|Free press and the face of
By Paul Belden
Suddenly, on Sunday, the war seemed a lot less like a
video game than it had the day before.
in the Arab world it did.
television coverage continued to be dominated by a
numbing rotation of embedded reporters, armchair
generals and video special effects, Arab media was
showing some of the most astonishing images of war ever
An example of the Western approach:
Sunday morning's coverage on CNN was anchored by an
hours-long live broadcast by a camera crew embedded with
a US Marine unit in southern Iraq. The unit had taken
fire from a nearby building, and stopped behind a road
to deal with it, the reporter explained. US forces had
fired two rockets at the house, one of which had struck
But the reporter didn't show any of that.
The only thing that the camera showed was a tank rolling
slowly down another road into the picture from the
right. The tank stopped. Then it backed up. "This is
historic footage," the reporter intoned, his voice
hushed. A convoy rolled into view behind the tank. The
convoy stopped. "This is a real-time battle you're
Who knew that real-time battle could be
so antiseptic, so choreographed, so clean?
Before the day was out, CNN's war coverage had
been mocked and overtaken by images that showed the true
face of war in all its madness and horror - images that
almost invariably bore the label "Al-Jazeera exclusive".
These were not scrolling maps or armchair generals -
these were scenes of a 12-year-old child with half her
head blown off in Basra. This was the sound and fury of
the relatives of victims of Tomahawk cruise missile
strikes in northern Iraq loudly promising their revenge.
This was live coverage of a hundreds-strong posse of
armed and delighted Iraqis setting fire to the bulrushes
of the Tigris River in search of a Western pilot
presumed hiding within.
This was a guided tour
of a roomful of US soldiers in a morgue. This was the
fear in the eyes of a captured US soldier as he was
asked by an off-screen voice in broken English why he
came all the way from Texas just to kill Iraqis. "I
follow orders," he answered, a strain in his voice.
These were images of war.
And while Western
sensibilities might have been spared the trauma of
exposure to these images, they went straight into the
homes and hearts of 300 million viewers in the Middle
East on Sunday. The effect was immediate, and strong.
At a press conference on Sunday in Amman, Prime
Minister Ali Abu Ragheb was specifically asked to
comment on "the al-Jazeera effect" produced by the
images broadcast that day. "I found them painful," he
answered. "Very, very painful. The people in the country
are angry. We are angry." Then he went on to announce
Jordan's support for a new Arab initiative aimed at
ending the war through a negotiated compromise.
The "al-Jazeera effect" did not stop at the
water's edge, either. Even US Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld was forced to take the images into account,
calling the showing of captured American troops a
possible "war crime". President George W Bush cut short
his working getaway at Camp David to return to the White
House on Sunday and tell reporters that "I do know that
we expect them [the US prisoners of war] to be treated
humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs
that we capture - humanely."
Of course, the Arab
media found much to mock in Bush's comments. The Bush
administration's "newfound affection for the Geneva
Convention is remarkable", wrote an editorial in the
Riyadh-based daily Arab News. "The US does not believe
that the prisoners now being held at Guantanamo Bay are
prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Pictures
of the men there, shackled and living in cages, were
distributed by the Bush administration to the world's
Nobody could accuse al-Jazeera of taking
sides in the showing of prisoners; they had earlier
broadcast images of Iraqi men believed to be soldiers
surrendering to British troops near Basra. Rumsfeld had
It's a big change from the 1991
Gulf War when the Middle East, along with the rest of
the world, depended on the Western media for
up-to-the-minute developments. Now they can choose from
not only al-Jazeera, but other all-news channels,
including the Abu Dhabi channel, which focuses on news
in the Gulf states, and one-month-old al-Arabiya. There
is also the Hezbollah-run al-Manar, based in Lebanon,
which doesn't even try for objectiveness. Whereas
al-Jazeera's tag line for war coverage is the neutral
"War in Iraq", al-Manar's is the fiery "War of American
Al-Jazeera's popularity rests in
part in its refusal to follow any agenda, be it the
official government line or the radical militant
Islamism. Proof of its effect is the fact that its
broadcasts have repeatedly angered Arab governments -
including Jordan's, where the station had been banned
from opening a bureau as recently as last week.
After the ban was lifted, the correspondent who
arrived to staff the Amman bureau was the now-famous
on-screen news personality Sawsan abu-Hamdeh, fresh from
a two-month assignment in Baghdad. I asked her what she
thought of the effect of her station's coverage of dead
American soldiers. "It is only the truth," she answered.
"I do not regret it [at] all. The government might not
like it, but there is a difference between the
government view of events and and the local view of
events. We try to portray what is really happening in
And the people seem to know it. In a
small coffee shop in central Amman on Sunday, five old
men were gathered spellbound around a small television
set, watching the live coverage of the search for the
supposed downed Western pilot in the Tigris River. The
reporter on the scene, the well-known Palestinian Majed
Abdul Hadi, had his camera constantly trained on the
crowd as it searched the river with guns drawn and
flaming brands in hand. Abdul Hadi provided a continuous
overdub report on developments, responding to commentary
and questions posed by his bureau chief in Doha, a woman
named Fairrouz. This was the most newsworthy thing
happening in the world at that moment. It was up to the
minute, it was exciting, it was news. And al-Jazeera was
prepared to cover it live as it unfolded.
on CNN, meanwhile, there was a reporter standing in
front of the camera conveying the message that the
Pentagon denied the loss of any aircraft. Now that's
fair enough - but al-Jazeera also carried this denial
prominently throughout its report, which was skeptical
of both sides' claims. Fairrouz was constantly asking
Abdul Hadi to clarify the conflicting reports she was
receiving, whether anyone really had been captured or
seen. It was tough and skeptical coverage.
seemed to think that the Pentagon denial was the main
news, but that patently wasn't the case. The search
itself was the main news, as any newsman would know: the
fact that a few hundred people were dead certain that
they had a pilot cornered on the banks of the river.
That was the news.
As of Monday morning, CNN and
BBC began showing the interview with the captured
American troops in Nasiriyah - but with their faces
scrambled and only their voices heard. I can certainly
understand their judgment. But the fear in those
soldiers' eyes was the true face of war, seen up close.
It was truer than the mushroom clouds seen from a
distance over Baghdad. And if the true face of war is
too much for American prime time television, then maybe
prime time American television should stick to covering
the Oscars, and leave the war alone.
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