The media gulf war

BY naqvi| IN Media Practice | 27/03/2004
Why Arab and US viewers get contrasting pictures from Iraq

                  Reprinted from the Indian Express, March 26, 2004


Saeed Naqvi


Paul Bremer`s choreography of the first anniversary of the Iraq war was spoilt by US soldiers who shot two journalists of Al Arabia TV outside a Baghdad hotel the previous night.

Cameraman Ali Aziz died on the spot. The correspondent, Ali Al Khateeb, succumbed to his injuries the next day, hours before Secretary of State Colin Powell was to address the press in the Green Zone, from where the Coalition Occupation Authority operates. Powell’s secret arrival in Baghdad, President George W. Bush’s speech on the occasion were all carefully scripted to extract maximum mileage out of the anniversary.  

The script began to go wrong earlier in the week, when security arrangements were being put in place for the anniversary.  

At about 8 pm on March 18, the earth thudded like a giant door slammed in some deep hollow. I was staying with friends off Al Watiq Street, about two kilometres from Jabal Lebanon Hotel which, it turned out, had been hit by the most powerful truck bomb of this resistance. We rushed to the spot, cordoned off by US tanks and APCs.  

Back in our drawing room, the blazing remains of the hotel were in focus on BBC, Al Arabia, Al Jazeera, every channel. There was no information on why the particular hotel was a target. The death toll kept fluctuating wildly, then it began to come down like a thermometer being cooled: 27 to 17 and finally seven.  

Just when the Jabal Lebanon story was winding down came reports of Al Arabia journalists killed by US soldiers.  

As soon as Powell began to address the media, some Arab journalists stood up and told him about the murders. Powell clearly did not know of the incident. He was certainly not prepared for a response. Had he been kept in the dark? Or was the death of Arab journalists not worth bothering the secretary of state with?  

The Arab media walked out. They waited outside, presumably expecting the rest of the world media to follow them in solidarity. This did not happen. Instead a group of armed US soldiers surrounded the protesting journalists, abused them and pushed them out.  

The next day Arab journalists gathered at the Al Arabia office in the posh Mansur area, not far from the residence of the Indian ambassador.  

Wehad Jacoub, general manager of Al Arabia in Baghdad, was incoherent with grief when I met him. ‘‘They abused us and pushed us out,’’ he muttered, ‘‘after killing our journalists.’’  

He handed out a note he had written to Bremer: ‘‘Iraqi journalists, and all Arab media working in Iraq, condemn the atrocious crime of killing two of our journalists. We demand immediate investigation. Killing journalists is considered a very serious act denounced by all international accords.’’ The note to Bremer then ends dramatically: ‘‘Glory be to all martyrs of Iraq. Shame be to all killers.’’  

When I asked a British journalist why the western media had demonstrated no sympathy for the slain Arab journalists, he was quite categorical. ‘‘There is a war on here; some of the cameraman take unnecessary risks when they know the American soldiers are nervous and trigger happy.’’  

In Baghdad today there is a clear divide not only between the occupying powers and the occupied Iraqis but also between the western and Arab media. There are numerous, even glorious exceptions but the divide is more or less clear in the electronic media.  

The fault lies with both. Western channels minimise the impact of events that might be seen as a setback to the occupation. Arab channels linger long on devastation and mayhem to keep the Arab Street in perpetual agitation. This is true of Iraq as well as the Israeli-Palestinian story.  

Since 9/11, a section of the popular newscasts in the West have tended to lose their balance almost beyond redemption. Remember the Fox News war correspondent Geraldo Rivera roaming around Afghanistan with a gun with which he swore he would kill bin Laden, that ‘‘dirt bag monster’’? His colleague Roger Ailes spelt out the new mantra for the media: ‘‘Be fair, be American.’’  

The Arab channels are a very recent part of the media explosion since the second intifada in Palestine. It will take a while to develop a culture of balance and restraint.  

As divisions grow in a post 9/11 world, there will be a yawning gap in the world communications order. The media from one part of the world will have a perception of events diametrically opposed to the media from another. One set of newscasts will romanticise Sheikh Yaseen and the other will justify rocket attacks on a crippled cleric.  

Come to Baghdad and you will understand the divisions I am talking about. The Palestine Hotel, which some Indian journalists will remember from the war days, is today an unrecognisable fortress. Cement walls all around it are topped with razor-blade wires.  

After being frisked at two checkpoints, you walk into the lane between the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels protected by five US tanks, soldiers on the ready. This is where CNN lives.  

It is in such situations that being an Indian is a huge advantage. As a journalist you have access to clerics in Najaf, head of the Assadi tribe in Nasiriyah, factions in Kurdistan, the archbishop of the Church of the East, and the Occupation Authority in Baghdad. This variety is not likely to be available to journalists from other countries as the post 9/11 gulf widens.  

The widening of this gap in Iraq and worldwide is going to deplete sources of information. This is bad for journalism, of course, but it will also leave western intelligence groping in the dark.  

Good, clean, committed information will come your way when informants ‘‘believe’’ that you stand for old American values of liberty and equality. You cannot be seen to be fabricating a civilisational divide and expect helpful information. The mercenary intelligence available to you will be as unreliable as it has been so far.



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