Al Arabiya jostles its way back into Iraq

It has been a momentous few weeks for media news. Beginning with the closure of the Al Arabiya and MBC offices in Iraq and culminating with Al Arabiya reopening its offices.

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By  David Ingham Published  December 31, 2003

|~|hussain_capture_200w.jpg|~|Iraq’s national TV, Al Iraqiya, used Al Arabiya’s footage tor cover Saddam’s capture.|~|It has been a momentous few weeks for media news. Beginning with the closure of the Al Arabiya and MBC offices in Iraq and culminating with Al Arabiya reopening its offices defiantly to cover the news of Saddam Hussein’s arrest. “They (the Interim Governing Council -IGC) said they would take us to court if we broke the closure order,” said news director Salah Nagm. “It will be an irony if they take us to court for covering Saddam’s capture.” The day the capture was announced, Nagm was preparing to fly to Baghdad to meet with the Governing Council to reassure them of the channel’s intentions, in an effort to enable the offices to reopen and get their journalists and technicians back to work. As most are Iraqis anyway, none of the staff had left the country following the bureau’s raid and closure. A tip off led to management in Dubai preparing the team for the news of Saddam’s arrest. Although correspondents were threatened with US $1000 fines and a year in prison for each breach of the closure order, everyone, according to Nagm, agreed to work on the story. “Sure, they were nervous about it,” said Nagm, “but they knew the story was so big that we could not obey the order. Just let them (the CPA and IGC) try to take us to court for covering Saddam’s capture. It will be a huge media circus.” Al Arabiya did have contingency plans in place for continuing their coverage in Iraq. Picture access was never going to be a problem. Every major picture agency continues to cover the country. Al Arabiya subscribes to all of them; it also has reciprocal picture usage agreements with other broadcasters; there are satellite news gathering units (SNGs) available for hire throughout the country and, just a few days before the the capture, the channel’s management had completed an agreement with Agence France Presse (AFP) to make its correspondents available for stand-up reports, commentary and interviews live into Al Arabiya’s core programming. The fallout from the closure had already been serious, with media freedom activists quick to criticise the IGC for its behaviour. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) had been among the most vociferous. Within 24 hours of the raid, the Paris-based RSF called on the Council to overturn its ban on Al Arabiya and condemned the Iraqi government’s use of police to close the network’s Baghdad office. “Iraq’s new authorities should not try to get a news organisation to change its editorial line by using force - such methods belong to the past and are contrary to the promises of democracy made to the Iraqi people,” said secretary general, Robert Menard. “Instead of preventing journalists in the field from doing their work, the Iraqi Governing Council should address its objections to the TV network’s management and should get down to the job of setting up an elected body to regulate and monitor the news media,” he added. At the time of the raid the president of the IGC, Jalal Talabani, said he was acting with the support of the US administrator, Paul Bremer, and claimed that the IGC had ‘encouraged all journalists to practice reasonable journalism.’ Justfying the raid, which followed Al Arabiya’s broadcast of a tape, said to be by Saddam Hussein, in which the speaker called on Iraqis to step up resistance, Talabani told a news conference, “Inciting murder or violence is illegal under the laws of the entire world. Saddam in our eyes is a torturer, a war criminal and whoever disseminates for him exposes himself to legal punishment.” Al Arabiya’s Baghdad bureau chief Wahhad Yacoub, insisted that his office had nothing to do with the tape, which had been sent by telephone to the channel’s Dubai Headquarters. Looking at the broader picture, Salah Nagm said that the company had sent a fax to the IGC in Baghdad within 24 hours of the raid on its offices, though he insisted that he had given no promises about moderating coverage. “We sent them our mission statement,” he said. “That makes it perfectly clear that we do not incite anyone to any illegal acts. “But it does mean that we cover the news and give space to any differing views on any particular issue.” He says he is expecting an official reopening of the Baghdad bureau “quite soon.” Managers travelled to the Iraqi capital on Monday 16 December to meet with members of the interim government and the CPA. Nagm was expecting that, if talks proved successful, he would follow within a few days to formalise the agreement. In another piece of irony (remember, the closure of Al Arabiya’s Baghdad bureau was heavily endorsed by the US administration) the US-backed and US-managed Al Iraqia channel, which is being established as the national broadcaster, actually chose to re-broadcast Al Arabiya live for several hours during the evening as more and more detail of Saddam’s capture was coming out. The news channel’s sister, entertainment channel, MBC, is providing the bulk of Al Iraqia’s programming via satellite from Dubai, so it was a simple issue, once the request to rebroadcast had been approved, to switch the satellite signal from MBC to Al Arabiya. To repeat Salah Nagm’s quotation from earlier in this story, it will indeed be a grand irony if the IGC does proceed with its threat to prosecute.||**||

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