Over the last decade,
Middle Eastern history has happened, in large part, on Al Jazeera.
The Qatar-based satellite channel had the only foreign reporters
inside Iraq when U.S. forces launched a four-day assault, known
as Operation Desert Fox, in 1998. In October 2001 its cameras
-- the only ones inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan -- captured
exclusive footage of the American-led bombardment. When bombs
started hitting Baghdad in March 2003, all the American networks,
and many European crews, had abandoned the city. Al Jazeera
stayed for a close-up view.
History is still
being made in Iraq as the country struggles toward independence.
But Al Jazeera isn't there to watch it unfold. Last August Iraqi
officials closed the station's Baghdad bureau and barred it
from operating in the country. Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera's closest
competitor, drastically cut its Iraqi operations after insurgents
bombed its offices there in October, killing five employees
and injuring fourteen. And Asharq Al-Awsat, one of the
two largest pan-Arab dailies, shuttered its Baghdad bureau in
December after insurgents threatened to blow it up. A number
of Arab journalists have also been detained, some even killed,
by jittery American troops.
In a war where the
various factions seem to want everyone -- including the press
-- to choose sides, the Arab media have found themselves under
attack from every direction. That has far-reaching implications.
Western reporters, faced with the threat of death, began retreating
to fortified compounds months ago. Now, with pressure mounting,
Arab journalists, along with Arab translators and fixers employed
by international news organizations, are retreating, too. The
result is that firsthand reporting is getting squeezed out.
When it comes to covering the Iraq conflict -- one of the most
important stories of our time -- even the Arab media are finding
themselves increasingly reliant on secondhand accounts and official
reports from Washington and Baghdad, and less able to gauge
how events are playing out in the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
"We can no longer get close to people's suffering, people's
hopes, people's dreams," says Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya's
executive editor for news. "We no longer know what's really
going on because we can no longer get close to reality."
In early 2003 a number
of new satellite channels scrambled to get on the air in time
to cover the looming Iraq conflict. The most robust of them,
Al Arabiya, promised to provide a more moderate alternative
to Al Jazeera, which has drawn the ire of virtually every Arab
government as well as US officials. But it was soon engulfed
in the controversy that had dogged its rival. Both stations
outraged the US government by focusing on the war's human toll,
and by airing messages from insurgents and images of slain soldiers.
They also angered members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing
Council, which was formed in July 2003 and wasted little time
cracking down on the satellite stations. For two weeks beginning
in September 2003, the council locked Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera
out of official press conferences and government ministries.
In November, the council shut down Al Arabiya's Baghdad office
for more than two months after it aired an audiotape, purportedly
of Saddam Hussein urging Iraqis to resist the American-led occupation.
The charge: "incitement to murder." In January 2004,
the council banned Al Jazeera from official functions after
a guest on one of its talk shows alleged that Israel was trying
to exert influence in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Arab journalists
were growing angry at the US government's failure to provide
for their security. In March 2004, more than twenty of them
protested by walking out of a press conference with Secretary
of State Colin Powell. Before leaving, they demanded an investigation
into the deaths of two Al Arabiya employees who were shot the
previous day by US forces while driving away from a checkpoint
as another car sped toward it. (Witnesses believe soldiers started
shooting because they thought the approaching car was a suicide
bomber. And US officials later said the journalists were shot
by accident and expressed regret.) Other incidents also loomed
large in Arab journalists' minds. On April 8, 2003, a US missile
destroyed Al Jazeera's Baghdad headquarters, killing the correspondent
Tareq Ayyoub. In November 2003, two Al Jazeera employees were
arrested in separate incidents and taken to Abu Ghraib. One
of them, Salah Hassan, was detained while filming the aftermath
of a bombing. Security forces arriving on the scene apparently
suspected he was involved in setting the blast. Hassan says
he was beaten and forced to stand naked for hours in the freezing
cold, then forced to wear a jumpsuit that was covered in someone
else's fresh vomit. Both Al Jazeera employees were eventually
released for lack of evidence. Pentagon officials declined to
comment on the cases.
The situation for
Arab reporters in Iraq took a turn for the worse in June 2004,
when the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqi Governing
Council anointed an interim government, headed by Prime Minister
Ayad Allawi. The following month, the government established
what it called the Media High Commission. Its reported task
was to establish "red line" rules and punish journalists
or news organizations that crossed them.
The first thing it
did was bar Al Jazeera from Iraq for a month, purportedly for
inciting violence and hatred. The following month the interim
government announced that Al Jazeera was barred from Iraq indefinitely.
Today, the station pieces together its coverage using video
feeds from organizations like Reuters and whatever scraps of
information it can glean from afar. "Covering Iraq for
us is a matter of great difficulty," says the Al Jazeera
spokesman Jihad Ballout.
The claim that Al
Jazeera incites violence and hatred is nothing new. US officials
have repeatedly accused it, and to a lesser degree Al Arabiya,
of inflaming Arab passions against the West, partly by focusing
on the carnage wrought by the conflicts in Iraq and Israel.
"Al Jazeera seems to be a two-story operation, and these
stories have a common theme -- Arab humiliation," says
Norman Pattiz, who serves on the US Broadcasting Board of Governors,
which administers Voice of America and the new Arabic-language
satellite channel Alhurra. Critics also charge that the stations
glorify insurgents and endanger US troops in Iraq by poisoning
Arab public opinion toward US policies.
that while Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya reflect the perspectives
of their audiences, they are no more biased than many American
or European outlets. "Journalists on both sides make editorial
decisions based on their culture," says Hugh Miles, an
Oxford-educated Arabist and author of a recently published book
on Al Jazeera. Miles notes that the stations' programming integrates
a variety of perspectives, including many that were previously
not heard in the Arab world. Al Jazeera regularly interviews
Israeli officials, for instance. And its reporters clearly don't
balk at holding Arab governments to account. Recently, Al Arabiya
and Al Jazeera both reported on the relatively meager contributions
by Arab rulers to the tsunami relief effort. This helped shame
them into pledging larger sums.
Many Arabs have interpreted Al Jazeera's closure by an American-installed
government as evidence that contrary to official pronouncements,
the United States has little real interest in fostering democracy
in the Middle East. "The crackdown on Al Jazeera is widely
seen in the Arab world as exhibit A in American hypocrisy,"
says Marc Lynch, an Arab media expert who teaches at Williams
Shortly after the
Al Jazeera ban took effect, Iraqi officials began putting the
squeeze on nonembedded reporters covering clashes between coalition
forces and insurgents. On August 15, in the midst of the standoff
at the Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf's police chief ordered journalists
to abandon the city. The police later visited the Bahr Najaf
Hotel, where most nonembedded reporters were staying, and threatened
to arrest or shoot them if they didn't leave. On August 25,
they made good on their threats when they stormed the Bahr Najaf,
fired shots, and detained sixty journalists. All of them were
later released without charges.
The police chief eventually told journalists that he felt they
were encouraging the insurgents to keep fighting by portraying
them as "heroes and nation-builders."
Then, in the run-up
to the November siege of Falluja, the Media High Commission
issued a statement warning journalists to "set aside space"
in their coverage for "the position of the Iraqi government"
or face unspecified legal consequences. During the siege, US
troops detained a number of Arab reporters and held some for
the duration of the battle. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan,
a US military spokesman, maintains they weren't targeted because
of their work. "Journalists were detained when they were
caught up in sweeps, were violating curfew, or were with groups
that were fighting" against coalition forces, he says.
While the government
turned up the heat on journalists, so did insurgents. On October
30, 2004, a car bomb exploded outside Al Arabiya's Baghdad compound,
collapsing the first floor and killing five of its employees.
Within minutes of the blast, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, Al Arabiya's
general manager, was on the phone to his Baghdad anchor, Najwa
Kassem, imploring her to get on the air. Soon, Kassem started
reporting live from the blast site.
Al-Rashed, former editor of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat,
took over Al Arabiya's top post in early 2004. An outspoken
critic of Islamic fundamentalism, he believes that terrorists
have "smeared Islam and stained its image." He is
equally critical of the Arab media, particularly Al Jazeera.
In a 2003 Asharq Al-Awsat column, he accused the station
of publishing fanciful accounts "reminiscent of the adventures
of Sinbad" and repressing Iraq news that didn't fit its
agenda. Bringing Al-Rashed on board at Al Arabiya stirred controversy
in the Arab world, and some believe that since his arrival the
station has become overly sympathetic to the US and Iraqi governments.
Al Arabiya's choice
to take to the air so soon after the bomb attack was meant as
a message to its attackers: We will not be silenced. But the
station has drastically scaled back its Iraq operations since.
Its Baghdad staff, once sixty strong, has shrunk to fifteen,
and they operate out of two rooms in a bunker-like hotel.
The Al Arabiya bombing
was part of a surge in threats and attacks against Arab media.
Insurgents reportedly sent letters threatening to kill the editor
of Azzaman, Iraq's largest daily, in a "very nasty
way." Another paper, Al-Itijah al-Akhar, started
getting threatening phone calls after it ran an editorial cartoon
that showed Saddam Hussein urging the Shiite cleric Muktada
al-Sadr to give himself up. "Go ahead," Hussein coaxes.
"All they do is check your teeth and your hair." The
daily Al Mada had a dud rocket land on its roof. And
Dina Mohammed Hassan, a reporter for the Kurdish television
station Al Hurriya, was gunned down in front of her Baghdad
home by a man shouting "Collaborator! Collaborator!"
Insurgent attacks and fire from U.S. troops have made Iraq a
particularly deadly conflict for Arabs to cover. Eighteen of
the 23 journalists killed in Iraq last year -- and all of the
16 slain media-support workers -- were Arabs or Kurds.
Despite those grim
facts, some journalists see glimmers of promise, especially
given the stronger-than-expected turnout for the January 30
elections. "It's a bit early to judge," says Nabil
Khatib of Al Arabiya. "But there is a general hope that
the election will bring the government legitimacy, and that
step by step things will stabilize. Hopefully this will make
it better for media -- make it so at least we aren't worried
about life and death." Others, though, are less optimistic.
"We really hope that press freedom will prevail in Iraq,"
says Al Jazeera's Jihad Ballout. "But I have a feeling
it could take quite some time."
is an assistant editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
from Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2005. © 2005
by Columbia Journalism Review.