and Bias in Arab Satellite Journalism:
Dialogue between Salah Negm, Chief Editor of Al-Arabiya, and
S. Abdallah Schleifer, Senior Editor of TBS.
In recent weeks, and in particular in reference to the coverage
of the Falluja and Mahdi Army uprisings, Coalition spokesmen
in Baghdad have alleged biased reporting from Al-Arabiya as
well as Al Jazeera. Your comment before mine.
Negm: I would say first that generalizing judgments
like this one are not accurate in themselves. . . . The spokesmen
must mention specifics. Furthermore we [believe that] these
comments can endanger our people in the field. These comments
might create a hostile situation for our reporters on the ground-for
instance from Coalition forces or Iraqis who support the Coalition
and would see us as enemies, which we are not. We are simply
journalists. What I prefer is for viewers to judge our coverage
and reach their own position based on their viewing of our reporting.
all, and this I must emphasize, what we have been doing is accurate
reporting to the best of our abilities and from all sides of
That's interesting because often what is perceived from a distance
as bias could be lack of access.
It's either lack of access or only partial access.
You mean in the case where you are seeking access from either
the Coalition or from the armed groups opposed to the Coalition?
Here is the problem about lack of access or partial access and
how it gets misperceived as bias. Generally in most places where
there are insurgencies-not just Iraq, but in Kashmir, for example,
you will find that the insurgent fighters are willing to meet
with reporters and be outspoken. And then you go to a governmental
official or spokesman and he will be cautious and restrained
and sometimes you won't even get an immediate answer and you
wait for an answer and by the time you get the answer it's too
late, the story has moved on.
Sort of like covering the Arab-Israeli conflict beyond the Palestinians.
The Israelis always have 24/7 round-the-clock spokesmen and
their homes are listed. The Arab governments never had anything
like that; unless you knew the minister personally and could
see him or call him up, you couldn't even get an answer from
an Arab government spokesman that was quotable. And if you did,
it came too late and almost never got used. And because it never
got used, Arab media and Arab governments would denounce the
Western press as biased, when in fact in cases like this there
was no bias at all, simply lack of access. Am I to gather that
in the case of Arab satellite television and occupiers, be they
American or Indian, the case is in reverse?
Yes, to a certain extent. So to compensate we broadcast
every briefing or statement from Coalition military spokesmen
or the IGC (the Iraqi Interim Governing Council) or the CPA
(Coalition Provisional Authority) chief Paul Bremer to get their
side of the story and everybody, all of our viewers, hear it.
What remains to be said is that our reporters on the ground
reflect what they see and the information they are able to gather.
And this is how and what they can report.
Let's be specific. I presume that you have plenty of people,
insurgents either Sunni or the militia of Muqtada, ready to
talk to you.
In Falluja we had pictures of the fighters but we didn't
have fighters talking to us. We did have tribal chiefs, hospital
officials, and eyewitnesses among unarmed civilians talking
to us as well as representatives of the Islamic Party of Iraq,
who have been the mediators in all the attempts to get a ceasefire
and a lifting of the siege.
Why didn't you talk to the fighters?
Well, they were busy fighting and protecting themselves
in the fight. You can get snap shots of fighters in the street,
but it's difficult to stop them for a sound bite.
Let's examine of the area of dispute-the question of
how many Falluja civilian casualties. The Coalition was claiming
that most casualties were insurgents; opposition to the coalition,
like journalists there from anti-war webzines, claimed most
were civilians. We get hospital estimates of dead but they don't
say, maybe they don't know, how many are fighters and how many
are civilians, particularly since the fighters aren't wearing
uniforms. They are in civilian dress.
Well, how can they tell? By the time a dead person gets to the
hospital, unless it's a woman or young children, you can't tell,
because if he was a fighter his weapon has been taken by his
comrades. They are not in uniform, and they don't wear dog tags,
like regular army. So for the doctors, a dead man is simply
a dead man, and he doesn't know whether he was an unarmed civilian
or a fighter.
But as I mentioned before, the Coalition is claiming that many,
if not most of the dead, were fighters.
In our work we don't enter into this dispute . . .
[interrupting] But not entering means-in a sense, and with no
bad intentions on your part-your coverage could be distorting
reality because I am sure given the unhappiness, bitterness,
even hysteria that prevail among your viewers when they see
images of Falluja-an Arab city under siege by American forces-they
are going to assume the dead in the hospital morgues or being
quickly buried, are civilians massacred by the Coalition.
We don't enter into this because there is no way for us to verify.
And secondly there is a daily [Coalition] briefing and in their
briefing they don't give body counts, no exact numbers of fighters
they claim they killed.
And the insurgency of Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army?
We dealt with it the same way: we interviewed al Sadr
as well as the Governing Council.
Since this latest crisis erupted have you moved more people
in to Iraq?
We didn't have to; we already had. Just before Falluja we had
a tragedy in our office which effected us in morale and in available
journalists-the killing of a senior correspondent and senior
cameraman, Ali al Khatib and Ali Abdul Aziz. Our office was
not in the best shape when the crisis erupted. But the people
we had on the ground in the first days provided fair and adequate
coverage. They needed reinforcements so we sent four more news
teams-each team consisting of a correspondent, cameraman and
assistant. We got them in fast because they were already on
standby since we had a plan in place to increase our staffing
on the first of May in order to be in as strong position as
possible to cover whatever events would happen leading up to
the June 30 Transfer of Power. So we accelerated the build up.
I cannot forget the incredible difficulty in your baptism of
fire-the invasion of Iraq little more than a year ago, when
I was hanging out here, and in Doha and Abu Dhabi.
It never really quieted down. Events escalated. And not just
in Iraq. The whole region: Palestine, Syria, Sudan. It's been
an extraordinary year of major events.
And the suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. Why do you
think this year is so much worse as far violence and chaos go?
It's not necessarily worse in the sense of violence.
In Sudan the big news is improvement of movement towards [peace]
in Sudan, not just in the South but most recently in Darfour.
But it's a demanding event as far as coverage, be it violent
or peaceful. We have really had to face a demanding situation.