Media: Shooting the Messengers

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The terrorising of independent media in Iraq continues, writes Liv Lewitschnik.

Media coverage of the US attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November came exclusively from reporters embedded with US coalition forces because Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab television station, had been banned indefinitely from reporting in Iraq.

The ban is partly the result of Al Jazeera's coverage of the previous attack on Fallujah last April when it reported hundreds of civilian casualties. Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of state, accused the channel of inaccurate reporting and outright lying. This time around, tougher measures to ensure a more US-friendly editorial line were imposed.

Jihad Al Ballout, Al Jazeera's spokesperson, told Socialist Review, 'The ban is detrimental to reporting, to the Iraqi people and our viewers. We regret that Al Jazeera was banned from covering Fallujah.' Al Ballout explains how Al Jazeera responds to the ban by keeping an open dialogue with the Iraqi interim government: 'Al Jazeera is not the government or a security organisation. All we can do at this point is try and convince them they are doing something wrong. We have posed a number of legal questions - asking why Al Jazeera is singled out and marginalised.'

But talking sense with the US administration or Iyad Allawi, the US-appointed Iraqi interim prime minister, doesn't seem an easy task. In November 2001, at the height of the Afghanistan war, Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul were bombed by the US military. The Basra Sheraton Hotel in Iraq where Al Jazeera correspondents were based was hit in April 2003. Only a few days later the Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed when the station's Baghdad office was shelled.

The whereabouts of Al Jazeera bases were well known to the Pentagon, which implies a sinister pattern of systematic targeting of the channel. 'We have been afforded more attention than other media outlets,' Al Ballout says with careful understatement.

Before 2001 the US administration praised Al Jazeera, saying it was the most professional news organisation in the Middle East. But when the channel gained worldwide fame one year later as Osama Bin Laden's tapes were aired, it was accused of being the mouthpiece of terrorism. Western criticism of the channel grew more pronounced as the Afghanistan war continued because Al Jazeera was showing death and destruction not seen on western television networks.

When the Iraq invasion got under way in 2003, Al Jazeera again positioned itself as the counterbalance to the US military's media output by using independent correspondents instead of reporters embedded with the military. Al Jazeera reflected what was happening on Iraqi streets and also aired footage of captured US soldiers - provoking an uproar in London and Washington. In August 2004 Iyad Allawi closed Al Jazeera's base in Baghdad - blaming the channel for inciting violence and encouraging kidnappings.

'Al Jazeera has been accused of an awful lot of things but we maintain our right to shed light on what goes on in wartime. Resistance operations and hostage-takings are happening in Iraq. We cannot simply ignore that because we would then be deceiving our audience. We show these events objectively - we are merely the messengers. Which doesn't mean they should shoot the messengers,' Al Ballout explains.

Al Jazeera has not only been criticised by the west but also by Arab neighbours who believe its coverage of women's and human rights issues and discussions about democracy are causing instability and friction in the region.

Al Ballout comments, 'We have been criticised for being Arab nationalists, Arab extremists, working for the CIA or Israel. These contradictions are quite absurd. Al Jazeera only reflects differing viewpoints. The problem is that the Arab world isn't used to having a free media which independently covers government and foreign policies. In pre Al Jazeera times all Arab media were subjected to state control and now the different states are afraid because they think public opinion is turning against them.'

Because Al Jazeera voices previously silenced opinions it has revolutionised the Arab media scene and challenged western news-reporting monopoly. Al Ballout says, 'We came onto the stage at a time when the information highway was flowing one way-from the west to the east. We paved another lane in that highway, making news flow in the opposite direction.'

Banning the channel from operating in Iraq will be a blow to the growing audiences in the Arab region as well as in the Arab diaspora who depend on the channel for news. But Al Jazeera's credibility will probably not be undermined as it doesn't make concessions on its independence. The ban does show, however, that freedom of expression is not on the agenda for a 'democratic' Iraq.

'The way ahead is not going to be easy and the chances of us being allowed back are quite slim,' Al Ballout says and adds, 'We will have to be creative and use the news mechanism in other ways - and get information from other sources inside Iraq.'