Operation Iraqi Freedom or Invasion of Iraq:
Arab Interpretation of CNN and Al Jazeera Coverage of the 2003 Gulf War

By Injy Galal, Amy Mowafi, and Lama Al-Hammouri

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it had been argued that if a new Gulf war were to break out in the region, it would be a vastly different affair than its predecessors. Transnational media exploded in the years between the 1991 Desert Storm and the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, including a spate of new Arab-language satellite channels such as Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based Arab satellite news channel.

As a result of Al Jazeera, among others, Arab viewers in 2003 no longer depended on American lenses and words to understand battles fought in their own back yard. At the same time these same viewers still had access to CNN's broadcasts, on which they had been totally dependent during the 1991 war. The international press devoted reams of analysis about the differences in content, framing and agendas of each of these channels.

An article in Newsweek summarized the differences succinctly. It noted:

...in this war the mighty but merciful allies target bombs carefully and tend to the enemies' wounded. In that war the allies blow up women and babies. In this war, Iraq is postponing certain defeat by cheating, killing civilians and unsuspecting human shields. In that war, a weak nation is steadfastly defending itself using the only effective means available. This war, on American television, is alternately "the war on Iraq" or "Operation Iraqi Freedom." That war, broadcast by the media of the Arab and Muslim world, is "the invasion" (Alter, 2003, April 7 , p. 49).


This study attempts to understand how the CNN and Al Jazeera coverage of the 2003 Gulf War was interpreted by Arab audiences.

Interpretation of Literature and Schematic Frameworks

There are many theories on how interpretation and perception of media texts work. It has been argued that there are no purely objective "findings" that settle the matter (Chandler, 1995). This study is based on the assumption that meaning is actively created through a dynamic process of interpretation, rather than by passive assimilation. In other words the meaning exists not in the text but in the reading (Chandler, 1995; Hall, et al., 1980; Hanes, 2000; Hart, 1991).

Interpretation varies so greatly because everyone has varying degrees of interest and prior knowledge of the news (ViAfaf, 2002). The strategy used to make sense of the news is to link the information in the text to prior information or schemata that we possess. Schemata are the deeply ingrained psychological frameworks that mediate perception, comprehension, interpretation and memory (Chandler 1995). Readers draw upon different repertories of schemata, partly as a result of their cultural background, experience, knowledge and social roles. This highlights the fact that meaning-making is a conceptually driven process that starts with expectations and cultural cues, which are always present (the schemata). Berenger (2002) refers to these schemata as components of "core opinion frames."

Graber (1988) noted that when watching news there are three main information processing strategies or type of "schematic thinking" (p.250). First, "relatedness searches" seek out the most relevant schemata. This often leads to wrong perceptions if relevant prior knowledge is absent (p.158). Second is "segmentation," which enables the viewer to divide information and integrate it into several schemata to find the most relevant (p.160). And last is "checking," which searches and finds the most appropriate schema, and "comes into force when people think out loud testing several possibilities" (p.164).

Most content is written with certain intended meanings or "preferred readings" (Chandler, 1995). Television programming can be subject to three different types of interpretations or readings (Hall, et al., 1980). First, the dominant "hegemonic" reading which embraces the intended meaning; second, the "negotiated" reading which accepts the preferred reading but does not totally embrace it; and third, the "oppositional" reading, which radically opposes the preferred reading. Factors that affect the type of reading include the reader's point of view, the degree of reader involvement, perceived credibility and even gender (Chandler 1995),

In the seminal Liebes & Katz study (1993), schematic frameworks combined with other intervening factors (as discussed above), causing the audience to interpret the text through certain frames or themes. Such frames may be cultural, ideological, political, historical or any other. Berenger (2002) distinguishes between this schematic framework and an individual's ability to selectively perceive information in a peripheral opinion frame of "...the world around him within his mental and emotional grasp" (p. 60). This interaction of selective perception and schemata can result in widely varied understanding of media messages.

As Hanes (2000) noted, the message has different meanings because the reader decodes it according to his/her world-view and horizons. Hence there is an interaction between the text's construction and the reader's world view. The reader can only approach the text with his/her own understanding, which is grounded in history. For example, Chandler (1995) describes early experiments by Sir Fredric Bartlett (1932) that showed "how readers employed schemata to interpret stories from an unfamiliar culture in a manner which made more sense to them." Chandler also points to Richard Anderson (in Singer & Ruddell, 1985, pp. 347-50) as another proponent of framing theory. Anderson conducted cross-cultural experiments in derived meaning from letters about an American-Indian and an American wedding, reflecting the cultural biases affecting meaning by the reader.

Methods Employed in This Study

Two discussion groups were formed. Participants were chosen by non-probability convenience sample, consisting of Egyptian men and women, age18 to 57. They all belonged to the elite class, had higher education degrees, and came from different walks of life. They were engineers, bankers, teachers, or housewives, among other occupations.

A background questionnaire on participants' opinions of CNN and Al Jazeera was distributed prior to the discussion group.

Participants were then shown a 20-minute recording of either CNN or Al Jazeera's footage for April 9, 2003, midnight (Cairo time), the day coalition forces entered Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein's statue.

Each session lasted about two hours and was led in Arabic by a trained facilitator. The tape was paused several times for discussion, initiated by the facilitator's questions on the participants' opinions and perceptions of what they saw.

After transcribing the discussion tapes, we validated them against the background questionnaires. The opinions expressed by participants seemed to genuinely voice their interpretations of what they saw.

The discussion transcripts were reviewed. Cultural, political, media, and historical frames were identified. These included:

Interpretive media frame:
One important interpretive frame was the media frame. It was manifest when the audience from the focus group viewing Al Jazeera's coverage, said, "the footage gave the impression that this is the Iraqi population, whereas the truth is that these are the few people looting government properties." Ironically, the voice-over did describe that scene as an "operation in which only a few Iraqi juveniles participated alongside American soldiers." The claim that Iraqis pulled down the statue was made on channels other than Al Jazeera. Apparently, even though they had all stated they watched Al Jazeera, the participants were all affected by what they saw and heard on other channels. This might mean that the audience expects what they watch and hear through one medium to be echoed on all others. This is in line with Chandler's (1995) description of conceptual schemata, patterns of cognitions already constructed and ready for use and reuse. In this case, a schema was constructed in their minds into which was poured all they received through any medium. They seemed to do so regardless of the content.

An explanation for this might rest in the historical background or schema present in their minds about Egyptian media. During the Nasserite era (the socialist period of the 1950s and 60s), all media was state-owned and repeated the same government-influenced messages. Even those who did not live during this era, had internalized that experience through collective consciousness.

Another sub-frame was evident in their mode of interpretive reading of both channels. While CNN was immediately dismissed as being biased and not credible, critical thinking was deployed before describing Al Jazeera as being somewhat credible. Hence, CNN was non-critical oppositional reading, while Al Jazeera was critical negotiated reading.

Such judgment was obviously based more on where the channel was located rather than what content the channel carried. In CNN's case this was obvious. A participant said the channel possessively referred to American troops as "our" and "we". One of the CNN group participants said "CNN creates a story and expects us to believe it." As for Al Jazeera the connection is less direct. As one Al Jazeera focus group participants said,

I was confused with the coverage of Al Jazeera during this war. It was trying to portray itself as an objective channel that is extremely against the United States, but at the same time broadcasting the daily report from the military base in Qatar. America is invading Iraq from American bases in Qatar. This is hilarious.

Once again, the historical schema was being called upon, when all media was state owned and thus reported whatever the government permitted. Egyptian viewers, listeners, and readers had only two types of media: government mouthpiece or enemy propaganda. The idea of independent media still has not taken root in their minds.

The idea of propaganda impelled the audience to dismiss much of what politicians said or did. For example, participants in the CNN group described the war as "purely a media war; the two counterparts are Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister, and the U.S. spokesman." Also, a scene showing Saddam touring the streets of Baghdad was dismissed as propaganda. "Any dictator should create this image and propaganda around him," one of them said.

Pulling down Saddam's statue and covering its face first with an American flag then with an old Iraqi flag was also dismissed as a propaganda stunt. A participant in the Al Jazeera group called it "an American movie" while another from the CNN group described it as a "stunt." They seemed immunized to "propaganda." As one Al Jazeera participant put it, "It shows the silliness of the Americans. They thought that toppling the statue would symbolize the freedom of Iraq." A participant from the CNN focus group said, "CNN showed the toppling of the statue followed by Rumsfeld's comments about liberation and freedom in Iraq. The channels tried to symbolize in the mind of viewers the end of a dictatorship era and the beginning of freedom."

The idea of government control of local media has converged with the superpowers' control of global media. The audience seemed convinced the US controlled or at least intimidated even Arab channels. As a participant in the Al Jazeera group said,

I think that the shift happened after the death of their correspondent, Tareq Ayoub. All the media channels changed their coverage and softened their anger against the U.S.

A participant in the same group said,

I noticed that none of the reporters covered how the museum and other sites had been robbed. This is history. I can't believe that no one thought of shooting what is happening there. Media people were asked to be blind.

A CNN participant said "I noticed a huge shift in the Arab media coverage of the war after April 9." Another in the same group said, "I believe that there has been an order from senior officials for these channels to soften the tone they adopt against the US."

Credibility is a fragile quality that risks being lost upon the slightest mistake. Ironically, if the audience feels a channel has a particular point of view, even if it shares their own, they discredit it immediately. For example: "I noticed that the Al Jazeera channel had a standpoint against the US and its anchors were really pleased when they hear any statements against the US," said a participant in Al Jazeera group, who also described the channel as not credible. If the same channel gives conflicting statements it is discredited. For example, "When the station office in Baghdad was under siege, the CEO of the Qatari station came out and announced that Qatar is supporting the United States and that the people who are surrounding the office are Iraqis not Americans. This was only announced on Reuters and on Al Jazeera Web site."

The audience was in shock, confusion, and uncertainty. They could not accept or believe that the war had ended so quickly and that the US had taken over Iraq with minor military opposition. As a CNN group participant put it "We do not know who are these people and where did they come from." An Al Jazeera focus group member said, "I felt weird when I saw people are saluting what happened but at the same time I saw people protesting against invaders. These are two contradictions in the mentality of the same people." A CNN group participant said,

The media are trying to convince us that Saddam sold the country to Americans. CNN is saying he escaped to North Baghdad. Other media say that he is in Russia or Cuba. It is all guessing. Nothing is definite. And at the end the media are asserting that he [sold out] his country.

The interpretive media frame illustrates the fact that media in general are not credible in Egypt. This was explicitly indicated by members from both groups, who said,

--"The media in the Arab world are not credible."
--"We lost trust in the media during this war. Everybody relies on their own frame of reference and interpretation of the events."
--"It might be a fake story, nobody knows the truth."

This mistrust is so common that Egyptians often dismiss something as untrue by saying, "That is newspaper talk." Many scholars trace this mistrust of media to the 1967 War with Israel when the Egyptian press repeatedly reported false victories of the Egyptian army against Israel. The reality was Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat which traumatized the Egyptian public's collective consciousness for nearly two generations.

Interpretive Historical Frame:
Egypt had suffered to varying degrees British occupation until 1952. For decades Egyptians struggled against the occupation. This embedded collective memory was often triggered while watching news coverage of the war; sometimes unintentionally, at other times intentionally.

According to Stuart Hall (1980), a text or script may be implanted with statements, assumptions, and attitudes, which trigger certain memories, cognitive associations or address certain schemata in respondents. This was often evident in the case of Al Jazeera channel. For instance, its use of the Arabic word "anew" to refer to foreign presence on Iraqi land was aimed at instigating memories of occupation. Its description of the statue's fall scene, "Even after its fall, its feet remain embedded in Iraqi concrete planted in the heart of Baghdad," appears to instigate the memories of resistance.
The presence of such historical schemata in an audience's mind was obvious from their statements. In fact nothing can explain this frame better than the explicit statement from one of them: "We as Egyptians suffered from the occupation for a very long period and we know for a fact that Americans will not leave Iraq." Another participant said,

I hate Saddam and I hate dictatorship in all its forms, but I don't call in the Americans to take hold of my land. At the end Saddam and his sons will be dead but nobody knows when the Americans will leave.

In light of the Egyptian experience, any kind of foreign occupation must be met with popular resistance. Since the Iraqi position appeared to contradict this schema, selective perception was employed. In other words, the audience seemed to make excuses for the Iraqi people. For example Al Jazeera participants said, "It is the shock. People are scared, unbalanced. The natural reaction will appear after a while" and "We cannot consider these escaped burglars as the whole Iraqi population." A CNN group participant said, "It is really weird to see the troops just marching into Baghdad without any kind of resistance."

Interpretive cultural frame: Egyptians and Iraqis share a common Arab cultural identity, even though a sizable portion of Iraq is populated by non-Arabs. People identify and sympathize with those they feel are similar to them. The audience from the CNN focus group openly admitted, "We as Arabs felt sympathy towards Iraqis and we would love to believe them." Again the issue of Arab identity came up in Al Jazeera focus group: "If I were not an Arab, I would view the Arab as barbaric."

Another important cultural sub-frame is the Egyptian perception of America and Americans. The audience viewed the US as an arrogant nation: "All Americans feel superiority. The rest of the world is less than them." However, some sympathy with the American people was present, as many felt they were conned and misled by their government's leaders. The following was collectively expressed by participants: "I believe that Americans are not dumb. They are just ready to believe the message. Americans are people who have been always in a calm atmosphere. They don't understand the war;" and "If this war started two years ago no American would support it. But they kept on repeating the same message for more than two years and people started to believe in their intentions to eradicate terrorism."

Interpretive ideological frame:
Conspiracy theory is an important part of the Arab political culture. It came up repeatedly in the audience perceptions. It seems that when the audience is unaware of the complete truth, the truth seems to conflict with existing schemata or is just difficult to understand or believe, it is either rejected, repressed, denied, or rationalized as a conspiracy by powerful forces.

For instance, CNN group participants commented on Ahmed Chalaby's criticism of the US saying, "It is kind of bluffing. Chalaby had to show some disagreement with the Americans to portray himself as a loyal Iraqi citizen who cares for his nation and tries to show sympathy towards his people." A participant from Al Jazeera focus group described the channel as "a fake channel, part of the American game: deceiving Arabs and creating hatred amongst them."

Gender Interpretive Frame:
Gender may play a role in text interpretation. According to Chandler 1995, men and women may understand the texts differently. This was evident in the focus groups, as when participants were asked what they viewed as the biggest loss. Women replied that it was the wounded, maimed, and killed children as well as the allegedly looted Baghdad museum artifacts. Men replied that it was the toppling of the statue as well as the economic losses. The comments suggested that women are more concerned about humanitarian and cultural losses, while men are more concerned about materialistic and symbolic losses.


News coverage of the 2003 Gulf war may have been perceived by the Egyptian audience quite differently than might have been intended. This audience has over the generations built perceptive schemata through which they interpret what they see. Years of state-controlled media during the Nasserite socialist era has compelled Egyptians to view all media sources as one and the same. Moreover, Egyptians do not trust independent media outlets since they view all media as either a government mouthpiece or an instrument of propaganda. All this combined to create in their minds an inherent doubt in media credibility. The biggest blow to news media credibility might have come from the 1967 war in which Egyptian media repeatedly lied about the progress of the war. The result today is mistrust of media in general and severe doubt in its credibility. This might partly explain why Al Jazeera was viewed as only partially credible, primarily because it addresses viewers in their own language.

Decades of foreign occupation and an inherent belief in conspiracy theory have Egyptian audiences suspicious of foreigners and foreign media. This (amongst other things) might help explain their tendency to regard CNN as completely lacking credibility. In other words it might help shed light on the reason why they interpret CNN as oppositional reading, despite the fact that its content did not differ drastically from that of Al Jazeera.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In the discussions Al-Manar, the South Lebanese Satellite channel was repeatedly referred to as credible. It seems that this channel is being perceived as a preferred reading. There is yet hope for a change in Egyptian audience's perception of the media. TBS

Lama Al-Hammouri is a master of arts student at The American University in Cairo. She has presented several papers at academic conferences. Injy Galal (B.A., American University in Cairo) is a master of arts student at The American University in Cairo. Apart from academia, Galal has more than six years of professional experience in marketing and public information, as well as in freelance journalism. Amy Mowafi (BSc., University of Bath) is a Master of Arts student in Journalism and Mass Communications at The American University Cairo. She has several academic journal articles, conference presentations and a book chapter to her credit. She is also senior editor of a Cairo-based youth magazine and writes for a number of English language publications in Egypt.


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