TBS 11, Fall-
Winter 2003

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The Arab Satellites—the Pros and Cons

By Salih Al-Kallab

The Americans are more than critical of the Arab satellite channels, specifically Al Arabiya, Saddam Hussein's people inside and outside Iraq (those outside being the more important) are distinguished by their rancor and fury, the members of the Interim Governing Council wave their stick and make threats and promises, and all of the above only see the cup half full, while every party sees itself as having right on its side and believes that these satellite channels ought to be its mouthpiece and a weapon in its hand to be used against the others.

The Americans cannot stand the word "resistance" and feel bad about seeing pictures of masked men on the screens of these satellite channels. They shudder whenever Saddam Hussein's image or voice is projected from these screens, and are disturbed by the way these satellites cover the daily occurring incidents, preferring to describe operations attributable to this "resistance" as "sabotage operations."

The members of the Interim Governing Council are against the description of American forces as "occupation forces" and sometimes abandon hints in favor of open declarations, pressing for "liberation" to be used instead of "occupation." It may be no disservice to the truth to say that some of these, when their turn comes to be president, will not hesitate to follow Saddam Hussein's example even if they do not wear military uniforms or gird themselves with custom-made revolvers or laugh with the old, familiar laugh that the deposed president used to use, when he had time to laugh.

As for the followers of Saddam Hussein inside and outside Iraq, the sparks fly from their eyes, for according to them these satellites, even though they broke the isolation of the deposed president by broadcasting his messages, his tapes, and his "Ottoman-style" instructions are atheists, imperialists, and "Marines-ists" as long as they attempt to be impartial and to deal with information as information, news as news, and the truth as the truth.

The Shiites don't like these channels and nor do the Sunnis. The Kurds have a thousand and one points to make. The Turcomans are critical and the Assyrians and the Chaldeans complain of neglect and unfairness. And the countries around Iraq, with a few exceptions, have observations and objections and some of them do not shrink from swearing by the mightiest oaths that there is a conspiracy behind which lie global arrogance, Donald Rumsfeld, Bremer, and Nabil Khouri.

How is one to please all these contradictory, conflicting parties, each of which grabs the other by the throat and claims that the truth is on his side, that his case is the just one, and that the aforementioned satellite channels must take his part and adopt his point of view?

At the Arab Media Summit held recently in Dubai, the meeting rooms and peripheral "workshop" tables witnessed the sort of scenes that make children's hair turn grey. The cavaliers of the hot-blooded sentence and those who conduct their struggle from distant, comfortable capitals want these channels, or some of them to be precise, to work miracles, putting an end to corruption and the corrupt throughout the Arab World and then doing the same for the Islamic World, restoring Saddam Hussein to a throne that he couldn't defend like a man, and replacing Asian oppression with democracy.

At this summit, some of whose sessions turned into cock fights and were taken over by battles of eloquence and slanging matches, these satellite channels were subjected to every variety of high-flown rhetorical assault and all the censorious and furious Iraqi currents emerged: Saddam Hussein and his helpers and disciples abroad, and those who consider the American forces to be liberation forces and not occupation forces, and those on the side of the Interim Governing Council who insist that they, and they alone, have legitimacy.

Some of the speakers demanded that the satellite channels rub the noses of the Americans in the dirt and direct the fatal blow at Israel and be the spearhead for the Arabs in the Conflict of Civilizations and empower the Arabs and Muslims of the United States to vanquish the Zionist lobby and solve this arid wasteland's water problem.

There can be no doubt that the satellite channels made many mistakes in Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere, but these were, primarily, professional mistakes. In general terms however it may be said that some of these channels aspired to the highest possible degree of accuracy and tried to avoid favoring any side against others and to be a vehicle to convey the facts and correct information to the viewers without regard for whether this would anger or please them. Their first concern, duty, and mission were to act with professionalism.

The regime of Saddam Hussein fell with unexpected speed. These channels then found themselves in the midst of a raging sea of unfolding news and events in which they were obliged to swim without getting battered by some huge wave and, as they moved through a forest of guns in the midst of that great crowd of armed militias, parties, clandestine organizations, and arms of the intelligence services of neighboring and distant countries, to avoid being considered as belonging to one side or another and finding themselves in the pocket of one organization or another.

There had to be balance and precise calculation in the midst of that churning security free-for-all. The hard hearted, those conducting campaigns against the Arab satellite channels, and those targeting them, whether out of ignorance or for sinister purposes of their own, may not be aware that the correspondents of these channels found themselves and still find themselves moving in mine fields where any slip would inevitably lead to a disaster of terrifying proportions.

It should also be known, and here I address myself to those who are unaware of this and not to the campaigners and loud-mouths, that a satellite channel is not a belief-based party and it is not a nationalist or religious rallying point. It is a media tool, and the successful news medium is the one that speaks the truth when it conveys what it sees or hears and is honest in communicating the facts, and only the facts, to the viewers.

When Saddam Hussein issues a tape recording it is the duty of the satellite channel, as a news medium, to obtain that recording and broadcast it as soon as possible. This is our job and this is our duty towards our viewers and we cannot waver in carrying out that duty, even if the Americans get angry or the Interim Governing Council complains and some neighboring countries grumble.

And when the Interim Governing Council holds a press conference or the American civil administration issues a statement or the American army a communiqué, it is up to the satellite channels, in order to be truthful and successful and to fulfill their duty, to convey all of these to their viewers, even if Saddam Hussein's followers inside the country and abroad get angry and even if some neighboring countries grumble.

The task of the independent satellite channel that does not belong to any state with positions and policies or to any party or public or clandestine organization or other partial body is not to keep this or that group among the struggling, contradictory, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating groups in Iraq but to convey the truth to its viewers, even if this truth angers some and fails to meet with their approval.

There are correspondents who have shown unjustifiable partiality to this side or that, and there may be channels that have tried to ride the waves of those who made bids for their favors at some stages of the developments over the Iraq issue, but we can say in general terms and in good conscience that there are channels that seize on the truth as one would on a glowing ember and never stop trying to be objective and avoid taking any side but that of their profession, despite all the complexities of the Iraqi situation and despite the fact that our correspondents were and still are exposed to the bullets of the various currents, forces, criminal gangs, war-time mafias, and security lapses.

It would be impossible for any satellite channel in a situation such as that of Iraq to avoid angering all these diverse and competing parties. The fact of the matter is that the anger of all these parties, whether competing or collaborating, at any given satellite channel is an indication that that channel is doing its job well and that it is a successful and outstanding news medium. To please all these Iraqi parties and forces and those who revolve in their orbits is an unattainable goal. TBS


Salih Al-Kallab is political advisor to Al Arabiya channel. This article first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat, #9087, October 15, 2003.
Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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