Middle East

Free press and the face of war
By Paul Belden

AMMAN - Suddenly, on Sunday, the war seemed a lot less like a video game than it had the day before.

At least, in the Arab world it did.

While Western 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 broadcast.

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 home.

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 seeing."

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 media."

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 not complained.

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 Aggression".

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 the world."

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.

Over 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.

CNN 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.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Mar 25, 2003

The battle for the Arab mind (Mar 22, '03)

US media: Telling it like it isn't (Mar 7, '03)

Al Jazeera: Hits, misses and ricochets (Dec 25, '03)


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