Muzzing Al-Jazeera in Iraq

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Al-Jazeera, sometimes called “the BBC of the Middle East,” was launched in
November 1996 and offered the Arab world
an alternative to government-controlled
news stations. The network’s attempt to
cover multiple viewpoints has drawn criticism
from a variety of sources. The former
Iraqi information minister Muhammad al-
Sahaf threatened al-Jazeera with dire consequences
for its “pro-US reporting,” but US
leaders have accused the channel of broadcasting
anti-American propaganda. Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We ’ r e
dealing with people who are perfectly willing
to lie to the world to further their case.”
On August 7, the interim Iraqi government
announced the closure of al-Jazeera’s Baghdad
bureau, citing the broadcasts of captives
in Iraq. In a press release, Prime Minister
Iyad Allawi said, “This is a decision taken by
the national security committee to protect the
people of Iraq, in the interests of the Iraqi
people.” Ironically, Iraqis claiming to represent
the resistance had accused al-Jazeera of
portraying the U.S. too positively and had
threatened the network days before its closure.
Media around the world, including the
New York Ti m e s, the Los Angeles Ti m e s, and
t h e G u a rd i a n, spoke out against the closing.
The Los Angeles Ti m e s said, “Freedom of
expression, including press freedom, was
declared an international human right by the
United Nations in 1948. If US authorities
believe in the principle of self-determination,
they should practice it — starting now —
insisting that the interim Iraqi leaders acting
under US auspices do so as well.” In Sept
e m b e r, the Iraqi government extended the
al-Jazeera ban indefinitely.
Jehane Noujaim shot the documentary
“Control Room” inside al-Jazeera’s headquarters
and the US military’s Central Command
(CENTCOM), both located in Doha, Qatar.
Unlike mainstream American media, al-
Jazeera does not sanitize its coverage of the
w a r, and this has infuriated some U.S. leaders.
Rumsfeld said, “We know that al-Jazeera has
a pattern of playing propaganda over and over
and over again.” Josh Rushing, a US Marine
serving as a press off i c e r, expressed disappointment
at some of al-Jazeera’s coverage,
but conceded that Fox News wasn’t impartial
e i t h e r. Rushing complains about al-Jazeera’s
practice of repeatedly showing images of
American soldiers followed by footage of
wounded Iraqi children and civilians. Samir
K h a d e r, an al-Jazeera senior producer,
defends the network’s approach: “We show
that any war has a human cost.We focused on
that there is a human cost because we care for
the Iraqi people. We are not like Rumsfeld
who says, ‘We care for the Iraqi people.’ H e
d o e s n ’t care at all. We
care for them. We are
Arabs like them. We are
Muslims like them.”
A l – J a z e e r a ’s staff
struggles to balance
empathy for fellow
Arabs with balanced
reporting. However, its
perspective is markedly
d i fferent from that of
mainstream We s t e r n
media. For example, an
al-Jazeera journalist in
the documentary pointed
out that although Americans
perceive Iraq and
Palestine as separate issues, Arabs see them
as closely related. Unsurprisingly, its coverage
of the war has focused heavily on the suffering
of the Iraqi people. Some people construe
this as propaganda and even incitement.
Others believe that al-Jazeera is presenting
uncomfortable but important information.
One of the most wrenching scenes in
“Control Room” is the death of Tariq Ayoub,
a correspondent who was killed when the
U.S. bombed Al-Jazeera’s office in Baghdad
on April 8, 2003. In an interview with the
Independent’s Robert Fisk, one of Ayoub’s
colleagues described the attack. “It was a
direct hit – the missile actually exploded
against our electrical generator. Tariq died
almost at once.” Two months earlier, al-
Jazeera had provided the Pentagon with the
coordinates for its Baghdad office, and had
been promised that the bureau would not be
This wasn’t the first time that U.S. forces
had bombed al-Jazeera. A missile hit the network’s
Kabul office during an air raid in
November 2001. U.S. officials said that the
military was targeting Al-Qaeda and didn’t
realize that al-Jazeera was located there.
According to al-Jazeera, the network had
submitted its coordinates to the Pentagon via
CNN in Washington.
A few hours after the al-Jazeera bombing
on April 8, a U.S. tank fired at the Palestine
Hotel, where a hundred independent
reporters were staying. This bomb exploded
in the Reuters bureau on the 15th floor,
killing two journalists and seriously wounding
three others. Spokesmen at U.S. Central
Command in Qatar stated that the tank had
been responding to “significant enemy fire
from the Palestine Hotel
in Baghdad.” Fisk disputes
this: “I was driving
on a road between
the tanks and the hotel at
the moment the shell
was fired – and heard no
shooting. The French
videotape of the attack
runs for more than four
minutes and records
absolute silence before
the tank’s armament is
fired.” Democracy Now!
host Amy Goodman
interviewed Ta r i q
Ay o u b ’s widow, Dima
Ayoub, a month after her husband’s death.
“Hate breeds hate,” said Ayoub.
“The United States said they were doing
this to rout out terrorism. Who is engaged in
terrorism now?”
Suhaib Badr al Baz, an al-Jazeera cameraman,
was detained for 74 days without being
charged. He was initially held at the Baghdad
airport and then moved to Abu Ghraib prison.
In an interview with Salon’s Phillip Robertson,
he described his experiences. “In there I
heard some horrible noises, many people
screaming. They told me to sit on the floor
and I went numb from the cold. If I moved
my head even a little bit, a soldier would grab
my hood and slam my head into the wall.
Sometimes they pretended to kill me by
pulling the trigger of their rifles. I found out
later that they were punishing other people
there.” Al Baz was also interrogated. “When
the tall man was not satisfied with my
answers, he hit me in the face. They asked
questions in a way that showed they were not
interested in the truth.”
In spite of everything, the al-Jazeera journalists
in “Control Room” expressed surprisingly
positive views of the American people.
Khader hoped to send his children to the U.S.
and admitted that if Fox News offered him a
job, he’d take it. Ibrahim said, “I have
absolute confidence in the United States
Constitution. I have absolute confidence in
the US people. The US people are going to
stop the United States.”
Hazem Jaber, a local businessman from
Palestine who watches al-Jazeera, talked
with me about his impressions of “Control
Room.” He confirmed one of the documentary’s
points – although Americans see Iraq
and Palestine as separate issues, Middle Easterners
consider them closely related. Iraq is
perceived as a potential power against Israel,
and the pictures from Iraq and Gaza could be
almost indistinguishable. Jaber summarized
it briefly: “Same people, same suffering,
same destruction.” He explained that the
Iraqis had been disgusted with Saddam Hussein
and had hoped for something better.
However, some Iraqis believe that the U.S.
occupation is even worse than Hussein’s
regime. For example, the abuses of Iraqi
political prisoners in Abu Ghraib horrified
the world, and the U.S. ultimately gained
nothing from them. Jaber pointed out that
injustice led to insecurity. This seems to be
supported by the increased suffering and violence.
Like the al-Jazeera journalists in “Control
Room,” Jaber also had hope for our
c o u n t r y. “The American people have the
power to lead the world toward destruction or
“Al Jazeera Accuses US of Bombing its
Kabul Office” Matt Wells. The Guardian
“Does the U.S. Military Want to Kill Journalists?”
Robert Fisk. The Independent
“Sometimes They Pretended to Kill Me”
Phillip Robertson. Salon 5/8/2004
Los Angeles Times Editorial 8/15/2004
“Iraq Silences Messenger A l j a z e e r a ”
Ahmed Janabi. Al-Jazeera 8/18/2004
The Exception to the Rulers. Amy Goodman
with David Goodman. Hyperion 2004

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