Which war are you watching?

Amidst all the differing approaches to the Iraq war taken by various TV channels, viewers struggled to grasp what was fact and what was fiction

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  May 6, 2003

|~||~||~|Are there two sides to a story? Are those two sides simply black or white? Is the media in the West and the Middle East guilty of slanting the news? Are people kept in the dark as to what really takes place? Is the media in the US a conservative monolith and is there a political dimension to reporting news in the Arab world? Do the Arab and Western media play a part in falsifying history, suppressing information, promoting empty concepts that prevent individuals from raising prickly questions about government policy? These are questions that have been raised by Arabs and Westerners alike in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and, more pertinently since the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq.

There are no absolute right or wrong answers to the questions raised here. There is, however, a more conscious and evolving desire amongst media consumers, worldwide to synthesise and decipher the information and misinformation that has characterised the war in Iraq. That is the case as some try to see through the murky line and the fog of war that has erroneously intertwined patriotism and journalism. Amidst the daily barrage of news, there is now a visible and compelling need for people to criticise and question what they read, what they see and what they hear. More importantly there are also questions about whom the media serves, why it exists and whether or not there are hidden agendas.

The media landscape…

The conflict in Iraq now — compared to the one twelve years ago — does not inhabit the same media landscape. It is harder to veil what happens on the ground today because news delivery is much easier now than it was in 1991. As Alain Gresh the editor in chief of Le Monde diplomatique says, “In the first Gulf War there were no images, we didn’t see the war because the Americans forbade the journalist to be in the war. Everyone showed the first Gulf War through American eyes, through CNN.”

“It’s not only a question of objectivity it’s also a question of how you see the war in the US and how you see it in Europe and in the Arab world. You can’t see it in the same way…what is important is the fact that we have different points of view...and that in this war the American point of view is not the only one which can express itself.”

There is no doubt that the emergence of independent Arab satellite channels and Arab newspapers has played a salient role in determining where Arabs turn to news today. The improvement in Arab media, according to Patrick Seale, an eminent writer on the Middle East and biographer of Syrian President Hafez Al Assad, started with the Lebanese civil war when Arabic periodicals and newspapers moved to Britain and France. This, Seale believes, had a tremendous effect, invigorating the Arab media and improving standards. “A further push came with the birth of satellite television stations, which were being increasingly independent, breaking taboos, and discussing subjects not previously discussed,” he says. The metamorphosis of the Arab media is akin to the modern renaissance of the Arabs; that George Antonius dedicated his book the Arab Awakening to.

Western governments are cognisant of a more discerning Arab viewer. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, with much talk about a clash of civilisations, the need to fight terror and building the case for war in Iraq, British and US officials increasingly courted Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. But the media outreach campaign doesn’t seem to be bearing fruit. American doesn’t have the undivided attention of the man and woman on the Arab street.

“With regard to the Arab people it is definitely a failure,” says the press secretary. “It’s probably more successful with the West,” says a former press secretary to an Arab leader adding, “I hardly see any success at all with regard to presenting their case for Iraq. The main point of their campaign to start with was to take out the weapons of mass destruction. Two or three days into the war we no longer hear of any weapons of mass destruction we just hear about the brutality of the [Iraqi] regime…So how could the general public in the Arab world actually believe that what they are coming to do in Iraq was only regime change, oil or was it other reasons?”
James Rubin, the former assistant secretary of state for public affairs and chief spokesperson of the US State Department under the Clinton administration, concedes that the appearance of American officials on Arab television stations does little in terms of changing the minds of Arab people. But he also says, that “it would be a mistake to leave those airwaves to the people who hate, doubt, question or have conspiracy theories about the United States-that would be wrong, that would be a mistake.”

“The best that you could hope for in these situations is that you begin slowly to condition people that there are other points of view-that the United States is not engaged in a massive conspiracy in the Arab world.”

With such a monumental event, where news consumers around the world have been subjected to an information blitzkrieg and a wide spectrum of views, shades of grey emerge. Broadcasting footage of POWs and corpses of the dead by the Arab media is a case in point. British and US officials cried foul, blasting the Arab media when it beamed such undesirable footage.

To many, the outcry and the call to abide by the Geneva Convention were mind-boggling. Critics of America, here in the Arab world, speak of how a country decimated international law with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp—that this is a clear sign of American hypocrisy--that Americans have one standard for themselves and another for the rest of the world. And so they ask why then should Al Jazeera and the like be chastised? Why should they [Arab media] be treated any different from their counterparts in the West who have shown footage of combatants at Guantanamo Bay? The questioning and scrutiny are examples, say media critics, of what differentiates American viewers or networks from their peers in the Arab world.

“We are not in the business of editing [material]. We have fought so long against censorship, and we are not going to be turned into censors ourselves and try and dress up the truth,” says Jihad Ballout, spokesperson for Al Jazeera. Defending the network’s decision to defy US and British objections to the footage it airs, he says, “It’s simple: irrespective of prisoners and anything else, we are out there to cover a war, an incident of international proportions.” And like others on the battlefield Al Jazeera became a casualty of war. It business reporter was banned from the New York Stock Exchange, hackers hit the network’s newly launched English-language web site and for the second time in two years its offices were hit by American missiles.

Tony Maddox, senior vice president of CNN International for Europe Africa and the Middle East, says, the decision to show or not to show footage “is a judgement call for each broadcaster.” Phil Harding, the BBC World Service’s director is a bit more outspoken. “It is important that we offer our viewers a wide choice of sources. In a way, we report and they decide. I think that is important to our international credibility. We are the British Broadcasting Corporation but that doesn’t mean that we are the British Government Broadcasting Corporation.”

Ali Al Ahmed, director of Abu Dhabi television, which like Al Jazeera, has become a household name in the Arab world, says, “It is beyond certain footage. It is not a popular war to start with and nobody can deny that.” He adds, “What do you cover when you go into a war zone? I don’t think you go there as an Arab or an American, you go there as a journalist to cover the news.”

Some decry the treatment of the Arab media and say there is a double standard. At a public level, American anger is very understandable says one observer. A veteran of Capitol Hill, he says, “What the average American fails to understand, is that the anger is mirrored in this part of the world. Arabs are just as horrified and angry at seeing Arab casualties and POWs, as Americans are, at seeing American ones.” The problem, he adds, “Is that Americans are too easily fired up by patriotism and once that happens they become blind to the truth.”

Bush administration officials, the veteran says, are engaged in a dramatic manifestation of hypocrisy. “They selectively filter the truth until it meets their expectations. As soon as an Arab network such as Al Jazeera reports something that is not to their liking, they get angry and upset. What happened to freedom of speech? What happened to the freedom and democracy that they promised us? What about the Iraqi POWs who were shown on CNN and other Western networks with hands tied behind their backs and faces pushed in the sand? Where were American sensibilities when those pictures were aired?”
The POW event triggered an endless amount of debate. To many observers the choice to broadcast raw images of the war, and for papers to write about the ugliness of the conflict was indicative of another war-one fought on the psychological and information fronts. Effectively it became a debate about objectivity. “The handling of news and the massaging and manipulation of public opinion is a major part of this war,” says Seale.

Independence of the media…

But criticism of the Arab media by British and US officials has not gone unmitigated. It carried over into both conservative and mainstream media, where some, saw an attack on their government, as an attack on them. “A culture of hatred and bigotry is being promoted in this country [US],” says Mehdi Noorbaksh a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Texas. “While the rest of the world is trying very hard to oppose America’s unilateral dictation of a new hegemony in the international arena, the people of this country are encouraged to be ‘patriotic’ by supporting this administration and its agenda. The media plays a significant role in this direction. With the conservative Fox News dominating the cable news ratings, channels like MSNBC and CNN are diving to the right in an effort to pick up viewers. It’s a scary phenomenon-channels whose mandate used to be balanced and objective reporting are relying more and more on right-wing commentators.”

Being at war has influenced the way in which the American media covers the war. The firing of Peter Arnett some say is a good example of what happens to those who are perceived to be unpatriotic. Arnett, a Pulitzer prize winner, who was working for the US network, NBC, gave an interview to Iraqi state television in which he said the US’s war plan was flawed and had failed. “It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV - especially at a time of war - and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview,” NBC News president Neal Shapiro said in a statement issued a day after a network spokeswoman initially defended the correspondent.

Was it wrong for Arnett to give an interview? “He didn’t say anything that was outrageous. He used bad judgement in giving the enemy information ministry an interview; he didn’t have to do that,” says James Rubin. Then what justification is there for getting fired? “There has been a powerful, conservative assault on the media for many years now, where the conservative media is allowed to be biased and when the liberal media as they call it, or the mainstream as I call it, is raising any questions, they are called unpatriotic,” says Rubin.
What about the language of reporting and the Arab media? Arabs, including Western educated, English speaking ones have been flocking to Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV and Al Arabiya. In conversation with several, you hear harsh words about the American media and how it much it turns them off. Asked why he thought Arabs turn to Arab networks and dislike American news channels, a communications professor at Ajman University in the UAE says, “[They’re] depressing, slanted, fact-smeared lies…did the English listen to Goebles? Did Hanoi residents listen to the Voice of Saigon?”

All of this has also given rise to a new phenomenon playing out in Britain and Europe. Freelance journalists and researchers in Europe and Britain say there is a wide number of English speakers that don’t speak Arabic and some of the liberal intelligentsia who have been seeking out alternative sources of news, mistrusting the objectivity of some of the main networks. Al Jazeera, which is available to cable subscribers in Europe, has been the biggest gainer. According to the network’s spokesperson, Ballout, subscription in Europe on the eve of the war was 4 million and within seven days of the outbreak of hostilities it jumped up to 8 million.

Ali Al Ahmed of Abu Dhabi TV, says his station, “fully realizes the impact of the media weapon on a global scale. We cover the war and we cover the crisis [and] I can confidently say we don’t have a hidden agenda. But as you know, please everybody, please nobody.”

Phil Harding of the BBC World Service says people come to the BBC because they know the network goes to enormous lengths to get it right. He admits that language in the business of reporting can be tricky. “You try and use as neutral of a language as you possibly can, but some people don’t like even the language that you do chose. Is somebody a suicide bomber, a martyr or a terrorist?” he says. “I think the secret with all of this is to use straightforward terms to use as few adjectives and labels as you possibly can. Is it [war in Iraq] an invasion? I wouldn’t call it an invasion and I wouldn’t call it liberation-I certainly wouldn’t call it ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ which I see some of the American networks have called it,” adds Harding.

Incidentally, James Rubin says, “the coalition issue I think is a phoney issue…I think the administration has been lucky that so many media outlets have accepted this term, when it really should be the American and British forces. Its not that much longer and it’s more accurate. I personally think that it was unnecessary to not say American and British forces and it was probably, in my judgement, a mistake in the end.” This is yet another example of how unquestioning the media in the US has become say critics.

But again, there is the criticism that some Arab channels are one sided, emotive—that they have agendas. Speaking about Al Jazeera, Rubin says, “their point of view is to link everything back to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and they don’t report parts of the Israeli-Palestinian issue that are more complex, they exaggerate and put a high premium on the emotionalism of truly tragic events. But they don’t report the other side. That’s my problem with Al Jazeera, that they have a point of view- they have political objectives in their reporting.”

To an extent the former press secretary to an Arab leader agrees. “I think the Arabs themselves would say that about Al Jazeera before the Americans would,” he says. “Obviously Al Jazeera has some sort of a mission no doubt about that—but Al Jazeera is something special for the Arab world at the moment.”

There are those that seem to agree. Immediately after Al Jazeera was banned from the New York Stock Exchange, a New York Times editorial in March saw it fit to say why Al Jazeera matters. “If the U.S. hope for the Arab world is, as the Bush administration never ceases to remind Americans, for it to enjoy a free, democratic life, Al Jazeera is the kind of television station Americans should encourage,” wrote the Times. It then went on to say something many Arabs identify with. “If a free, uncensored press ever arrives in the Arab world, many Americans will be shocked by what it says. Then, the energetic if somewhat tendentious broadcasts of Al Jazeera will seem, in comparison, like the nuanced objectivity of the BBC.”

Undoubtedly the media played a fundamental role in shaping people’s perceptions of the Iraq war. Networks have been the eyes and ears of viewers. They defined the theatre of operations and events on the battlefield for us. But with time, as the scope of coverage increases, we become more demanding and critical. The challenge then for networks is to deliver the news, steer away from theatrics and for governments to respect independent and critical thinking—even when it rubs them the wrong way.


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