and Them, the Demise of the Union of World Journalists: A Report
on the Conference Arab and Western TV Coverage of the War in
Iraq: the Continuing Debate, Cambridge, March 19-21, 2004
Suyyagh and Mohammed Zayyani
been made, written, and analyzed over the past few years of
Western vs. Arab perspectives on events. The events of September
11th and war on Afghanistan sparked a debate on the issue so
wide it was practically impossible to read a book or article
or enter a seemingly harmless chat room on the internet without
being sucked into it.
But for a while, the journalists, educated, well rounded, seen-it-all
folk, jaded by wars they've covered, politicians they've questioned,
and human faces they've put on policies, domestic and foreign,
were immune to this ongoing debate. They found a haven in each
other's company, in exchanging views on events they had covered
in the past, events that had now been suddenly thrust into the
limelight by forces greater than them, and that had taken on
a spin journalists the world over, questioned, as they should,
There were times before that day that changed the world, when
Western media outlets showed great interest in their Arab counterparts,
those fledgling signs of democracy. Outfits like Al Jazeera
were welcomed into the Big Boys Club of world media; they were
the little voice that could, this tiny experiment that adopted
Western journalistic ethics in a sea of state-controlled voices.
There was, more often than not, a patronizing tone in the way
many journalists from the West viewed this "new dabbling"
on the part of Arabs with the free press, but it was a start,
and it was promising.
I, for one, always looked forward to these gatherings, and media
conferences always allowed for the sharing of stories in a relaxed,
friendly atmosphere. And though everyone took note that the
patronizing tone that always snuck into references to the Arab
outfits was getting worse in the lead up to the bombing campaign
on Iraq, one had hoped that after the dust of war had settled
somewhat, journalists would get together once again and review
what had happened, what they had learned, individually and collectively,
away from the fog of it all.
And it was with that hope that I went to the conference on "Arab
and Western TV Coverage of the War on Iraq" organized by
the University of Cambridge. The program promised a lively debate
between reporters who had covered the war from the field, editors
from various media outfits responsible for bringing it all together
on screen and in print, and academics monitoring the output,
and providing an educated overview of how these events were
received and perceived.
evident right from the start that this "coming together
of perspectives" was not meant to be. The unfortunate timing
of the conference, which coincided with the first anniversary
of the start of the bombing campaign on Iraq, meant that a lot
of scheduled speakers, mainly the field reporters from Arab
and Western channels, were all involved in anniversary specials.
Of twenty-eight speakers originally programmed, twelve failed
the view from the field that often brings into to the story
and away from all the debate surrounding it, Arab academics
and TV journalists adopted the Us/Them mentality born of being
on the defensive.
present and involved in the continuing war coverage were, in
a sense, still bruised from the beating Arab media took from
foreign governments, and the toll of the war itself on their
own (Al-Jazeera had lost a reporter in the US bombing a day
before Baghdad fell, an Al-Arabiya reporter and cameraman were
shot dead by American troops a day before the conference).
Tucker, my colleague from Al Jazeera, and Noureddine Miladi
from Westminster University, spoke at length about the bias
of Western media, a reaction, evidently, to the finger pointing
endured by Arabs and their media. The message was that we might
be biased, but you are more so. American media became, due again
to late cancellations, the elephant in the room, talked about,
but not represented. Much was said about media corporations
in the US and their not-so-subtle alliances with the American
administration, a great deal of the debate centered on the demonizing
of Arab media outfits like al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera. But it
was a friendly debate between representatives of those outfits,
academics from their part of the world, and some Western journalists
allied with them-by default and by virtue of their opposition
to the campaign-in their criticism of the official allied spin
on the war,
of the "official view" represented by Dr. Nabil Khouri,
the State Department Spokesman in Baghdad, and Lieutenant Commander
Steve Tatham, British Spokesman of Operations in Iraq, though
welcome, did little but strengthen the focus on media objectivity.
"The Spokespeople," obviously fixated on attracting
media and with it public perception of the campaigns their governments
led, sang the praises of embeds and made constant references
to "operational safety" and "need to know bases,"
as means of fielding tough questions. Both participants didn't
stick around for the duration of the conference, or the friendly
exchanges of ideas reserved for the dinners and coffee breaks,
widening, in a sense, the feeling of mistrust many an Arab and
independent journalist reserves for spokespeople from the Allied
raised by journalists during the coverage of that war were left
unanswered. The viability of the embed experience, the problematic
of occupation terminology, public perceptions before and after
the war, and the issue of reconciling the image with the official
version of the story, all took a back seat to the greater debate
over "bias"the new four-letter word.
always there, this division based on perspective. But what was
once a welcome alternative, a basis for dialogue, had become
grounds for suspicion, distrust, and undermining credibility.
The war on Iraq had hit home for the Arabs, as September 11
had done for the Americans. And they had both taken the journalists
hostage. We still hope for the conference where journalists
can get together again to talk about journalism, the craft we
all love. And maybe when it happens, we can all check our war
baggage, though not our perspectives, at the door. TBS
is a senior producer for Al-Arabiya.