Iraqi Freedom or Invasion of Iraq:
Arab Interpretation of CNN and Al Jazeera Coverage of the 2003
By Injy Galal,
Amy Mowafi, and Lama Al-Hammouri
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.
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).
attempts to understand how the CNN and Al Jazeera coverage of
the 2003 Gulf War was interpreted by Arab audiences.
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).
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
(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).
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),
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.
(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.
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.
questionnaire on participants' opinions of CNN and Al Jazeera
was distributed prior to the discussion group.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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."
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,
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.
in the same group said,
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.
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."
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."
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,
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.
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,
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."
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Alter J. (2003, April 7) The Other Air Battle. Newsweek,
R.D. (2002) Frame Theory and Political Behavior by Candidates,
National Media and Voters in the 2000 Primary Election.
Dissertation Abstractions International. 63 (02), 397A. (AAT
D. (1995). The Active Reader (Selected Lecture Notes
UWA) [online] Retrieved January 3, 2004, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/
D. (1988) Processing the News: How People Tame the Information
Tide. (2nd Ed.) New York: Longman.
Hobson D., Lowe A., & Willis, P. (Eds). (1980): Culture,
Media, Language. London: Methuen
P. (2000). The Advantages and Limitations of a Focus on Audience
in Media Studies. Cambridge: MIT Press
A. (1991). Understanding the Media: A Practical Guide.
T. & Katz. E. (1993). The Export of Meaning: Cross-cultural
Readings. Dallas. Polity Press.
H. & Rudell, B. (Eds.) (1985): Theoretical Models and
Processes of Reading (3rd Ed.) Newark, DE: International
M. (2002) Interpreting TV News, [online]. Retrieved August
3, 2003, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Sections/interp02.html