Home / Politics / From All Sides: In the Deadly Cauldron of Iraq, Even the Arab Media are Being Pushed Off the Story

From All Sides: In the Deadly Cauldron of Iraq, Even the Arab Media are Being Pushed Off the Story

Over the last decade, Middle Eastern history has happened, in large part, on Al Jazeera. 

The Qatar-based satellite channel had the only foreign reporters inside Iraq when U.S. forces launched a four-day assault, known as Operation Desert Fox, in 1998. In October 2001 its cameras -- the only ones inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan -- captured exclusive footage of the American-led bombardment. When bombs started hitting Baghdad in March 2003, all the American networks, and many European crews, had abandoned the city. Al Jazeera stayed for a close-up view.

History is still being made in Iraq as the country struggles toward independence. But Al Jazeera isn't there to watch it unfold. Last August Iraqi officials closed the station's Baghdad bureau and barred it from operating in the country. Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera's closest competitor, drastically cut its Iraqi operations after insurgents bombed its offices there in October, killing five employees and injuring fourteen. And Asharq Al-Awsat, one of the two largest pan-Arab dailies, shuttered its Baghdad bureau in December after insurgents threatened to blow it up. A number of Arab journalists have also been detained, some even killed, by jittery American troops.

In a war where the various factions seem to want everyone -- including the press -- to choose sides, the Arab media have found themselves under attack from every direction. That has far-reaching implications. Western reporters, faced with the threat of death, began retreating to fortified compounds months ago. Now, with pressure mounting, Arab journalists, along with Arab translators and fixers employed by international news organizations, are retreating, too. The result is that firsthand reporting is getting squeezed out. When it comes to covering the Iraq conflict -- one of the most important stories of our time -- even the Arab media are finding themselves increasingly reliant on secondhand accounts and official reports from Washington and Baghdad, and less able to gauge how events are playing out in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. "We can no longer get close to people's suffering, people's hopes, people's dreams," says Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya's executive editor for news. "We no longer know what's really going on because we can no longer get close to reality."

In early 2003 a number of new satellite channels scrambled to get on the air in time to cover the looming Iraq conflict. The most robust of them, Al Arabiya, promised to provide a more moderate alternative to Al Jazeera, which has drawn the ire of virtually every Arab government as well as US officials. But it was soon engulfed in the controversy that had dogged its rival. Both stations outraged the US government by focusing on the war's human toll, and by airing messages from insurgents and images of slain soldiers. 

They also angered members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which was formed in July 2003 and wasted little time cracking down on the satellite stations. For two weeks beginning in September 2003, the council locked Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera out of official press conferences and government ministries. In November, the council shut down Al Arabiya's Baghdad office for more than two months after it aired an audiotape, purportedly of Saddam Hussein urging Iraqis to resist the American-led occupation. The charge: "incitement to murder." In January 2004, the council banned Al Jazeera from official functions after a guest on one of its talk shows alleged that Israel was trying to exert influence in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Arab journalists were growing angry at the US government's failure to provide for their security. In March 2004, more than twenty of them protested by walking out of a press conference with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Before leaving, they demanded an investigation into the deaths of two Al Arabiya employees who were shot the previous day by US forces while driving away from a checkpoint as another car sped toward it. (Witnesses believe soldiers started shooting because they thought the approaching car was a suicide bomber. And US officials later said the journalists were shot by accident and expressed regret.) Other incidents also loomed large in Arab journalists' minds. On April 8, 2003, a US missile destroyed Al Jazeera's Baghdad headquarters, killing the correspondent Tareq Ayyoub. In November 2003, two Al Jazeera employees were arrested in separate incidents and taken to Abu Ghraib. One of them, Salah Hassan, was detained while filming the aftermath of a bombing. Security forces arriving on the scene apparently suspected he was involved in setting the blast. Hassan says he was beaten and forced to stand naked for hours in the freezing cold, then forced to wear a jumpsuit that was covered in someone else's fresh vomit. Both Al Jazeera employees were eventually released for lack of evidence. Pentagon officials declined to comment on the cases.

The situation for Arab reporters in Iraq took a turn for the worse in June 2004, when the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqi Governing Council anointed an interim government, headed by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The following month, the government established what it called the Media High Commission. Its reported task was to establish "red line" rules and punish journalists or news organizations that crossed them.

The first thing it did was bar Al Jazeera from Iraq for a month, purportedly for inciting violence and hatred. The following month the interim government announced that Al Jazeera was barred from Iraq indefinitely. Today, the station pieces together its coverage using video feeds from organizations like Reuters and whatever scraps of information it can glean from afar. "Covering Iraq for us is a matter of great difficulty," says the Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout.

The claim that Al Jazeera incites violence and hatred is nothing new. US officials have repeatedly accused it, and to a lesser degree Al Arabiya, of inflaming Arab passions against the West, partly by focusing on the carnage wrought by the conflicts in Iraq and Israel. "Al Jazeera seems to be a two-story operation, and these stories have a common theme -- Arab humiliation," says Norman Pattiz, who serves on the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, which administers Voice of America and the new Arabic-language satellite channel Alhurra. Critics also charge that the stations glorify insurgents and endanger US troops in Iraq by poisoning Arab public opinion toward US policies.

Supporters counter that while Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya reflect the perspectives of their audiences, they are no more biased than many American or European outlets. "Journalists on both sides make editorial decisions based on their culture," says Hugh Miles, an Oxford-educated Arabist and author of a recently published book on Al Jazeera. Miles notes that the stations' programming integrates a variety of perspectives, including many that were previously not heard in the Arab world. Al Jazeera regularly interviews Israeli officials, for instance. And its reporters clearly don't balk at holding Arab governments to account. Recently, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera both reported on the relatively meager contributions by Arab rulers to the tsunami relief effort. This helped shame them into pledging larger sums. 

Many Arabs have interpreted Al Jazeera's closure by an American-installed government as evidence that contrary to official pronouncements, the United States has little real interest in fostering democracy in the Middle East. "The crackdown on Al Jazeera is widely seen in the Arab world as exhibit A in American hypocrisy," says Marc Lynch, an Arab media expert who teaches at Williams College.

Shortly after the Al Jazeera ban took effect, Iraqi officials began putting the squeeze on nonembedded reporters covering clashes between coalition forces and insurgents. On August 15, in the midst of the standoff at the Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf's police chief ordered journalists to abandon the city. The police later visited the Bahr Najaf Hotel, where most nonembedded reporters were staying, and threatened to arrest or shoot them if they didn't leave. On August 25, they made good on their threats when they stormed the Bahr Najaf, fired shots, and detained sixty journalists. All of them were later released without charges. 
The police chief eventually told journalists that he felt they were encouraging the insurgents to keep fighting by portraying them as "heroes and nation-builders."

Then, in the run-up to the November siege of Falluja, the Media High Commission issued a statement warning journalists to "set aside space" in their coverage for "the position of the Iraqi government" or face unspecified legal consequences. During the siege, US troops detained a number of Arab reporters and held some for the duration of the battle. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, a US military spokesman, maintains they weren't targeted because of their work. "Journalists were detained when they were caught up in sweeps, were violating curfew, or were with groups that were fighting" against coalition forces, he says.

While the government turned up the heat on journalists, so did insurgents. On October 30, 2004, a car bomb exploded outside Al Arabiya's Baghdad compound, collapsing the first floor and killing five of its employees. Within minutes of the blast, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, Al Arabiya's general manager, was on the phone to his Baghdad anchor, Najwa Kassem, imploring her to get on the air. Soon, Kassem started reporting live from the blast site. 

Al-Rashed, former editor of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, took over Al Arabiya's top post in early 2004. An outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, he believes that terrorists have "smeared Islam and stained its image." He is equally critical of the Arab media, particularly Al Jazeera. In a 2003 Asharq Al-Awsat column, he accused the station of publishing fanciful accounts "reminiscent of the adventures of Sinbad" and repressing Iraq news that didn't fit its agenda. Bringing Al-Rashed on board at Al Arabiya stirred controversy in the Arab world, and some believe that since his arrival the station has become overly sympathetic to the US and Iraqi governments.

Al Arabiya's choice to take to the air so soon after the bomb attack was meant as a message to its attackers: We will not be silenced. But the station has drastically scaled back its Iraq operations since. Its Baghdad staff, once sixty strong, has shrunk to fifteen, and they operate out of two rooms in a bunker-like hotel.

The Al Arabiya bombing was part of a surge in threats and attacks against Arab media. Insurgents reportedly sent letters threatening to kill the editor of Azzaman, Iraq's largest daily, in a "very nasty way." Another paper, Al-Itijah al-Akhar, started getting threatening phone calls after it ran an editorial cartoon that showed Saddam Hussein urging the Shiite cleric Muktada al-Sadr to give himself up. "Go ahead," Hussein coaxes. "All they do is check your teeth and your hair." The daily Al Mada had a dud rocket land on its roof. And Dina Mohammed Hassan, a reporter for the Kurdish television station Al Hurriya, was gunned down in front of her Baghdad home by a man shouting "Collaborator! Collaborator!"
Insurgent attacks and fire from U.S. troops have made Iraq a particularly deadly conflict for Arabs to cover. Eighteen of the 23 journalists killed in Iraq last year -- and all of the 16 slain media-support workers -- were Arabs or Kurds.

Despite those grim facts, some journalists see glimmers of promise, especially given the stronger-than-expected turnout for the January 30 elections. "It's a bit early to judge," says Nabil Khatib of Al Arabiya. "But there is a general hope that the election will bring the government legitimacy, and that step by step things will stabilize. Hopefully this will make it better for media -- make it so at least we aren't worried about life and death." Others, though, are less optimistic. "We really hope that press freedom will prevail in Iraq," says Al Jazeera's Jihad Ballout. "But I have a feeling it could take quite some time." 

About Mariah Blake

Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

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