Covering the War on Terrorism
A panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Arab Studies Journal, Georgetown University, Jan. 24, 2002. The transcript is published here with the kind permission and assistance of CCAS.
Moderated by Michael Hudson, Professor of Arab Studies and International Relations, Georgetown University.
Marvin Kalb: At a certain point in the very beginning of the coverage of this war, the American press corps was kept totally away from the operation in Afghanistan. When the US began the military operations in early November, the Pentagon allowed a limited number of reporters to go along on certain operations that they, the Pentagon, controlled. When it was clear that the Taliban government regime was being defeated, it became more difficult for the Pentagon to control the press corps, and many, many reporters began to go with the Northern Alliance forces into Kabul and then later into Kandahar and began to report pretty much as they should have from the very beginning, if the circumstances allowed them to go inand many times the circumstances did not allow them to go in. There was a time in the middle and at the end of November when it was almost customary for the American press corps to belittle the American military effort in Afghanistan, to put out stories saying that the US is involved in another quagmire similar to Vietnam. Two or three days after cascading stories of this sort, the Taliban regime was finished, the al-Qaeda network had been dispersed but not destroyed, and then you began to see a lot of stories about the great success of the American military operation, and we were moving into the next phase, which is pretty much where we are today.
What we are seeing, basically, is two rights in collision. It is the right and the responsibility of the Pentagon to protect its military operations, and not to provide information to the American public that it feels the public should not have at that time. That is their judgment, their professional judgment, and it is my belief that they have not only the right but as I said the responsibility to do exactly what it is that they have been trying to do. It is also the right and the responsibility of the press corps to find out as much about the military operation as it can, and then each journalist has to ask himself or herself whether, in possession of information that could end up harming American soldiers, those reporters should go forward and actually report that information. But it is not for the government to stop them; it is for themselves to stop them, if they believe that kind of information could or would be injurious to American forces. So in this collision of two rights, no one can end up being the victor, and no one can end up being the one who is proven to be correct and the other is wrongneither side is wrong. On the journalists' side you can have lousy reporting, and there's a lot of that, but there's also some terrific reporting. I've spent the last two or three weeks reading side by side from November 8th and 9th right through to December 15th what was going on in the Washington Post and what was going on in the New York Times, and I can only say, not as a newspaper man but as a television guy, reading this stuff, there was first-class journalism. On the television side, and on the radio side with NPR, there was also a lot of very good reporting, but I have a feeling it could have been better. But that's my view sitting here; I was not covering this war, the other reporters were, and I have a feeling that overall I would not be here to criticize them but rather to say my hat's off to them for doing as good a job as they could under the circumstances. Thank you.
Hudson: Thank you very much. We now turn to Hafez Al-Mirazi. Mr. Al-Mirazi is the bureau chief of the Al-Jazeera satellite channel here in Washington, he is a veteran journalist with lots of experience in the Middle East and lots of experience in the United States as well. He has been a correspondent for the BBC World Service Arabic service, he's been a talk show host on the Arab News Network, based in Washington, he was a writer and editor and broadcaster for the Voice of America for a number of years, from 1985 to 1997, and was also for a time a news broadcaster for the Voice of the Arabs on Cairo radio. He has a master's degree in World Politics from our friends at Catholic University across town, and his BA is in political science from Cairo University. The floor is yours.
Al-Mirazi: Thank you, Dr. Hudson, and thank you for inviting me. I took one of my graduate courses here at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and am grateful for this invitation. I don't really have much to say except maybe to make some observations that may open the door for question-and-answer later. But I will start with some remarks that Dr. Hudson also started with comparing how the networks put the flags and put the war as an American war against the "evildoers," and Al-Jazeera calling that war "the first war of the century," and actually we adopted the term from President Bush, who called it the first war of the century. The first thing is that we are actually just repeating the American terminology. Bin Laden's picture in the background is with President Bush, there's both of them, so we've tried to keep the balance. Keeping the balance and covering the story from both sides is the main motto of Al-Jazeera, and also the main source of problems and controversy for Al-Jazeera, whether in the Arab world and the Middle East or as we witnessed here in our coverage of that war. Al-Jazeera had many problems and many critics in the Arab world at the beginning, accusing Al-Jazeera of trying to drive a wedge between the Arab peoples and the governments, because of the kind of coverage, the kind of discussions in our talk shows.
Al-Jazeera, as many of you might know, started just five years ago. It is modeled after the BBC example, in which it's a public corporation, receiving funds from the state of Qatar; however, it has its own independent board of directors. It was hoped at the beginning that in five years we would start to break even and rely mainly on commercials and advertisements; that did not happen. Part of the reason for that is the pressure or intimidation on advertisers from their own governments.
In our coverage of this current war we witnessed, I believe, two confusions or two kinds of messages. The first one, on the American media side, is mixing patriotism with journalism. Al-Jazeera never said "we," as compared to the American media and the American anchors when they covered the war, saying "we" moved from that place to the other. We did not put any Arab or Afghani flag with our anchors. We felt there is an Arab perspective and an Islamic perspective in covering that war. The main thing is that we distinguished between the condemnation of what happened on September 11, that is, a terrorist attack, and nobody actually appeared on Al-Jazeera and said anything elseexcept bin Laden; we aired his tapes and we believe this is his right and the right of the other side in any conflict to be heard, and I believe had bin Laden been caught today or captured at any moment he would be given that chance to speak out and express his views in a court of law, if he is captured alive.
The other mixture is confusing the message with the messenger, and this is what happened with Al-Jazeera when we played bin Laden tapes or we gave a chance at the beginning of the war for people from the Taliban to express their point of view or to counter the US argument against them. Al-Jazeera has been partly vilified for that reason. Many people asked why Al-Jazeera was favored by Taliban or bin Laden to be their favorite choice or their favorite channel, and we always explain that Al-Jazeera has been in Kabul for two years, before the beginning of that war, before the beginning of the whole crisis. At that time CNN itself was offered to be there, to have a license to operate, and they declined for their own economic reasons or because there was nothing in Afghanistan at that time except Afghanis killing Afghanis, civil war in a Muslim country in an obscure place, bin Laden hadn't gained that much prominence and he was not in Kabul, in the capital. Al-Jazeera accepted that, and because of the coverage of Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera being there in Kabul two years ago, we did cover things that really made the Taliban a pariah in the international community before September 11, which is the filming of the demolition of the ancient statues over there in Afghanistan. It was Al-Jazeera's exclusive footage and taping of that event that really turned the majority of the international community against the rule of the Taliban. Later on, whatever access our correspondent had at that time, he put it out.
The problem on the American side is that they did not like the ten percent of the coverage of Al-Jazeera because the other side has already been vilified, it's a message of hatred, and we don't want to hear that message. And actually that argument we did not buy, and we considered that this is something we have to put. We were saying that there is no moral equivalency, of course, between both sides, although it is not up to us to judge. We were not dividing fifty-fifty coverage. Al-Jazeera has been putting out five to six hours during the crisis of live coverage from Washington to cover all kinds of spins, as you'd call it in Washingtonlive coverage of news conferences by President Bush, by Secretary Rumsfeld, by Secretary Powell, interrupting our daily programs to put it out. And every maybe two or three weeks you'd get a tape of ten to twenty minutes from bin Laden or al-Qaeda and you put it out, and then everybody will forget about Al-Jazeera and just remember one thing: that this is the channel that is bringing bin Laden to them. At the beginning the US media and the networks did carry, even some of them like ABC and CNN, they carried the first tape of bin Laden live with us on October 7, and there was no problem until they were summoned by the White House and were told that at best that would be propaganda, at worst there must be coded messages in his speech, and they shouldn't put that out to the American audience.
Unfortunately I believe that the executives of most networks did abide by that, and they didn't even make a sincere summary of these tapes to put it out for their own public without using bin Laden's gestures and all of that stuff. We didn't see, and nobody made a case for us, that there were any security or coded messages in them. We thought, and I believe until now, that nobody made an argument for any coded messages. And the idea of coded messages came out from the same National Security where Ollie North used to use coded messages to communicate with the ayatollahs during Iran Contra. We don't think that bin Laden needed messages, we don't think that if there are any sleeper cells within the US that they would wait for messages for them to bring harm to this country. We considered it could be perceived as propaganda, fine, but some of what we broadcast from the US side was perceived as propaganda also for that audience. So the self-censorship that we felt in the American media made Al-Jazeera's case; we had a chance to carry one side of the story and of course we have the other side of the story from Washington, but they made it very difficult and put us in a defensive position, just because they opted not to put both sides of the story as credible journalists. In that regard I think it is not only that the Pentagon deprived them of the chance to roam around, but I believe they took that on their own initiative.
Another example of that was the civilian casualties out of Afghanistan because of the US bombing in Afghanistan. Some networks, when they were offered the footage of Al-Jazeera of the civilian casualties because of the US bombings, the chairman of the network wrote a memo that was leaked to the press asking all anchors in that US network, and correspondents, to be careful about putting this kind of civilian casualties that could be a propaganda from the Taliban, to remind your audience always, if you use some of it, that we lost our own civilians, and thousands of them, in New York and Washingtonas if two wrongs could make a right, or you'll accept it as the other side of the coin if the terrorists did that to your civilians. I don't think that would be a good argument to make. The US started to do what they would call "public diplomacy" or the propaganda war, and I believe the main propaganda war that the US won was the domestic one, as Mr. Kalb explained very eloquently, how the Pentagon managed, really, to control partly the coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 and then mastered the coverage of the Afghan war this time. I believe the propaganda war has been won mainly domestically. And even the bin Laden tape that was being verified and considered only a message of hatred, we found that the Pentagon and the US government itself, that accused Al-Jazeera of putting that out and warned the networks not to put any bin Laden tapes out, they themselves came out with big propaganda and big news coverage, and put out a bin Laden tape that had nothing but hatred, that really insulted people, that offended the feelings of many of the victims, just to score some political points, although the audience didn't need to see any more evidence for a war that they almost finished in December. What was the need to interpret into English a tape that, if it had some value, would be in Arabic for the Arab audience if you feel that they are not convinced that bin Laden did it or had knowledge of it? On the contrary we found that the tape of bin Laden was played mainly domestically at first with subtitles in English and later on was given with Arabic subtitles to the Arab media and the international media. I believe the propaganda war was first targeted to be for the US, and to win the will of the people in order to benefit from the lesson of Vietnam, to make sure they would support this kind of war. Then we would have a media that really got used to being pro-government, to receiving the government line, and mixing patriotism with journalism.
Finally I would say some people wrote against Al-Jazeera editorials that really looked like the same editorials that others wrote against Al-Jazeera in government-owned Arabic newspapers, accusing Al-Jazeera of being a surrogate for radicals or being a plot or a conspiracy against their own people. Some Arab cartoonists put Al-Jazeera anchors with the King David star over their heads, saying that this is an Israeli ploy in order to divide the Arabs. At that time Al-Jazeera was covering Arab opposition vs. government debate. Because of that coverage the Israelis put Al-Jazeera on their own cable, which is very rare to find in the Arab world. Most of our satellite stations are just that, through satellite dishes, but not through cable. The Israelis made that bold decision, and we give them credit for that, and put us on their cable to reach the Arab Israelis. Prime Mininster Barak reached out to Al-Jazeera to give him an interview during the last days of his campaign, because he wanted to reach out to the Arab Israeli voters at that time. And at that time Al-Jazeera was "nice" and most of the American media coverage positive, including the 60 Minutes piece that called Al-Jazeera "the tiny station with the big mouth," which aired about eight months before Sept. 11. That was a very positive one. My sense is that at that time we were only bothering Arab governments.
Then came the Intifada, the uprising, and the Israeli government did not feel comfortable with that. I believe during the last three weeks we heard controversy about the communication minister in Israel reconsidering the decision of putting Al-Jazeera on their own cable, of taking it out. So far they did not do that. But the Israelis started to put their own negative spin on Al-Jazeera. And come Sept. 11 or Oct. 7, we got our share from the American media. Ironically enough, a specific writer who put a piece in the Washington Post against Al-Jazeera, accusing us of anti-Americanism, was the same one who put in an Arabic daily newspaper in Egypt a piece about Al-Jazeera two years ago accusing us of being pro-Israel and pro-American. I believe there is a problem with this, and until we get people who for academic and objective purposes do a content analysis, a real one, of what we air on both sides, to decide whether Al-Jazeera really sticks to their motto of covering both sides of the storyuntil we get that we'll still hear these kind of people. Thank you.
Hudson: Thank you very much. Rami Khouri is one of the most distinguished and influential columnists writing in the Arab world. He's based in Jordan. He is currently a fellow at Harvard University in the Neiman fellows program for journalists, and that has made it easier for him to be with us today. His column is internationally syndicated, he is also a TV personality in Jordan and runs a very fine program on Jordanian television called "Encounter." He is the co-owner of a publishing house in Jordan. In addition to his news interests he has a passion for classical archaeology. He was editor in chief of the Jordan Times for a number of years, he comments frequently on the international electronic media outlets as well. Most important, he is the chief umpire for Little League baseball in Jordan. The only bad thing I can say about him is that he has a degree from Syracuse University and is quite fanatical when it comes to the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry in basketball. The floor is yours.
Rami Khouri: Thank you very much. I came here having been guaranteed security protection for being a Syracuse fan by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. I was hoping they could postpone the seminar until the 27th, so I could be here for the 28th game, Syracuse-Georgetown, but we'll have to do it next year. I'm grateful for the invitation, and very happy to be here. I would like to give you a perspective from somebody who has worked and who still works basically for the Arab and the Western media. All my professional life I've worked in the Arab world but always in English, and I've written for the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, and op-eds appear in the New York Times, and I've worked for the Financial Times. All my life has been in both media, in the Middle Eastthe Jordan Times, TV, the Daily Starand in the western world, and I think I have a pretty good view of both of them, and I follow both, especially the electronic media. Sitting in Amman I can watch American and Middle Eastern media, and here as well. So what I'd like to do is try to give you a perspective from my bicultural situation, where I work in both media and look at both media, and know the people and the personalities and the contexts of both media.
I think the first thing I would say is there's a general tendencythere has been for many years and it's been accentuated by the situation now with this conflictto go to maximalist superlative absolutes when looking at these things, that this is good and this is bad, this is right and this is wrong, this is fair and this is biased. I think that is untenable because it's inaccurate, and in this case I think the reality is much more complex. In the Arab mass media, especially the new wave of satellite television, Al-Jazeera is the one that's gotten the most attention, and I think unjustifiably. Hafez is right; I remember a year ago people were writing columns in the American media saying, look at Al-Jazeera, it's a great thing and it's going to change the Arab world. That was exaggerated nonsense, and now when people blame Al-Jazeera as the epitome of evil that's also exaggerated nonsense. So I think the reality in both cases in the performance of the Arab media and the western media is a much more complex one in which you have some really outstanding professional performances by people and institutions on both sides, and you have some really junk journalism and gutter ideologies and low-grade morality and distorted professionalism and some of the worst things you can think of happening on both sides. I'll try to explain that with comments on both sides.
I think when we look at the situation with the war, we can really look at the American mass media, and you do have a difference between the electronic and the print; I think the quality print has done a better job, as Marvin said, I think that's true. Generally there's a commonality among all of the mass media in the US, broadly speaking. Then you have the Arab media, and I would put them all together, the state-run ones and the satellite ones and the freelance ones. The Arab media have covered this media in a certain way. And then you have a third party-other media, mainly the Europeans are the ones that I think have been the most balanced and the most fair. But I'm going to talk about the Arab media and the US media, and when I talk about the Arab media again I said Al-Jazeera should not be singled out. It was singled out because of the bin Laden tapes, basically, but even before when people were praising it as a great opening of democracy and free thinking and all that in the Arab world, there were actually many others that were doing it. Orbit was doing it, and MBC, and even to some extent state-owned television stations were starting to provide debate about issues that had been taboo. So I think it wasn't fair to only single out Al-Jazeera, although Al-Jazeera was the most dramatic, clearly. It was the one that took this process of opening up the media and debating contentious issues and ran with it the fastest, and that's why it got the most publicity in the West.
Both of these media, the Arab and the US media, in the end reflect their societies. They reflect their political culture, they reflect their value system, and they reflect the ideological and commercial interests that tend to drive media anywhere. When we talk about the media we're also talking about the societies from which these media emerge. I would say that if you look at the US media and coverage of the war, I have seen a very impressive range of coverage, analysis, debate, opinion in some quarters of the mass mediasome of it has been absolutely astounding and very impressive. As somebody who went to journalism school in the United States, I think that some of the stuff we've seen, especially on NPR, PBS, the major newspapers in the country, you've seen the finest standards of depth, of analysis, of balance, of fairness, of debate, of giving the other view. Some of the American media have done a tremendous professional service to the people and have lived up to the finest standards of this country, and I think that needs to be pointed out.
But that's only some of the media; I think that the majority tone that I see in the American media is less impressive, because the coverage has tended to be very emotionaland emotions are normal, it's normal to be emotional, but when the press becomes very emotional I have problems, I think the press needs to control its emotionalism. It's become extremely patriotic to the point of being jingoistic sometimes, and I think this is a serious problem, but again it's a normal human reaction. It's normal for people to react in situations like this, but I think the patriotism, the flag-waving that has been done in the context of what is supposed to be news reporting I think has been very problematic. When you have people on cable TVI won't mention namestalking about "the bad guys," I have a problem with that. They are the bad guys; people who commit terrorism are more than bad guys, they're criminal, immoral people who commit unconscionable acts. But when the news media covers these people I think it needs to use more careful and measured language. The American media I find has been engaged in a lot of sloganeering, easy, simple phrases. I has followed the lead of the president and the leadership of the United States to try to paint this as a one-dimensional, stereotypical contest of black and white, of good and evil, of right and wrong, of moral and immoral.
This is in fact a continuation of what we started to see in the Gulf War in 1991, which I would call a kind of "cartoon morality"the kind of stuff you see with Popeye and Roadrunner, that kind of cartoon-based value system in which you have bad and good. And the bad is also stupid, and the bad guy keeps getting beaten up and he keeps coming back for more, and he keeps getting beaten up, and the only language the bad guy understands is to beat him up. This is a cartoon, simplistic, one-dimensional, easy-to-understand black and white world, but the real world isn't like that. But I've seen a lot of tendency in the American media to present this as a situation essentially reflecting cartoon values.
There has been a tinge of imperial sentiment, I think, in some of the coverage in the American media, that the war against terrorism was launched only when Americans died in large numbers, and despite the criminality and the unacceptability of the acts of terror, the point is that this global war was only launched when Americans died in large numbers, while you had tens of thousands of people who have been killed in acts of terror and violence committed sometimes by their own governments against their own people in many other parts of the world. So there is an imperial and almost a racist element in some of the manner in which the American media has talked about the situation, and that troubles me a lot. The media reflects the anger of the American people, justifiably so. It also reflects the frustration and I would argue even the confusion of the American people in trying to understand why this attack happened, what's going on in the war. This is my greatest criticism of the American media, broadly, and this even applies to the quality media. I think there has been either an inability or an unwillingness or a fear to probe the deeper issues and to provide the full context of the attack against the United States, of the nature of the war that the United States has launched against terror with other people around the world who are supporting itand a war that I think must be launched. I'm all for a war against terror but I'd rather it not be a unilateral American war, but it's a war that must be fought. I'm all for fighting a war against terror. But it's not clear to a lot of people in the US if this is succeeding, what's happening.
But most importantly I think there is great confusion and ignorance still in the United States about why there are so many people out there in the Asian/Middle East/Arab/Islamic region that didn't line up with the US, that opposed the US, that are skeptical of the US, that resist the US, that are angry at the US. There's a lot of people, probably 1.5 billion people in the Arab/Asian/Middle Eastern/African region who don't buy the line that we're getting from the White House or the American media. I'm not saying that line is necessarily completely wrong, I'm saying that most of the people in the world don't buy it, and are sitting around watching this process, this war. The American media has done, I think, a dismal job broadly speaking, with one or two exceptionsthe New York Review of Books, Harper, and the Atlantic, the New Yorker in some instances, the New York Times and a few others in spot instances, those are the exceptionsbut broadly speaking the United States media has done a really dismal job, I would give them a D-minus, in trying to explain to the American people this deeper context. The American media can do this. It did it for example in covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does it in China, very wellthe US coverage of China is pretty good. It did it in South Africa. Look at what it's doing on Enron. The media can do it, we know this. But why it doesn't do it in this case is an important factor for people to come to grips with.
So I think we're in a situation now where the general tone of what the media is doing I think reflects the general sentiments and emotions and perspectives in American society as a whole, a combination of anger, confusion, revenge, militarism, all wrapped up together in a patriotic, emotional context. All of which is absolutely natural, but I would argue a potential catastrophe for the United States, because if you go back ten years, the United States was doing similar things in the Gulf War with the cartoon morality, with the bad guys and the good guys, with the militarism, with all of the other issues not addressing the underlying context. It's a cruel and terrible irony that out of the Gulf War would emerge some of the key issues that sparked the terrorism of the bin Laden people. This is a terrible, terrible lesson for the United States to deal with, because bin Laden says that some of his key complaints are the situation in Iraq and the presence of American troops in the Gulf, both of which directly emerged from the Gulf War. The Arab-Israeli issue, supporting dictatorships and all that are deeper issues and older issues. So I think this is an important time for the United States media to live up to its best standards and understand its responsibility to its people. If the government is pushing a line, the press' responsibility is to go beyond that line, and its responsibility is to the well-being of the American people, and I think there's a strong case to be made for the press here to really transcend the emotional context which the American government is trying to set, and really understand the greater dangers and threats to the American people.
A few quick words about the Arab media: I think we have this new phenomenon of the satellite stations, and I would say broadly speaking the Arab media, the mass media, the satellites reflect a similar context to what I just said about the American media. They've done some really wonderful things, pioneering things, covering news, live coverage, on-the-spot coverage of correspondents, pretty professional correspondents most of them, debates, talking about issues that were taboopolitical issues, religious issues, global issues, economic issuesso we have to give the Arab satellite stations some really high marks for pioneering some very professional and important kinds of activities. But at the same time, the broad tone of most of what you're seeing on the Arab satellite stations is emotional, confrontational, ideological, and like the American media panders to the sentiments and emotions of its own people and the corporate interests that drive it, so do the Arab satellite stations pander to the emotional needs and ideological concerns of their own audiences too. I have a lot of respect for what Al-Jazeera and MBC and Orbit and others have done and their pioneering work, but I have also some really grave reservations, and I'm fearful that in fact these stations may not be the precursors of a democratic opening and liberalization of the Arab societiesI fear they may actually be contributing to an opposite direction, that by providing an emotional outlet to get people's tensions out by watching these TV stations and hearing these Arab people arguing against each other and criticizing their own regimes and criticizing Israel and the US and the British, this allows a release of tension and stress and pent-up pressures that is a kind of safety value, which leads to a complacency among the citizenry which then allows the tradition of autocratic Arab governance to continue unchallenged and unabated. I think this is a real problem, and we see the difference. Look at how the Arab people were reacting at the beginning of the Intifada, when they saw the coverage from the West Bank and Gaza. There were demonstrations and people were in the streets. That lasted for about a month and a half, and you had rather complacent acquiescence ever since, all over the Arab world. I think we need to understand this phenomenon much, much more.
The other problem I have is that there is no link between what these Arab media are doing in terms of better reporting, better debates, dealing with public issues, and the electoral or political processes that lead to decision-making in the Arab countries. So you watch Al-Jazeera and MBC and Orbit and you hear these guys debating and saying that their governments are awful governments, and then the next day there's an election and we know who's going to win before the election happens in most Arab countries. It's rare that you get a surprise in any kind of election. So there's no link between the liberalization and professionalization of the Arab media and the growth of accountability and democracy and pluralism and transparency in Arab political governance. I think this is a real problem, that we can have the media developing in certain ways, but the autocracy of the political culture remains as it is.
In some ways the Arab satellite stations have done some very good things, which I must stress, but in some ways they've combined the worst of Arab culture with the worst of American media. That is, the tendency for a type of entertainment: you bring an Arab nationalist and you bring an Islamist and you bring a government foreign minister and you bring an opposition journalist and you let them bash heads on TV, which is the tradition of both Arab political culture, of ideological battle, and of entertainment values in the American media. You put these together, and this is a lot of what these stations do, and I think that's a problem if this is the main thing that they do. This is where I have some concerns as well. I have not seen any really good investigative reporting by the Arab satellite stations; maybe there has been some, but I haven't seen very much of it. There has been very little holding of formal accountability of government authorities, there has been very little in-depth reporting, doing series, looking at issues in the real documentary type sense. Very little of that, if any, is done at all. So I think the press has been moving towards an entertainment value rather than a value of political accountability and developing a vibrant political culture among the citizenry. What we're seeing is mirror images, of the American media and the Arab media doing some things that are really important and significant, and some things that are really pretty trashy and underdeveloped and stunted, in emotional or political or professional terms. What we need is to get Arab and American journalists together to talk about these issues in a non-confrontational setting and to really discuss them in a mature and responsible way. This is one of the things that centers such as this here at Georgetown can do. Thank you very much.
Hudson: Thank you very much. Our final speaker is Jacques Charmelot. Mr. Charmelot is the head of the Paris bureau and the international service of Agence France Presse. He's also the advisor to the innovation department for the development of a new worldwide info-management system. He's had long and very distinguished journalistic experience, he's been editor at AFP Africa/Middle East desk, he's covered the war in the Balkans as the AFP bureau chief in Sarajevo and Zaghreb, he's been the military affairs correspondent, he has been AFP's State Department correspondent, he's been AFP's bureau chief in Baghdad, Beirut, Tehran. He's covered the war in Chad, covers Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Sierra Lione and Liberia. That's pretty impressive, and we're very happy that he could join us here today. I should add that in addition to his degrees from the Universite de Provence and the University of Paris he has a master's in international relations from American University in Washington. We look forward to your comments.
Jacques Charmelot: Thank you very much, professor. Indeed, I'm very happy to be here tonight. I've been a very lousy student at AU and always wanted to be a lousy student at Georgetown, but I didn't make it. Thank you also for presenting my career. My company is a very boring company. As you know, a wire service provides facts, and we're a provider of raw material to my colleagues here who work for print or electronic media. Media's role is to bring the facts to the public, second is to open their media to different opinions and the third in my vision is that they have to put everything into perspective.
I think that with the war in Afghanistan bringing the facts to the public has been done well. There's a large access to what happened on the ground; the war was not waged in Washington, it was waged in Afghanistan, and before the first days of the campaign companies like mine, Reuters, AP, the BBC, we all had stringers in Kabul, so we obviously reported on the bombings and what was going on in Kandahar. It's not to say that the electronic media didn't do a great job, they did do a great job. It's just to point out that if you want to have access to facts, we knew what was going on on the ground without having to rely on what the Pentagon, on what official Washington was telling us about what was going on in Afghanistan. The facts are there; whether they get published or not is a different issue, and I'll give you an example. There was a couple of days ago a very interesting report out of Afghanistan about an American mission, a group of people, families of victims of the 9-11 events, went to Afghanistan to meet with people that had family members killed in the bombings. That information to me is a very interesting encounter of the two sides sharing the same grief and the same pain. That little piece of information got almost no play in the press, it was not really picked up, even though not only the event itself was interesting, but some very disturbing information came out of this visit, especially a figure that is almost now accepted as an official figure on the number of civilians killed during the bombings. Those people from Washington who had some members of their families killed during the 9/11 attacks brought back with them this figure of 4,000 people that died during the bombings in Afghanistan. Again, the facts are there, they can be found on the Internet or elsewhere; whether they are getting the play they deserve, that's different. That's a decision made by the newspapers, magazines, and the electronic media whether to pick up that news or not.
What I'm trying to stress here is that for citizens who want to be informed about what is going on, it takes a little research on the Internet, it takes a little legwork, but you can get the news. It's there, it's provided by hundreds of reporters on the ground, surrounding Afghanistan or in Afghanistan, and as it was pointed out by the panel, they've done a very, very good job. In Washington obviously what we are doing is very different from what our colleagues have done in Afghanistan, and by the way I'd like to remind the public that there were more reporters killed during this campaign by "enemy fire" than soldiers. Eight reporters were killed and so far two or three American soldiers. So again, the facts are there. Here in Washington what we're getting and are working on every day is the official version of the waragain, that's the rule of the game. As Marvin pointed out, official Washington has a very clear objective of preventing the news from coming out, and we have the opposite objective, to try to publish as much as we can of what we can learn here in the city. So of course you have these briefings where whoever is there responds to questions, but this is only one little piece of the puzzle that is creating the picture of this war. What comes out of Washington in only ten-fifteen percent of the news necessary to understand the war in Afghanistan. By and large, the press have done a good job in trying to bring those facts and put them together for the public-and in all different languages, I'd like to remind you also that big companies like Reuters or AP or AFP or BBC or the VOA have services in Arabic, Farsi, different languages. It's not only here that the news is spread out, it's all over the world. More people worldwide get their news from the BBC World Service than from any other sources.
If you want to be informed you can be informed. When it comes to opinions, obvious the press, whether it's the electronic or print media, have done a great job in bringing together different opinions. In a free country everybody is entitled to share with others opinions that person has on the conflict, and there's where you have the editorial columns of the newspapers. Again, they've done a great job. It plays out, some people are pro and some against, and that's the work of the press to bring out those opinions. Where I'm very skeptical about whether the press has done a good job, and this is throughout the world, not only in America, what is lacking to understand what's going on is a good perspective. The reporters have not done a good job in putting this conflict into a historical perspective, and this is acutely true when it comes to military operations. I could give you a wide number of examples of where the press was not doing a great job of trying to bring to the forefront and bring to the public examples of past mistakes that were done in a military operation and that are being repeated now in Afghanistan.
Let me give you a couple of examples. At the early stage of the campaign, there was a great fuss made about the tunnels. The press was full of stories about the difficulty of fighting in tunnels, how we'd do it, and we were relying on experts of the former Soviet army and were even digging out information about how the Brits fought their war in Afghanistan. The case was built by the press on the perception of how difficult it was to fight this type of war. I might be mistaken, but I didn't find any reference to the Vietnam war, where the American army had great experience in fighting in tunnelsthe Cu Chi tunnels are very well known, all Americans remember that. And there was no attempt by the press to bring those facts together, maybe because every single team that went into tunnels in Vietnam had a fifty percent loss. Other examples come to mind. Recently we heard the information about this camp being built in Kandahar, and that's very interesting aspect to this war. The army is deploying Kandahar, they are building up a camp. We've seen that in every war that we've fought, creating a situation where you become a target is extremely, extremely dangerous, and I've seen very little in the press, either in the American press or in the foreign press, of this type of analysis, saying we've done that before and got burned. That was presented as being completely new, but in fact we're revisiting situations and mistakes that we've made before. My point here is just to try to make clear that if the press has done a great job in reporting the facts and in bringing to the public opinions and debates about the value of this war, there was little effort put into putting the war into perspective when it comes to the military operation. Also when it comes to the global perspective, trying to explain or bring to the forefront the impact of this war on terrorism on other issues. We touch upon the Middle East, which is clearly one aspect of it, but even on globalization or the freedom of the citizens of this country.
There's one very interesting aspect to what this administration is doing in trying to wage the war on the domestic front. By creating new rules and by trying to improve security for the citizens of this country it indeed also creates limits, and that clearly seems to be one of the objectives of the terrorists, to create the impression that the very foundations of a society that is built on freedom are attacked from within, that the very government that should defend civil liberties is in fact reducing those civil liberties, and that would be a victory for the so-called terrorists. The major aspect in my vision that is lacking in reporting on the war in Afghanistan and the war against terrorism is a lack of historical perspective that is preventing us from having a better understanding of where the war is going.
Hudson: Thank you very much, and thanks to all four speakers. We have time for open discussion, so I'd welcome anybody who would like to ask a question or make a comment. continued
2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo