Al Jazeera: Leave It to Viewers


Al Jazeera: Leave It to Viewers
By Joel Campagna

The International Herald Tribune
http://www.iht.come/opinion.html

August 4, 2004

Press freedom is being put to the test quickly under Iraq's new interim government, and the outlook is dim.
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Last week, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari lashed out at Qatar's popular satellite news channel Al Jazeera and other pan-Arab broadcasters, accusing them of "one-sided and biased coverage" and warning that authorities were considering shutting Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau. "We will not allow some people to hide behind the slogan of freedom of the press and media," he said in an interview on Al Jazeera.
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Within days, the interim government said it had formed a media regulatory commission with the authority to restrict news coverage. Ibrahim Janabi, appointed head of the commission by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, told The Financial Times that Iraqi officials were drafting a list of prohibitions on news coverage. He singled out as offensive a broadcast by Al Jazeera and others of a sermon in which the Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr mocked Allawi as America's "tail."
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Al Jazeera has long infuriated autocrats across the Arab world with its unfiltered news and political debates. Arab governments have hurled tirades at the station, withdrawn diplomats from Doha in protest and harassed the station's correspondents.
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But in this case, the Iraqi government seems to have learned some troubling lessons from the United States, which has eagerly used its muscle against Al Jazeera.
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In April, Secretary of State Colin Powell described "intense" and "candid" discussions with Qatar's foreign minister about Al Jazeera's reports, which he said "intrude" on the countries' relations. Although Powell stopped short of urging Qatar to restrict Al Jazeera's coverage - as he did in 2001 with Qatar's emir - the implication was clear.
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U.S. pressure didn't stop there. In June, U.S. officials reportedly withheld invitations to Qatari officials to the G-8 summit in Georgia, in protest of Al Jazeera. The accompanying public protests from U.S. officials were not subtle. In April, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused the station of "consistently lying" and "working in concert with the terrorists."
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To be sure, there are valid criticisms to be made about Al Jazeera's biases and, at times, its sensationalism. But lost in the criticism is that Al Jazeera is also a serious news organization whose reporting is regularly cited by the best news organizations. And for Al Jazeera, which has built its reputation on defiantly reporting in the face of official harassment, each criticism adds to its legend in the region.
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The public castigations by the United States also send a disturbing message to Iraqi officials. During its brief existence, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council sanctioned Al Jazeera and its competitor, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiyya news channel, on several occasions, barring them from covering official press conferences and from entering official buildings because of their reporting. Al Arabiyya was later banned from airing live broadcasts from Iraq in retaliation for its airing of an audio tape of then-fugitive Saddam Hussein.
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Leaders in Baghdad and Washington have the right to criticize news coverage. An open debate about these issues is healthy and certainly preferable to censorship. Yet these officials have shown little interest in engaging stations like Al Jazeera.
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For instance, earlier this year the Coalition Provisional Authority compiled what it said was a list of false or misleading reports from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya. But with the exception of a few cases, the authority never made the list public, citing the "sensitive information" it contained.
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Baghdad and Washington would do well to stop exaggerating the impact of Arab satellite television and disabuse themselves of the notion that by browbeating media organizations they will win more favorable coverage. They should not underestimate Arab viewers, many of whom, accustomed to years of filtered news and state propaganda, have a keen ability to discern what's credible and what's not. Al Jazeera and others do not lead public opinion so much as reflect it.
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The United States has placed considerable stock in getting its own message out to the Middle East through its recently established Arabic language radio and television stations that broadcast throughout the region. For their part, Iraqi officials have professed a commitment to a free press as a fundamental precept of their new democratic society.
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Projecting greater tolerance would be a simpler step for the Americans—and an essential step for the Iraqis—in achieving these goals. That is, engage not bully, and compete with rather than censor the media with which they disagree. Leave the rest to the viewers.
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Joel Campagna is a senior program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.




December 13, 2004 5:36 PM ET |

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