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War in Iraq

The Media War

Comment and analysis from Ottawa, Chennai, New Delhi, Doha, Sydney, London, Canberra, Tehran, Ramallah, Beijing, Bangkok, and Jidda, April 8, 2003

A bloodied camera at the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad. The hotel, which houses a number of foreign journalists, was hit by a U.S. airstrike on April 8, 2003.
A bloodied camera at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Two journalists were killed, and at least three others wounded, when a U.S. tank fired at the hotel on April 8, 2003. The same day, U.S. air strikes destroyed the Baghdad offices of Arab satellite channels Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, killing an Al-Jazeera correspondent (Photo: AFP).
Ottawa
The Ottawa Citizen (conservative), April 7: Despite what may be the most comprehensive, and expensive, effort to cover a war in history—and a long period of preparation before hostilities began—we still have only a general sense of what is happening in Iraq. We know the country is under intense bombardment. The Americans and British appear to be “winning,” although, as New York Times writer R.W. Apple asked yesterday: “How and when will the United States and its allies know they have won?” (When they find Saddam Hussein’s body, his identity confirmed by DNA testing, or when CNN loses interest?). But despite endless interviews, crucial information remains unavailable—such as the number of casualties on the Iraqi side. Yesterday, a U.S. briefer estimated as many as 2,000 Iraq soldiers were killed in the most recent fighting, but it could be less, he said, or more. As for civilian casualties, these first appeared to be "light.”…Still, thousands upon thousands of bombs have been dropped in Baghdad and environs over 19 days. You’d think there would be heavy casualties…a lot more than have been reported….One day we will find out what is happening in Iraq—how many people died, how the Iraqis feel about the invasion, how U.S. and British troops got along, how successful U.S. military tactics were—but it won’t be because of technological advances in filing from the front. Personally, I'm waiting for the book.
—Susan Riley

Chennai The Hindu (centrist), April 6: As this analysis is being typed, the U.S. Central Command headquarters is claiming that substantial numbers of coalition troops are in the center of Baghdad. Simultaneously, Iraqi television is broadcasting pictures of crowds cheering…in repeats of Saddam Hussein’s now famous walk in Baghdad, not far from where the coalition forces are claimed to be positioned. It has never been easy to determine whom to believe in the welter of claims and counter-claims made by the coalition forces and by the Iraqi high command. If television as a medium is itself the message, it has become one of disinformation….The coalition has from the very beginning deliberately sought to create doubts about Saddam Hussein's fate. He has been, according to the coalition, dead, wounded, believed dying, moved out of Iraq, lost control over the country, and other such examples of imaginative intelligence, until the man boldly walked his talk in front of cameras. That brought forth the equally amazing flow of commentaries about someone impersonating Saddam Hussein. Even in the face of observers and reporters in Baghdad who reported otherwise, the anchors on Western channels always used the phrase, “assuming of course that this was the real Saddam Hussein.” The battles of Nassiriyah, Karbala, and Najaf were likewise portrayed as won when the fact was otherwise. The liberation of Basra was no different in fact and fiction….The smog of war will darken the skies and confuse minds on both sides.
—V. R. Raghavan

New Delhi Outlook (independent weekly), April 14: I am witnessing the war as everyone else is perhaps back home in India, piggy-riding the likes of CNN, Fox, and so on….But a far greater help has been my new stint as a journalist with Al-Jazeera. The Arabic satellite television channel has in the past week kicked up as much heat and dust as has the actual war. For its no-holds-barred reportage, mirroring the war in all its gore, the channel has been in the news as much as Baghdad or Basra have been….But the offensive against Al-Jazeera stinks, just as the unfair and unjust war does. And I am as much outraged on seeing our Web site being hacked and paralyzed as ordinary residents of Baghdad would expectedly be these days….The heavily biased coverage of the war in the Western media and the targeting of Al-Jazeera could only have stiffened the Arab feelings. The region is more or less convinced that the West, Bush, Blair and the media included, is conspiring against them….So long as television channels broadcast images of captured Iraqi soldiers being forced to kneel down and body-searched, it was O.K. with the world. But near mayhem broke out the moment Al-Jazeera telecast images of some captured British troops being interviewed. The inherent duplicity hasn't been lost on the Arabs.
—Ruben Banerjee

Doha
Al-Jazeera (international broadcaster), April 7: With the psychological warfare campaign in full swing, the American press has been bombarded with pro-coalition news that has later been proved to be false. U.S. media outlets heavily reported on seemingly fabricated events, such as an uprising in Basra, the discovery of an extensive chemical weapons factory, the surrender of high-ranking officials and claims of prisoner executions, all of which were officially disowned within days. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war, which featured Iraqi TV images of captured American soldiers, drew scathing criticism from the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Correspondents for Al-Jazeera were later banished from the New York Stock Exchange, shot at while filming food warehouses being shelled by British tanks in Basra, and chastised by an American general during a press conference at a U.S. military base in Qatar.
—Habib Battah

Sydney The Sydney Morning Herald (centrist), April 7: People who remain to be convinced that cross-media laws are important to maintaining the fabric of our democracy need look no further than today's page one of The Daily Telegraph. “KILLING ROOM—Coalition forces reveal Saddam's torture terror” it screamed. The first lines: “The depraved brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime was revealed to the world yesterday in a series of horrific discoveries. As U.S. forces intensified the battle for Baghdad last night, British allies uncovered an enormous charnel house containing the remains of hundreds of Saddam's torture victims.” I saw the vision of the find on TV last night, and noted the British officer's remark that it was unclear what the building and its rows of simple coffins was all about.
—Margo Kingston

London The Independent (liberal), April 8: This column is for the unsung heroes of war journalism: the local drivers, fixers, and translators who make it possible for correspondents from Western news organizations to gain access and understanding they could not otherwise obtain. It is dedicated to men such as Kamaran Abdurazaq Mohamed, the 25-year-old Kurdish translator who was killed on Sunday while assisting the BBC’s John Simpson….They never get bylines, nor do they make appearances on screen. Their assistance to Western journalists can make them unpopular in their home countries and attract unwanted attention to their families….To the global travelers who fly in to add glamour to major crises, such people are invaluable. They can translate documents and interviews. Their knowledge of local geography enables them to reach sites the authorities prefer to keep hidden. Their knowledge of local bureaucracy saves hours and sometimes lives. But their employment is temporary, often informal and usually more risky than the role played by those who hire them.
—Tim Luckhurst

London The Times (conservative), April 8: Whatever else it may or not have achieved, the second Gulf war has led to something that feels uncannily like a truce between the politicians and the media. Of course, there has been the odd “incident” here and there but, for the most part, the notoriously difficult frontier dividing those who do the fighting from those who merely report on it has been marked by an almost unprecedented harmony. For this, the military deserves a good deal of the credit….Over the past three weeks the dilemmas inherent in that position produced at least one professional casualty in the person of NBC’s Peter Arnett, whose position as the CNN star of the first Gulf War did not save him from being sacked by his new network. But that it is feasible to walk that particular tightrope has been demonstrated, among others, by Lindsey Hil-sum, of Channel 4 News. The great mystery of the war remains the falling out of the Baghdad regime with the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, which, in return for restrictions put on two of its correspondents, ceased “live” reporting from the Iraqi capital last week. Perversely, by taking the action they did the Baghdad authorities did Al-Jazeera a substantial favor—if only because they appeared to confirm the network’s reputation for objectivity at the moment when it was, perhaps predictably, coming under increasing question in both Britain and America.
—Anthony Howard

London The Guardian (liberal), April 7: Please, just tell us what's going on. Too few war reporters are simply bearing witness to events in Iraq….There is no better, or sadder, way to chart the 19 days of this war than through the columns Michael Kelly wrote for the Washington Post; for Kelly, embedded with the U.S. 3rd Infantry, was no ordinary war correspondent. He edited the National Journal and got sacked as too much of a Clinton-basher. He edited the Atlantic Monthly and gave it a vivid, inquiring edge. And then, at 46, he quit the world of editorial conferences and boardroom bust-ups and went back to his first love, reporting—what he called “bearing witness.” He died on Friday, the first American reporting victim of the war, killed in a Humvee accident….It is, I think, a tribute to him, and something of a reproach to the merchants of glory or gloom, that I shall miss his witness through the days to come.
—Peter Preston

Canberra The Canberra Times (centrist), April 5: Brave Private Jessica Lynch, photogenic and daringly rescued from captivity in an Iraqi hospital, shot and stabbed by Iraqi soldiers as she heroically fought to protect her unit in an ambush. We told you the story, complete with photograph, on our front page yesterday, and so did many other newspapers around the world. Our source for the story was the Washington Post, which cited military sources and Pentagon officials. Yesterday’s Post reports, deep down in its follow-up story, that Private Lynch was not shot or stabbed at all….We were dudded, and probably not by the Washington Post, which, however, shows too little consciousness of how it might have been used for disinformation or propaganda. Like us, and like our other news services, its reporters have to rely for some of their information on officials. Some of these are none too scrupulous about making up facts where they serve some propaganda purpose—of making America or the coalition look good, or the Saddam Hussein regime look bad—or operate as disinformation against the Iraqi regime, designed to mislead it about its locations, intentions, capabilities or problems, to fill it with doubt or despondency, or to goad it into doing something against its interests. Saddam Hussein, no doubt, does exactly the same thing, though the consumer’s guard against anything coming from Baghdad is naturally far higher.

Tehran Aftab-e Yazd (reformist), April 5: They say professional media work is like working in a morgue. Just as those washing corpses care little whether the dead they are handling have gone to heaven or hell, media workers too must concentrate on reporting the news and refrain from revealing their own opinions. That is the theoretical model the media should follow, and one to which almost all try and remain faithful. A look at successful media would show evidence of this behavioral model. If CNN becomes a leading news service, it is to a great extent because of this characteristic, rather than the extensive resources, which numerous other American and non-American media also have at their disposal. If the Al-Jazeera network in Qatar has come a long way in such a short time, it is because it has adopted this method, in spite of the pressures it faced at the start from numerous regional, friendly, or “big-brother” states….Those media that wish to beat CNN and Al-Jazeera at their game, but report a retreat during a war with terms such as “forced to retreat,” describing the enemy’s same move as a “tactical retreat,” cannot expect to be considered an impartial medium.

Ramallah Al-Ayyam (pro-Palestinian Authority), April 3: From the first day of the aggressive war on Iraq, the cameras were there, but they were distributed among the opposing camps of the war. British, U.S., and coalition countries’ press became tools working according to military plans and in parallel with them, covering up the crimes committed by the troops, and in many cases participating in the falsification of facts and the beautification of crimes….Among these journalists, there are dozens of Israeli journalists and correspondents who entered Kuwait with the invading forces, crossed the borders into Iraq, and then started to send their reports to the Israeli media. They have entered using foreign passports with prior coordination, and perhaps with the knowledge of the Kuwaiti authorities. The correspondent of Israeli Jerusalem Channel 1 TV, Dan Scemama, and the correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Boaz Bismuth, who were expelled on charges of spying, reported some of the criminal atrocities committed by U.S. and British soldiers even against those considered followers of the coalition. Scemama and Bismuth, together with two Portuguese journalists, had entered with the troops without prior passes, and hence were prevented from continuing. Everything has to be synchronized with the clock of the military plan; whoever deviates from this course will be brutally expelled.
—Talal Awkal

London Al-Quds al-Arabi (Palestinian exile), April 3: The Iraqi government has fought the media war with a high capability and a high degree of shrewdness. It has managed to tease the other party to this war and expose its false claims of professionalism and objectivity. U.S. officials, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, cheered with joy when Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf read the Iraqi president’s latest speech, in which he asked his people to wage jihad against the invaders. They viewed this as an indication that the Iraqi president was killed or wounded in the U.S. missile bombardment at the beginning of the aggression….The Iraqi president indeed appeared on television yesterday, smiling and looking happy, amid a group of his ministers, just as he appeared before with his two sons, who were said to have been killed in the U.S. missile bombardment. The Iraqis are not known for their media progress or absorption of its modern electronic tools….They have completely failed to launch a successful, competitive satellite channel or publish a newspaper. But they have benefited from the experiences of war. They have pursued distinguished media policies and fought the propaganda war using a modern media method….The U.S. administration now needs to make a lot of efforts to restore credibility to its media machine.

Beijing Renmin Wang (Communist Party), April 3: Two weeks into the Iraqi war, the media have directed their criticisms of this war pointedly at the decision-makers behind the war. In recent days, the self-proclaimed models of “press freedom,” i.e. the U.S. and U.K. media, have finally been fixed by their governments….Peter Arnett, who had won awards for his coverage of the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, was fired on Monday by the U.S. network NBC and MSNBC because he had stated on Iraqi state television that the U.S. war plan on Iraq had “failed.”…The U.K.'s Labor Party chairman John Reid has accused the BBC coverage of being Arab propaganda. The BBC correspondent Rageh Omar, who had made a live report of the bomb explosion at the Baghdad market, was denounced as being a “friend of Baghdad.” The effects of fixing the U.K. media have been remarkable because “positive” reports have become the mainstream coverage now….The story about the rescue of a 19-year-old female American soldier from a Baghdad hospital by coalition forces has been expanded into a “human-interest story” and has become the second-most reported story in the news….But two other news items that are also related to the war and to the main humanitarian theme have been quietly “dropped” in order to reduce their negative impacts on society. The first news is about the ambush of British Special Forces in northern Iraq…the second news is the tragedy involving the U.S. air raid that hit a Red Crescent maternity clinic in Baghdad. There was no headline, no picture, not even a mention in the streaming news on screen.
—Shi Xiaohui

Bangkok The Nation (liberal, English-language), Apr. 4: Good taste and free speech invariably come under an intense spotlight whenever journalists report on sensitive matters, especially one as controversial as the ongoing U.S.-led war against Iraq….Few are willing to admit that they have already taken a position on this war and that all the reports in the world will never be good enough unless they reflect their own thinking. So when “unfavourable” reports come out, people complain bitterly that they are biased, while at the same time conveniently ignoring the nature of the media business. The media tends to package its news products to meet the requirements and expectations of their targeted viewers. There is also the factor of limitations on those media outlets while operating in the war zone. It helps tremendously to understand the nature of the various news organizations. There is the U.S.-based CNN, a business enterprise that caters largely to an American audience and those in other parts of the world who take the trouble to tune in. The BBC is a British outfit widely recognized for its objectivity in reporting world affairs. Al-Jazeera is a Qatar-based station that caters mainly to 35 million viewers in the Arabic-speaking world….The complaints about Al-Jazeera are not something new, nor should they be taken lightly. The way the station slants its news angles, rigs the debate, and puts a spin on things may not go down well with many people outside the Arab world—such as calling suicide bombers “martyrs.” But this does not mean doors should be shut to them. Funded by the emir of Qatar, the station has 35 million viewers and is the only independent broadcasting voice in the Arab world. In other words, Al-Jazeera is exactly the kind of television station that should be encouraged.

Jidda Arab News (pro-government, English-language), April 3: So Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has now been fired from NBC, MSNBC, and National Geographic….The reason given for the abrupt dismissal was “a serious error in judgment” on Arnett’s part….But I believe the real cause of poor Peter’s dismissal was the almost wholly predictable reaction of the U.S. administration, and its mouthpiece, the U.S. media….If Arnett had been working for a totalitarian regime, then I could certainly understand his dismissal, for it would be totally in character. But, if memory serves, poor Arnett is a Western reporter, reporting for Western news agencies, serving Western interests, and Lord knows, we have been repeatedly told over and over again—by the Western media—that the West stands for freedom, liberty, and the God-given constitutional right of free thought and expression. Does anyone see the irony here?
—Hani Nuwaylati

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