A Book Review by Ipek A. Celik Rappas.
The Other Air Force explores post-9/11 US investments in Middle Eastern broadcasting initiatives especially in places of conflict and economic uncertainty. Matt Sienkiewicz’s The Other Air Force: U.S. Efforts to Reshape Middle Eastern Media Since 9/11 (Rutgers, 2016) is based on fieldwork (interviews with government officials, media workers, and funding agencies) in Kabul, Afghanistan, and West Bank, Palestine. Even though the fieldwork is conducted in these two countries, the book also provides a rich range of examples that extend to Iraqi and Tunisian mediaspheres. What makes Sienkiewicz’s book particularly rich and engaging is the attention he pays to striking complexities of media production (such as the challenges of producing an apolitical quiz show in Palestine) and to individual stories of local media producers that throw a light on spaces of agency and resistance under various forms of censorship (local and US) in the Middle East.
While common imperialist understanding suggests that financially supported local broadcasting agencies are an expansion of US hegemony into Middle Eastern media, Sienkiewicz argues that “It is…neither possible nor desirable to tell a neat story of well-organized American imperial strategy exercising its will against powerless local screenwriters and station managers” (30), underlining the need to examine the extent and limits of the agency and creativity of local media producers. The author draws a complex picture in which US has “soft-psy approach to media intervention” – “psy” being an acronym for the military term “psychological operations,” also known as” psy-ops.” Sienkiewicz describes soft-psy intervention strategies as a negotiation between market-oriented “soft power” strategies such as financial support, unsupervised local production, and aim for economic competitiveness (based on “America’s faith in the curative power of competitive markets ) with discursive limitations defined by US political sensitivities. The study shows that a diverse range of interests play a role in the creation of media content, American policy directives, local producers, and desires of local audiences, all of which play important role. and while “soft-psy media is a compromise forged in the context of tremendous power… it also, however, serves as an important reminder that even those groups and individuals on the wrong side of a relationship of domination are capable of forms of expression well worth studying” (201).
The first chapter gives a historical outline of developmental communication theory and the roots of US efforts to influence opinions in the Middle East both during the Cold War and after 9/11 by tracing the history of American media assistance in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan. The chapter is enriched by illuminating discussions on the rapid expansion of Iraqi mediasphere into sixty satellite television stations soon after the destruction of national broadcasting services, on how the history of media and communications in Afghanistan is obscured by the US emphasis on Taliban’s prohibitive regulations, or on the development of the first private Palestinian television station (Nablus TV in West Bank) by a university student who fashioned his own, short-range antenna to lead the way to further small TV stations that became crucial bases for American soft-psy intervention in Palestinian media.
The second chapter focuses on successful examples of soft-psy media in the Middle East: Afghanistan’s Arman FM and Tolo TV, and Palestine’s Ma’an Network. The chapter outlines their difference from CIA-controlled Cold War media producers who operated under direct American oversight as soft-psy media with American funding; this production did not hide their connection to American government and finance and developed through the interplay of global capitalism, international NGOs, and local media producers. Sienkiewicz insightfully underlines that there is much heavier US interference and control over Israeli-occupied Palestinian mediascape than in US occupied Afghanistan. The author shows how occupation is often rendered invisible in films and TV series produced by the Ma’an network, and due to US sensitivities its “content has historically been about every conflict but the Israeli-Palestinian” (97). Hence, a Ma’an-produced TV series written by local scriptwriters would narrate intergenerational conflicts through different preferences in hairstyling rather than clashes over political issues.
The third chapter, informed by discussions of agency and subversive mimicry in post-colonial theory, examines the work of two media producers (screenwriter Saleem Dabbour in Palestine and director of a radio station Mirwais Social in Afghanistan) who are at the margins of the US funding schemes and explores these places of negotiation and resistance within the dominant structures of soft-psy media. Dabbour’s work, for instance, is considered in relation to globally renown Palestinian filmmakers such as Michel Khleifi and Hany Abu-Assad. Dabbour has local fame that resists from within through steadfastness, the will to work from within Palestine, with amateur local crews and cast and with funding that comes with its own rules and limits to produce highly popular TV series in Palestine, “projects that appear unremarkable from an outside vantage point but have real significance at home” (110). Even if US funding might not be used for making films that reveal the consequences of Israeli occupation in Palestine, at least it provides training and networks to be used for future uncensored projects that secure other sources of funding.
The fourth chapter inquires into the role of gender and women’s rights in American soft-psy media interventions and how gender equality became a justification for post-9/11 US interventions in the Middle East. The chapter probes opportunities that American funding has made possible for female producers in Afghan and Palestinian media, the role that US funded media networks play in expanding the scope of the female mediasphere. The chapter pays attention to the problems with US discourse on improving the lives of women in Muslim countries as it perpetuates a discourse of female lack of agency and diverts attention from violence perpetrated by the occupying forces (US and Israel) in these territories that indeed effects first and foremost women and children. The chapter concludes that “female empowerment in Middle Eastern media spaces is by no means a product of Western intervention… However, soft-psy media projects… have made tangible, positive steps toward increasing female participation in the respective public spheres of Afghanistan and Palestine”(158).
The fifth chapter stretches an already familiar topic, US media’s representation of the Middle East, to a less familiar ground: the US media’s representation of Middle Eastern media and circulation of its contents. The representation of Middle Eastern media, the study displays, often involves stereotypes of corruption and lack of freedom of speech, and with it “an aberrant mediasphere emerges as both evidence of flawed Middle Eastern society and as a motivation for the funding of soft-psy media projects”(167). Especially striking are the examples drawn from progressive post-9/11 US comedy shows such as Daily News with Jon Stewart that also used “edited and radically decontextualized” (169) content from local sources such as Al Jazeera in ways that perpetuate clichés about Middle Eastern culture. Sienkiewicz suggests that the use of content from Middle Eastern media sources (“meta-mediations”) give authenticity or a sense of direct access to US news yet “meta-mediations tend to ignore the banal, contradictory, and discursively complex moments that make up so much of any television system…they paint a decidedly incomplete picture and one that is particularly well-suited to advance hawkish positions in both the United States and Israel” (178).
Informed by a large theoretical breath ranging from postcolonial studies to studies on media production, Matt Sienkiewicz’s book is an important contribution in the field of critical political communication and Middle Eastern media studies. Beyond its initial fields of interest, what gives the book a larger appeal is the attention it pays to gender and labor politics in the global mediasphere. The second chapter, for instance, provides insights into the draining labor conditions for Afghan media workers which has a global resonance: “New recruits undergo rapid-fire training sessions, with the brightest prospects being thrown quickly into positions of considerable responsibility... The washout percentage is thus rather high, with only a handful of producers advancing in the company”(81). Then, in the fourth chapter Sienkiewicz shows how gender diversity is tightly connected to work-place practices and policies. Poignant examples are an Afghani woman media producer Farida Nekzad’s alteration of segregated lunches in order to involve women producers more into the decision processes, and Ma’an network’s reservation of day-shifts for women that enhanced the contribution of female media workers. With striking case studies and scient attention to the complex interplay of top-down strategy and policies, bottom-up resistance and negotiations along with labor, gender, and geopolitics, Sienkiewicz’s book offers an indispensable guide for researchers in communication and Middle Eastern studies.
Ipek A. Celik Rappas is an Assistant Professor of Media and Visual Arts and the Graduate Program in Design, Technology, and Society at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. She is the author of In Permanent Crisis
Ethnicity in Contemporary European Media and Cinema (Michigan, 2015).