A Different Language: Arab Media
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TERENCE SMITH: If the war in Iraq has been big news in the American media, it has been, if possible, even bigger news in the Arab media.
Al Jazeera, the satellite service based in Doha, Qatar, Abu Dhabi TV, and a host of other new, pan-Arab services — none of which existed during the last Gulf War — have been covering the fighting exhaustively.
Some of the most graphic images from the war — injured and dead civilians, dead and wounded Iraqi and American soldiers and POW’s, the hail of rockets, missiles and bombs — have been played over and again on Arab television.
TERENCE SMITH: And while this may be technically the same conflict that is seen in the American media, in the Arab media it is a very different war, seen from a distinct perspective.
TERENCE SMITH: U.S. and British troops are often described as “coalition forces,” even “liberators,” on American television; on Arab TV they are often “invading Americans.”
Iraqi dead on Arab networks are often dubbed “martyrs,” a term loaded with religious significance for fundamentalist Muslims. Videotape that the NewsHour has chosen not to show, like that of dead American soldiers broadcast on Iraqi television, has been shown repeatedly on Arab television.
That drew a sharp rebuke from an American military spokesman.
LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: You’re from Al Jazeera Television. I’m very disappointed that you would portray those pictures of our servicemen. I saw that, and I would ask others not to do that. I regard the showing of these pictures as absolutely unacceptable.
TERENCE SMITH: Al Jazeera, the best-known satellite service, is largely financed by the emirate of Qatar, and broadcast 24 hours a day. It reaches a huge audience, according to Hafez al-Mirazi, the network’s Washington bureau chief.
HAFEZ AL-MIRAZI: We are broadcasting to more than 300 million in the area, at least 22 Arab countries, in addition to the Middle East and North Africa, in addition to all over the world.
TERENCE SMITH: Al Jazeera has been banned from reporting in several Arab countries because of its editorial independence.
Most recently, the Iraqis shuttered its operation in Baghdad for two days last week without explanation, and then reinstated it Friday.
Satellite technology makes these images available worldwide. In the United States, services like Worldlink TV translate and rebroadcast the news from the Arab world on programs like “Mosaic.”
Beyond television, Arab language newspapers are also covering the war, many with a pronounced anti-American slant.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are Mamoun Fandy, Georgetown University, professor media analyst, and syndicated columnist; and Mohammed el-Nawawy, professor of communication and journalism at Stonehill College, and co-author of a recent book on the Al Jazeera channel. Welcome to you both.
Mohammed el-Nawawy, what are Arab media showing that we are not seeing on U.S. domestic television and in our newspapers?
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: I guess the Arab media are showing more reality on the ground, in terms of focusing on the Iraqi civilian casualties and gruesome images of those casualties from the ground as well from hospitals.
And also, more direct reports from correspondents inside Baghdad and Basra and other major Iraqi cities that I think the western correspondents have not had the chance to be in. I’m talking about the western correspondents embedded with the allied coalition troops.
TERENCE SMITH: Mamoun Fandy, more reality on the ground, or a version of reality?
MAMOUN FANDY: I think it’s a version of reality, with all due respect to my friend Mohammed. I think the main difference between American news organizations and Arab news organizations is that here we have news gathering organizations.
Over there, it’s news receiving. It’s whatever the information minister of Iraq pushes your way. It’s whatever tape you are getting is displayed on the channel. I mean, very little control as far as human resources and actually doing the investigative reporting. It’s just flat out… it’s a different story. It’s reaction.
The western media is presenting one thing; we are presenting another thing. That’s what I saw.
TERENCE SMITH: Mohammed el-Nawawy, when you looked at, let’s say, the downing of the Apache helicopter, the U.S. helicopter, apparently by small arms fire, and you saw that on both the Arab media and in the U.S., what was the contrast?
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Well, I think with this specific incident, I saw pretty much the same thing — you know, some Iraqis celebrating the falling down of this Apache helicopter, and we saw some of that here, too. But I just want to respond to what Mamoun said. I think this used to be the case before the proliferation of Arab satellite networks in the Arab world that we used to see more government-controlled information.
Right now, I think… I watch Al Jazeera every day, and I also get the American side as well as the Iraqi side.
You have to understand that Al Jazeera, for example, is neither Iraqi nor American, so it tries to play an impartial role in this war, but also focus on aspects that would be appealing to its target audience. Like, for example, they focus more on the casualties, as I said.
Here, we find the focus more on humanizing American POW’s, like we saw recently with Jessica Lynch, for example. You know, so each network tries to present news from a point of view or a perspective that would appeal to its audience.
Having said that, I think that is okay on both sides, as long as it doesn’t get to be at the expense of the other side. And I think, you know, Al Jazeera specifically is doing a good job in trying to reach out to the American side by having American press briefings and interviews with the American officials, and stuff of that sort.
TERENCE SMITH: Mamoun Fandy, you’re shaking your head.
MAMOUN FANDY: Well, I think, you know, with all due respect, as we see here, for instance, we have CNN domestic and CNN international.
All of the Arab channels, with no exception, are all state- owned. The satellite channels have more freedom, but the domestic channels have less freedom, but they are all state-owned. There is no… with the exception of a couple in Lebanon that are independent organizations, but still there’s tremendous influence.
So in many ways, I think to assume that somehow Al Jazeera is an independent organization is really sort of missing the whole point.
Al Jazeera isn’t independence. Its first $25 million came from the emir’s pocket. It’s government-controlled government stations being promoted by the government. Its offices here are owned by the government. I’m not sure whether Mohammed looked at all this. He wrote a book on it, but, you know, this is a state-owned channel. It’s not a corporation. And even it’s not PBS.
TERENCE SMITH: I have seen references, and let me ask you both about this — Mohammed, you first — to situations where images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are in effect intermingled with Israeli soldiers on the West Bank; situations where Iraqi victims in Iraq are intermingled with Palestinians victims on the West Bank. I mean, that sounds to me like a purely political message.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: I don’t think Al Jazeera has been focusing much on the showing of the Palestinian Intifada. I think the priority on Al Jazeera right now is the situation in Iraq and the war in Iraq. I don’t think they intermingle images. I haven’t seen that done before. I think when there is breaking news, you know, on the Palestinian territories, they get reports from the correspondents there. And when there is breaking news in Iraq, of course, it’s coverage 24 hours. So I haven’t seen any intermingling of these images. And I don’t think this is the purpose of Al Jazeera. I think Al Jazeera is not sensationalizing news.
But I just want to get back to the Palestinian casualties. I think that the main problem in this war among Arabs is the link between this war and between what’s happening in the Palestinian territories. I think they are saying that the United States should have handled the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before getting to launch a war in Iraq. That’s the general thinking among the majority of the Arabs on the street. It’s not being initiated by Al Jazeera per se.
TERENCE SMITH: Mamoun Fandy, you wrote an article in the Washington Post recently in which you said the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the template on which much of this is played out.
MAMOUN FANDY: I can tell you, and Mohammed probably would attest that. Today one of the anchors of Al Jazeera was talking to his correspondent in Baghdad and asking him about, you know, how the Israelis claim they took the airport. What did the Iraqis say? It was a slip of the tongue, but it was obvious that whole intermingling is very deliberate.
TERENCE SMITH: He said “Israeli”…
MAMOUN FANDY: Yes, he said “Israeli.”
TERENCE SMITH: When he was referring to the U.S…
MAMOUN FANDY: To Americans. Just mentally. I saw it today.
Now, the basic thing is that — the politics of it aside — let’s look at the journalism of it, and I think the journalism of it is that there is very little effort being done, except, you know, you take the Americans, put the Israelis; you take the Palestinians, put the Iraqis; and the same script goes on. It’s Mr. Munkash [ph], who brought down the whole Apache helicopter supposedly in the field. It is from taking literally from the 1956 wars, Egyptians against them. Very little has changed.
Al Jazeera said, this is true but nobody verified that independence. Al Jazeera practically gives the microphone to the minister in Iraq, and he talks forever, no contradiction whatsoever. Nobody is telling him how, how do you verify that? Nobody is questioning his statements. He gives a political speech. I mean, this is really sort of not journalism.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: May say something here?
MAMOUN FANDY: I think, Mohammed, I don’t want to portray you as defender of Al Jazeera. There is a lot of Arab television.
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: I’m not.
MAMOUN FANDY: You were saying the purpose of Al Jazeera purpose as if you know the purpose of Al Jazeera.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you more broadly, Mohammed el-Nawawy, does the Arab public accept at face value in your opinion lock stock and barrel what is presented to them not just on one channel but on the channels that they see and in the newspapers they read, and if so what effect does it have on them?
MOHAMMED EL-NAWAWY: Well, I think the Arab audience are very critical; they have always been critical of their own media because they know they don’t get the complete picture from their own government-owned media.
And I think right now with Al Jazeera also with new channels like Al Arabia, Abu Dhabi and other channels, I think they are starting to get reliable information from their own channels. When Al Jazeera shows press briefings with Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who’s the Iraqi minister of information, they also show press briefings from American officials at Central Command or the Pentagon. So I think they try and be as objective as they can and I think that’s why they have been successful and popular among Arab viewers.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let me ask Mamoun Fandy for a final word. On the acceptance of all of this as fact and what effect is has very briefly.
MAMOUN FANDY: I think the biggest second story in this war, Terry, is that despite Al Jazeera and what we see on Al Jazeera of footage, there is yet to see single American being hurt throughout the Arab world, single soft target of America being hit throughout the Arab world.
So really in the final analysis, as Mohammed said, Arabs are very cynical whether it is Al Jazeera or any other channel, they do not believe it and why it has no effect..
TERENCE SMITH: All right, gentlemen, thank you both, very much.