The headline of today's Foreign Policy cover story is telling: Propagandastan.
Is U.S. taxpayer money being given to a for-profit military contractor to shill for a Central Asian dictator, just because he's a useful ally in the war on terror?
"It's disturbing, to say the least," says Alexander Cooley, a political scientist at Barnard College who writes frequently about America's military footprint in Central Asia. "I would not expect anyone who is otherwise involved as a contractor or a subcontractor for U.S. security agencies to provide objective news analysis of terrorism. Part of covering terrorism means covering both the emergence of legitimate threats, but also covering how the specter of terror is used as political cover for governments to clamp down on political opponents," Cooley said. He called the "fluff" on Central Asia Online "just propaganda."
The military contractor in question is General Dynamics, who the Defense Department is paying over $120 million (a figure that keeps increasing) to run the Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI), for "the development, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of influence websites for USSOCOM, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), and the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs)."
FP focuses primarily on Central Asia Online, one of eight TRWI websites, and its presence in Uzbekistan (FP also reminds us of another reason the single-beki, single-stan country is strategically important: an alternative to Pakistan for land supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan). As examples of the publication's propaganda, FP cites a story praising Uzbekistan's measures to register religious groups, which turned out to be more about controlling religion than protecting it. Another story attempts to quash concerns of government religious intolerance.
Central Asia Online also has cozy relationship with the Uzbek government:
That Central Asia Online has seemingly unfettered access to the country's feared secret police—the SNB—is alone suspicious, suggesting collusion, says an Uzbek journalist who has written secretly for foreign news organizations.
"It looks like the website has a special and close relationship with the Uzbek government," he told me, responding to several Central Asia Online stories on extremism. "The authors have access to officials and clerics who customarily refuse to meet independent-minded journalists; they only talk to government-affiliated journalists whose work is approved by the SNB."
Does confessing to propaganda make propaganda less propaganda-ish?
The TRWI websites do not hide their affiliation with the U.S. military, stating it clearly in their "About" sections. The original Pentagon solicitation called the sites…"tools in support of strategic and long-term U.S. Government goals and objectives," not professional journalism.
To some extent, it doesn't matter, as other local newspapers and websites pick up and redistribute the material.
Though it is the responsibility of those outlets to attribute, many, at least in Central Asia, do not, billing the stories as original, local reporting, rather than DOD propaganda.
Just to be clear, this is DOD propaganda in support of a dictatorship with no concern for human liberty.
Read the whole thing here.