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    Middle East
     Dec 7, 2005
Media wars: Weapons of choice
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With the Pentagon planting "good news" stories in the Iraqi media, and al-Qaeda launching a sophisticated CD, the adversaries share a keen desire to communicate their messages other than through the barrel of a gun.

The battle to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world has clearly entered a new phase.

In Washington, in a briefing for the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of

Virginia, the military this week acknowledged that articles written by the US military had been placed in Iraqi news media, without always being properly identified as paid advertisements.

Warner said that senior commanders in Iraq were trying to get to the bottom of a program that apparently also paid monthly stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists to report good news on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The program was organized by a US company under contract to the Pentagon, the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations firm.

Warner said that the program could undermine the George W Bush administration's goals in Iraq and jeopardize the country's developing democratic institutions.

Al-Qaeda's weapon
Asia Times Online, meanwhile, has learned of the release in Afghanistan of a state-of-the-art CD comprising selected speeches by Osama bin Laden from 2002 to December 2004. The CD is already available (illegally) in Pakistan and in parts of the Middle East.

Security experts believe that soon it will flood the market as the first step towards a broader al-Qaeda goal; to shed its shadowy image and openly propagate the call for mass jihad against the US and any other foreign occupiers in the Middle East.

The CD's speeches address specific audiences, like the one in 2002 to the Pakistani nation, the 2003 speech to Americans, a speech in 2004 to Europe and the December 2004 address to the people of the Arabian peninsula (Saudi Arabia).

The CD includes horrifying images of war and destruction in Iraq, and pays tribute to the Iraqi resistance.

Unlike in the past, the CD appears to have been made by professionals in a well-equipped studio. The audio and visual effects are clear, with English subtitles for non-Arabic speakers. Additionally, separate formatted files include transcripts in languages such as Urdu, Persian, English and Arabic.

"This package clearly shows one thing, that al-Qaeda has strongly regrouped and in an organized manner is spreading its propaganda material to the whole of the Muslim world," a senior Pakistani security official told Asia Times Online.

The lengthiest and most impressive speech on the CD is bin Laden's December 2004 video address to the people of the Arabian peninsula in which he explains why the rulers in Saudi Arabia were being targeted by al-Qaeda. The reasons included their corruption, tyranny, abuse of human rights and deviation from the basic Islamic faith.

A senior Pakistani intelligence analyst commented, "Previously, al-Qaeda used to spread propaganda material which would motivate people to join the Afghan resistance, but this new CD does not aim for that. Rather, it aims to connect with the masses all over the world. The speeches selected for the CD are not simply propaganda material to instigate people to war, but instead present in-depth analysis on al-Qaeda's approach and clarification of their various actions and justifications.

"Generally, underground groups do not indulge in debate to justify their actions. Instead, they indulge in rhetoric, which attracts fresh blood to their cadre. However, when underground movements try to connect with the masses and try to cultivate their collective thinking, this indicates their ambitions to do mainstream activities, which include mass mobilization or mass participation in their programs."

On November 4, Asia Times Online reported (Al-Qaeda goes back to base) of an ongoing debate within al-Qaeda on becoming a more open outfit, operating from bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. This could take several months to complete, but the first shots have already been fired with the release of the CD.

Washington's weapon
In Iraq, the US already has a head start in the media war as it has attempted to influence the media for some time.

The story of the Pentagon's low-tech public relations efforts in Iraq was revealed last week by the Los Angeles Times, reports William Fisher of Inter Press Service in New York. The Times said that many of the articles were presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of US and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout US-led efforts to rebuild the country.

The Times reported that while the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the US or Iraqi governments. Records and interviews indicate that the US has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism", since the effort began this year.

The articles are received from the military and translated into Arabic and then placed with the Iraqi media, both print and broadcast, by the Lincoln Group. Lincoln's website boasts of its extensive network of relationships with Iraqi journalists.

The Lincoln Group defended its practices, saying it had been trying to counter insurgent propaganda with accounts of heroism by allied forces. "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq," Laurie Adler, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. A military spokesman in Iraq said contractors like the Lincoln Group had been used to market the articles to reduce the risk to Iraqi publishers, who might be attacked if they were seen as being closely linked to the military.

However, the news about the Lincoln Group's doings came as an embarrassment to administration and congressional officials who have often emphasized the importance the US places on development of a Western-style free media in Iraq. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited the proliferation of news organizations in Iraq as one of the country's great successes since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy, Rumsfeld said.

The administration is not alone in pointing to the "free" media as evidence of things going well in Iraq. In a November 10 speech, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona touted Iraq's "truly free press".

But Congressional Democrats said the Lincoln Group's activities were the latest example of questionable public relations practices by the administration. In an earlier case, payments were made to columnists, among them conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who secretly received US$240,000 for promoting "No Child Left Behind", the administration's education initiative.

"From Armstrong Williams to fake TV news, we know this White House has tried multiple times to buy the news at home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said. "Now, we need to find out if they've exported this practice to the Middle East."

Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the acting Pentagon inspector general to investigate the Lincoln Group's activities to see if they amounted to an illegal covert operation. "The Pentagon's devious scheme to place favorable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap," Kennedy said. "If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."

Senator Joseph I Lieberman recently returned from a trip to Iraq and wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he pointed to Iraq's "independent television stations and newspapers" as evidence of the "remarkable changes" there.

In coordination with Bush's speech last week at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, the administration published a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq". Among its claims: "A professional and informative Iraqi news media has taken root. More than 100 newspapers freely discuss political events every day in Iraq."

Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and director of its Norman Lear Center, told Inter Press Service, "Anyone who recalls the good-news propaganda that ran in the state-run communist press even as the Soviet Union was collapsing will find what the Bush administration is doing in Iraq creepy.

"It sends a deeply troubling message about what they think democracy is. But given their demonization of dissent in the United States, it sadly comes as no surprise."

And National Security Advisor Steven Hadley said on Sunday that if the payola allegations were found to be true, it was bad policy and should be discontinued.

Iraqi journalists and their representative organizations have also objected to the practice.

This is not the first time the Pentagon's PR efforts have come under scrutiny. In 2004, the agency found itself engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it could and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad.

The issue was whether the Pentagon and military should undertake an official program that used disinformation to shape perceptions abroad. One of the problems with such programs is that in a world wired by satellite television and the Internet, US news outlets could easily repeat misleading information.

Earlier, Rumsfeld, under intense criticism, closed the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, a short-lived operation to provide news items, possibly including false ones, to foreign journalists in an effort to influence overseas opinion.

Now, critics say, some of the proposals of that discredited office are quietly being resurrected elsewhere in the military and in the Pentagon.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com. Zafar M Sheikh also contributed to this report from Rawalpindi.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

It's propaganda (shock, horror)! (Dec 3, '05)

Al-Qaeda tightens its grip in Iraq (Nov 15, '05)

Al-Qaeda goes back to base (Nov 4, '05)


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