Arab vs. American Media: command and control?

BY Muralidhar Reddy| IN Media Practice | 14/04/2003
Events leading to the march of the coalition soldiers into Baghdad clearly proved that Pentagon was deliberately targeting Arab media.


B Muralidhar Reddy


As coalition forces capture Baghdad, the war on Iraq (not in Iraq as CNN insists) promises to go down as the most bizarre media spectacle ever witnessed at least on the idiot box. Doha, the capital of Qatar, best illustrates the incongruity of the war and the media.  Doha is the headquarters of the US Central Command, (CENTCOM) spearheading the military campaign in Iraq. Ironically, it is also the head office of Al-Jazeera, the seven-year-old satellite channel which has been making waves in the  whole world as it struggles to present the "other side`` the story.


The Bush has regime made no secret of how much it detests Al-Jazeera and Abu Dubhai networks, referred derisively as the Arab media, for the way they view the invasion. The battle between the Arab media and battalions led by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had begun even before the first bullet was fired. United States was not amused over the refusal of the Arab media to see the war on Iraq as a liberation.


America, which prides itself as the most democratic society, wants the world to take its word on Iraq despite what was telecast live on the evening of April 9 right from the heart of Baghdad. That brief moment was enough for an insight into the men and military machines that had marched in to IraqU.S. troops briefly draped an American flag over the face of a giant statue of President Saddam Hussein as they prepared to topple it down in front of a crowd of Iraqis. In their patriotic fervour they put the flag upside down, a symbol of severe distress.


 A few of minutes later, perhaps under orders from the top, they removed the flag. After all its placement was politically incorrect, especially when the whole world was watching. The boys had deviated from the script which said that they were liberators and not conquerors. With this enduring image was the Arab media really wrong in insisting on calling the columns of American and British soldiers invaders? 


Events leading to the march of the coalition soldiers into Baghdad this week clearly proved that Pentagon was deliberately targeting Arab media. What other explanation could there be for the bombing of the buildings housing Al-Jazeera and Abu Dubhai stations on April 8? Of course the Palestine Hotel, which accommodated hundreds of western journalists, was also bombed. Pentagon sought to justify its attacks as a response to sniper fire from these buildings. Significantly, not a single journalist from any country corroborated the Pentagon version. Once again Al-Jazeera paid with its blood as it lost one of its young producers.


Far from showing remorse for the journalists who died Rumsfeld at the briefing on April 10 attacked the Arab media for presenting a `false picture` to the man and woman on the Arab Street. "They were presenting accounts as if we were occupiers, `` he complained. Not a single correspondent present bothered to probe the Secretary on the subject.


What is it that makes US uncomfortable about the Arab media? Let us look at in another way.  Why don`t people on the Arab street trust the American? Wittingly or unwittingly western media has come to be perceived as an arm of the establishment. Decades of pro-Israel policies and the conduct of the US after Gulf War-I have contributed to this gulf. The chasm between the people of Arab states and the US is so wide that America might have to wage at least a thousand campaigns to win the `hearts and minds` of them.


No wonder Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi Television networks are being closely watched. But love them or hate them, no one dares ignore them. They demonstrated perhaps for the first time to the west how technology could turn tables. Certainly, there would have been several clenched fists in the military operation rooms of Washington and London as the Arab networks brought home the blood spilled on the streets by the smart bombs gone astray.


In a way, these networks defined the western media`s agenda and coverage. Al-Jazeera and Iraqi television networks proved for western networks to be the equivalent of the shock and awe` demonstrated by Pentagon on the second day of the campaign. Because of the coverage by the Arab media there were animated studio discussions on American channels on the ethics and morality of broadcasting gory deaths of innocent civilians. The horrible images of bleeding children and limbs strewn around were indeed stomach churning but were there a case to blacklist these images as the American media was suggesting?  


Ironically, the very western channels that raised questions on the `disturbing` images lost little time in broadcasting them. On orders from the Pentagon they did hold on to for several hours the images of captured American Prisoners of War (PoWs) but not for long. Initially some like the CNN tried to sound moralistic. They grilled Al-Jazeera on why they broadcasting the American PoW visuals. But when Al-Jazeera questioned CNN about the propriety of airing Iraqi PoWs, the American cable network used a strange logic:  They said these images did not reach Iraqi homes.


So how did the turn around come? Why and when did western channels begin transmitting images they had initially dubbed offensive? Perhaps they were afraid of losing out on the eyeball market. It all began on the third day of the `war` with the Al Jazeera and Iraqi television started airing interviews with the captured American soldiers. For a few hours there was chaos with top functionaries of the Bush administration rushing from studio to studio complaining about how Saddam`s regime and its cronies in the media were not playing by the rules. Invariably every day at the CENTCOM press briefing, in a studio designed by a famous Hollywood personality, a question was asked as to why Iraqi television was still on the air (see box)



Here is a sample of a conversation between the CNN host, Wolf Blitzer and the Chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers on March 30.

Blitzer: Why is Iraqi television still on air? A lot of people wonder whether or not you can, if you wanted to, take it off air?

Myesr: Well, let me just say we`re working on that. We understand some of the TV is up, some is down. Clearly they use television for propaganda. They use it for command and control, and it`s one of our targets. ….  that is one of our objectives.

Blitzer: So is it fair to say it`s a legitimate target, Iraqi television, and that you are still trying to knock it off the air?

Myers: Oh, absolutely, it`s a legitimate target. The regime uses it for command and control. That`s how the leadership gets the message out. It`s absolutely a legitimate target.


A few days later all the major American networks were reporting on the basis of their `background` and `off-camera` briefings that Pentagon had deliberately left out Iraqi television from its target as it was a source of information on state of affairs in the country and the regime. In other words it would be knocked out the moment it was thought to be redundant.


Strangely, the western networks that carped and cribbed about "dis-information`" and "unethical`` practices of the Arab networks never bothered to introspect about their own standards. Of course it is not possible to be always accurate especially when reporting on war. But to broadcast speculations, second guesses and wild theories as news is inexcusable unless it was being done on purpose. The `fate` of Saddam Hussein, after the so-called de-capitation strike on the night of March 19 best illustrates the point.


Quoting military or diplomatic sources all the networks declared that Saddam and his two sons were certainly located within the `target of opportunity`. The media was sure he was at least hurt if not dead. Denials by the Iraqi Information Minister were ridiculed. Fox channel even renamed him as the Iraq `dis-information` Minister. Next day when Saddam appeared on state television, the image was dismissed as being fake as it was said to be `pre-recorded`. An intense debate on why Saddam was wearing spectacles and reading from written notes was the main thrust of the `fake` argument.


For the benefit of the doubting toms Saddam again sprang up on Iraqi TV, this time without spectacles. Once again same argument was trotted out by the west that since the footage was not live, it probably   was from the archives. The experts punched another important hole in the Saddam is alive theory. They said there was no reference in Saddam`s speech to contemporary happenings. The argument carried on till the night of April 4 when Iraqi TV aired footage of Saddam on the streets of the Iraqi capital.  How was this possible with the American forces just a few kilometers away? It is all drama with an eye on the Arab Street, said the wise pundits.


Funnily the debate is still raging on in the studios. Did he or not survive the savage bombing of the Iraqi restaurant on the night of April 7 in Baghdad. He was supposedly there with his two sons for a secret meeting. It was yet another `target of opportunity` and showed how the Americans valued the many innocent souls located in the restaurant for whom it literally turned out to be the Last Supper. As the restaurant lay in rubble, thanks to the bunker buster bombs used, the White House spokesman declared nonchalantly  "It is not relevant whether Saddam is alive or dead. He is no longer in control". Again no further questions were asked.


Another constant theme on the networks was the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). On the third day anchors were ecstatic over the news of the discovery of suspected chemical weapons by the invading army. But alas the CENTCOM doused their enthusiasm by issuing a staid statement that the matter was being investigated. In the second week hopes rose again when coalition troops unearthed 300 chemical suits. This time UN Chief Weapons Inspector, Hans Blix was the party pooper when he declared that the suits were not proof of the existence bio-chem weapons.


Then there was that imaginary Red Line which was supposed to be 30 kms from Baghdad, which, when crossed, was a signal for Saddam to attack with chem-bio and nuclear weapons. When nothing of that sort happened a Red Zone, supposed to begin with the entry of the `invaders `into Baghdad, was supposed to activate WMD. The Red Zone was crossed and the world was still waiting for WMD. On the night of April 10 Fox was very excited about the supposed discovery of underground bunkers somewhere in Iraq with potential uranium.


If one were to begin enumerating the list of bizarre things in the media vis-à-vis this war, it is endless. The eccentricities of the war are perhaps are best summed in the quotation of General Myers in his CNN interview. …You know, war is a very chaotic sort of thing. It is more art than science. You can`t predict precisely what`s going to happen on the battlefield. It`s just virtually impossible This is war. It is an art. There is a little science to it, but it`s mostly art.


Muralidhar Reddy is the Islamabad correspondent of the Hindu.  

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