Al-Qaida-backed Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) would actually lead to increased instability if they were successful in toppling the Syrian regime. The media should start engaging in such topics, adopting and discussing a long term view, for example by discussing the implications of Damascus’ dismissal of the threatened US intervention if the chemical red line was crossed. This, coupled with Russia’s P5 veto in the Security Council, raises questions about the role of the US in the geopolitical sphere but also questions whether the existing structure of IGOs are adequate.

It should not be taboo to talk about the decline of the US or the rise of China. It is only through education and information that xenophobia and stereotyping, so harmful to peaceful coexistence, are dismissed. Accordingly, it is the responsibility of the media to follow up stories and it is the public’s responsibility to stay informed. It is important to note that being informed goes beyond simply reading the BBC; one must keep up to speed by (1) reading analytical articles (2) actively talking and debating with peers, not just about the latest developments but on the crises’ political, economic, social and geopolitical implications (3) by reading reports by NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Lastly, it is important that public expectation of the media changes. The public should not satisfy itself with the latest developments or scandals, and take interest only in those stories which sell papers and create the wrong kind of excitement in the public sphere.

This analysis mostly applies to western media, which has been largely successful in escaping governmental control. There are still many states in which the government controls the media and oppresses public opinion; nevertheless, western media has the responsibility to lead the way, to show that a free media is not an end by itself but a means by which society can improve itself. We live in a world of constant change, and an educated population is necessary to ensure that those at the top do not get carried away. Knowledge and power have an intrinsic relationship, and as knowledge is shared, it is not about threatening those at the top, but rather evaluating whether what is being done is in line with the desires of society. It should be the public forming its opinion through research and then influencing the media, and not the other way around!

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