Watching the War from the Middle East: Thank God for Al-Jazeera. March 26, 2003.


One week since its start and the war wages on in Iraq. In which direction, it is difficult to tell, although few doubt that the U.S. and Britain won't succeed in their mission. But few of us can claim to really know what is going on in Iraq. We rely on the reporters who seem brave to us, standing open-air in Baghdad while bombs fall, surging through the desert in military tanks. As in all wars, the media is our only window to the events, but as in all wars truth is the first victim. We zap between channels to watch the spectacle unfold, to the detriment of analysis and perspective.


The last time a full-blown war took place in Iraq – the first Gulf War (known as the Second Gulf War to Arabs, the Iran-Iraq War being the first) – CNN was perhaps one of our most important sources of news. How can we forget that video game feeling of watching the war, of General Schwarzkopf's stature boasting over replays of video footage of aerial shots showing us Iraqi hubs, roads, bridges and airplanes blown to bits? This time around the U.S. military has opened the media game, especially in terms of making the war seem more transparent. Hundreds of journalists are embedded with the military. But are their reports, more like unconnected mini-stories, framed by the military and to what extent? Is the military setting the rules of game by integrating, inserting, "embedding" journalists, forcing them to comply with over fifty regulations such as not disclosing their location?


One must wonder to what extent the embedded journalists can offer us a perspective. We're not surprised to learn that war makes communication difficult so we accept the unsynchronized digitized orange and green images from the field. Or are the embedded journalists being cut off in mid-sentence because their commanders want to forbid them from stating certain things? To what extent have new channels of voyeurism been open, and are they being opened in order to enforce more control? Are the unconnected stories from the embedded reporters putting more pressure on anchor-men and women in Kuwait, Atlanta, London, Washington and New York to make sense of the war? Or is it giving them more control? One can't blame the American embedded journalists from complying with military rules, after all they sit in a privileged strategic position. And no matter what information they provide us, a little information – even framed by the military – is better than none at all. Since the Vietnam War the American military is perhaps rightfully weary of free-roaming journalists. And since the video game feeling of Desert Storm, journalists have also learned to be a little more aggressive in their access to information. We're not going to see images of American soldiers setting fire to Vietnamese huts with a Zippo lighter, or images of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing her village after a napalm bombardment. We're also not only going to see aerial footage of bombings, although we can argue that today's war is already impersonal being fought with abstract weapons such as B-52 bombers, Apache helicopters and Tomahawk missiles. But we will see little of the urban warfare or the street-to-street fighting. And framing what we see makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of the American government, they need to justify the reasons of being at war, they need to portray their war as clean, killing few civilians by using pin-point targeting of Saddam's regime. They need to keep American and global public opinion in favor of the war, comfort their allies, reconfirm that the war is not against the Iraqi people but against Saddam. Media cannot win or lose a war, it can only weigh on opinions. But in this war Iraq seems secondary. What seems primary is the U.S.'s images of a clean, respectable war.


But the logic of American media has increasingly become one of propaganda, especially in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Watching Fox News for example, a viewer can hardly be convinced that the reporting is neutral, objective and balanced. And in the war against Iraq this logic is present in the journalists on the ground. Along with truth as a victim, language is also being confiscated by a process of self-censorship that is thoroughly internalized. They use names and words given by the military without any critical approach, they say "smart bombs" instead of "laser and computer-guided bombs," "marginal damage" instead of "wounded and dead civilians," "Coalition forces" instead of "British and American" (with a handful of Australian and Polish soldiers), they will refer to the war as "Iraqi Freedom" or use the names of operations such as "Shock and Awe." As in all wars, viewers are never shown the full spectrum of images, but are only offered certain pictures. There is no denying that war is disgusting, disturbing, that people die – civilians and soldiers – that there is much destruction and decimation.


We all knew the war was coming, no matter the global anti-war demonstrations. Media outlets had lots of time to prepare themselves, having months to plan their strategies and to place their reporters. Perhaps many viewers were excited before the war started, with the thought of really getting the scoop of things with "embedded" journalists on the scene, following the troops around intimately. Two and a half days into the war, non-embedded CNN journalists were expelled from Iraq. Many of the American stations opted not to have any reporters in Iraq at all, many of them – including those from CNN – reporting from neighboring Kuwait. Of all the American and British journalists on the ground, only one – Ross Appleyard from the British channel Sky – is not part of a military cohort. The only other independent journalists – as in not tied to the military – are those from various Arab nations, such as Majid Abd Al Hadi, Diab Al Omari, Hassan Rashid, Amr Al Kahaki, reporters for Al-Jazeera, as well as a slew of others from MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Company), Abu Dhabi and the newly launched 24-hour news channel Al-Arabiya (owned by MBC).


Al-Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar, a Muslim Arab country. Few seem to recognize the fascinating fact that images are thought of as sacred in conservative Muslim interpretation. And yet Al Jazeera has for years been under scrutiny by every government – in the Middle East and further afield – for being critical and for exposing the news. Al Jazeera has adopted the Western mantra of an objective, balanced and neutral press. Their title caption reads "Opinion and Counter-Opinion." After all much of the Al Jazeera staff was trained by the likes of BBC and CNN. The format would look familiar to most Western eyes: scrolling news bits on the bottom of the screen, along with stock market information, the network's logo and the location of events with "live" or "recorded" clearly marked. The attractive anchor man or woman with a professional graphical background presents the news, the field reporters speaking clearly and objectively about their observations are broadcasting for all over the world. The musical introduction to the news, the graphical backgrounds of Iraqi and American flags, breaking news interruptions, satellite-linked interviewees, are all part of Al Jazeera's palate. On a superficial level the only difference between CNN and Al Jazeera is the language of broadcast.


In a situation like a war in Iraq, Al Jazeera clearly has the upper hand. The reporters speak Arabic, they understand Arab and Muslim mentality. They are more trusted by the civilians and the government and military officials of Iraq. When a breaking story happens, Al Jazeera is the first to be invited to film. When Iraq released the images of the captured soldiers, it was Al Jazeera that they called first. When Iraqi officials wanted to broadcast images of wounded and dead Iraqi civilians, it was Al Jazeera that was let in first to the scenes of destruction. CNN reporters were tucked away in military tanks in unknown locations. The footage later shown on CNN was from none other than Al Jazeera – after the CNN reporters were expelled from the country, the American network made a deal with Al Jazeera to purchase its footage. A stray missile falls in Syria and kills five and Al-Jazeera is there to document it. Al Jazeera equally has reporters and anchormen on the ground in the U.S, in Kuwait, at the U.S. main command center in the Gulf. The only places Al Jazeera reporters aren't present are in the U.S. military outfits, they're not riding along with the troops.


Watching the war on Al Jazeera one – perhaps not surprisingly – gets a completely different picture and feeling than watching the war on CNN. On Al Jazeera the war feels more like a war. They of course broadcast the speeches by American and British military and government officials, they equally broadcast the speeches by Iraqi officials and Saddam himself. They air interviews with Iraqi civilians, with villagers who supposedly shot down a helicopter, or with villagers who lost their homes to missiles. They don't hold back on showing disturbing images of wounded and dead civilians and soldiers. Many Western eyes may find that surprising, but it is a fact of war that people die, and Al Jazeera seems less queasy than CNN in showing us images that may keep us up all night giving us nightmares.


Some may argue that Al Jazeera is ideologically committed to show Baghdad's destruction, to increase the feeling of victim-hood felt by the Arab populations. Most of the Arabs are against the war in Iraq for a number of reasons: afraid of American imperialism spreading in the region, understanding the attack as one against Islam, feeling solidarity with Muslim and Arab friends and brothers in Iraq, worried about the Iraqi people. Most will openly admit that they do no like Saddam Hussein, and agree that Iraq and the Middle East would be better off without him; but what they are opposed to is having a foreign president – whose is seen as a Christian Crusader since his speeches after September 11th – decide for them that it is time for Saddam to leave and in the process kill Iraqi civilians and secure the oil fields for American prosperity. It was not hidden on Al Jazeera that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, was first to win a contract in the post-Saddam regime to have access to the Iraqi oil fields. Perhaps Al Jazeera is portraying more of the realities of war because it comes from a part of the world that is against the war, that has some anti-American sentiment on its streets. But it's difficult to tell if that is the case, because Al Jazeera equally broadcasts images of Iraqi civilians and soldiers thanking and hugging American soldiers. Its reporters and anchors debate whether the images of Iraqi villagers chanting pro-Saddam songs are mise-en-scene, perhaps asked to do so by the Iraqi TV station. Much debate occurs on Al-Jazeera, debate about freedom of press during war, debate about access to the truth under the control of the Iraqi government and debate about the controversies of what they choose to air.


Much debate is going on about whether or not Al Jazeera for example should have aired the footage of the captured American POWs, of the dead (or executed, according to the U.S. media) soldiers. U.S. General Tommy Franks explicitly said to an Al Jazeera reporter during a press conference that he was disappointed in their decision to air the footage of the POWs. But later that day, the network held a debate on the matter. Was there a double standard at hand by the fact that showing Iraqi POWs did not raise as much of a scandal as showing American POWs? But it was not Al Jazeera that forced its video camera and microphone into the faces of the captured soldiers; they rebroadcasted the images from Iraqi TV. They debated the differences in approach, the Iraqi POWs were not interviewed on television but were shown as a group. The debate included a discussion of the Geneva Convention, of ethical concerns of whether or not viewers should have the right to see POWs, of what psychological impact the POWs would suffer by being shown on television, and of what Iraqi and American public reactions would be in the face of such images.


CNN's self-advertisement urges its viewers to be "the first to know." So I decided on March 23rd to compare what was being aired on Al Jazeera and CNN (occasionally zapping to France's TV5, the U.S.'s MSNBC and the pan-Arab Al Arabiya for multiple perspectives). Al Jazeera reports that an American soldier ambushed nearby his troops kills a fellow soldier and wounds others. The higher echelon of the American military is not sharing this information with its troops in order to keep morale high. It takes CNN over an hour to broadcast the news, in a few-second blurb, offering no analysis on why a soldier in an elite unit may have lost his wits and attacked his own, instead they explain that the American military – and the Kuwaiti population – is on high alert because of threats of Al Qaeda or anti-American attacks.


In the middle of a debate Al Jazeera cuts to a scene in Baghdad where people are gathering by the river front, with some in military or police men shooting in the water. There are rumors that a British pilot who ejected from a helicopter has fallen in the river. Al Jazeera stays glued to the scene for almost two hours, never explicitly claiming that there is anyone in the water. CNN is airing news from Kuwait, showing tanks making their way through the desert with no one in sight. In the meantime there is discussion on Al Jazeera as to what is happening in Umm Qasr. CNN had reported the day before that Umm Qasr was taken over by Coalition troops. Al Jazeera is reporting resistance in Umm Qasr. Minutes pass and the Arab stations – Al Arabiya, MBC, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, LBC – are showing similar footage of scenes near the river, a mass of people has gathered looking for the fallen pilot (or possibly two pilots).

It takes CNN over an hour to show the image taken from Al Jazeera. At first the images are broadcast along with the Arabic language audio, the English speaking-broadcaster not knowing what is going on. After a couple of minutes the Arabic language voice-over is turned off and the video remains. The reporter says something to the extent of "Arab television claims British soldier is in the river." Keep in mind none of the Arab stations at this point have confirmed that a soldier has fallen, but are stating that there are rumors. Eventually Al Jazeera returns to news of Umm Qasr. The difference in reporting between it and CNN on the events in Umm Qasr are not from a semantic point of view, both use the same words: resistance, occupation, freeing, surrender, and so on. But the feeling of what is happening in Umm Qasr is quite different; on CNN one gets the feeling that the American and British troops have already held on to Umm Qasr and are having no troubles; on Al Jazeera one learns that there is Iraqi resistance and that the port city is far from "safe." Over the course of the day and the following days CNN will slightly change its tune to mention the resistance in Umm Qasr. Over the next days a more symbiotic picture appears on both stations, eventually providing little difference between the two perspectives.


The Iraqi Minister of Information holds a press conference. Al Jazeera airs the entire conference as well as the entirety of the Q&A session, immediately translating into Arabic anything spoken in English. CNN only airs the parts in English, immediately cutting off when the language changes. Al Jazeera does not adopt the same strategy as CNN when the press conference is held by a British or American official. Al Jazeera equally broadcasts the entire conference and Q&A session and offers immediate translation into Arabic; and it will also present a post-conference analysis, sometimes by the reporter on the ground, sometimes by the anchor, sometimes by invited analysts from various parts of the globe.


Later that day Al Jazeera simultaneously airs four of its reporters from different locations in Iraq – Baghdad, Mosul, Umm Qasr and somewhere in the desert to the South of Baghdad – trying to offer its viewers a fuller perspective on the events on the ground. The four reporters cannot see each other, but they ask each other questions, with the anchorman in the headquarters in Doha mediating between them. It's a fascinating report to watch. The reporter in Baghdad asks the reporter in Mosul about aerial bombings and they compare the timing and frequency of bombardments. At around 12:30 am (Iraq time) Al Jazeera's daily counter switches to "Day 4" and a new day of war reporting begins.


It's not new for Al Jazeera to be attacked by governments. Since they began airing many of the Arab countries have complained about their coverage – providing too much criticism of the dictatorial regimes in the area – some have forbidden national advertisers from purchasing air-time on the network, others have tried to stop its signals from being seen within their national boundaries. The U.S. also seems to think of Al Jazeera as a threat, frequently claiming that the station mentioned something that it didn't, blaming it for the airing of the POWs as if it had filmed them itself, forbidding it from advertising itself in the U.S. Over the course of the war Al Jazeera will also be prevented from broadcasting from the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange. Meanwhile CNN is happy to purchase images of the war in Iraq from none other than Al Jazeera – as well as stations from other Arab and European nations.


Given Al Jazeera's physical location in the Middle East it is perhaps easier to understand why it broadcasts disturbing images of blood on the ground, corpses carried away by masses, infants and children crying from their hospital beds, women crying for their flattened homes. Maybe it does have an ideological commitment to show the damage done to fellow Arab civilians, as CNN may have an ideological commitment to show the military's successes; but one must recognize that Al Jazeera seems to be trying much more so than CNN to be objective, accurate and indeed provide its viewers with the "first" news. The Arab populations that have access to Al Jazeera are thankful for it. In "Desert Storm" they had to rely on state-run television stations, on CNN and other Western broadcasters. In "Iraqi Freedom" they have access to pan-Arab stations, with Al Jazeera undoubtedly being the most popular. Perhaps all of us should be thankful for Al Jazeera and the Arab stations, for they provides with a much needed competition in the war of images and public opinion.

 

<< back to menu