The Other Media War


While many media analysts are painstakingly discussing the PR war between Washington and Baghdad, few have absorbed the watershed that al-Jazeera has brought to the picture. If Arabs are explicitly considered the main target group for each side’s PR campaign, the American side–the belligerent side, that is–is losing the revered “hearts and minds” war far more drastically than it has ever imagined. No small portion of the credit goes to al-Jazeera’s coverage.

It is an old and sour joke in the Arab World that Arabs tune in to BBC–radio–to learn what is happening on their own streets. Regrettably, this has always been true. Arab media–almost all state-run or semi-official until very recently–are not only shamelessly yellow, they are devastatingly boring and pathetically inept as well. Not any more. Now, virtually every Arab who cares to know or understand current events–and has access to satellite TV–watches al-Jazeera, precisely because it is perceived–quite deservedly–as the most accurate, pluralistic and professional media outlet to turn to. For the past eleven days of war, it further consolidated its impressive dominance as the main source of news for Arabs from the Gulf to the Atlantic.

When al-Jazeera was born a few years ago rumours proliferated about its origins, funders, and secret connections to the Mossad or CIA, …etc. Part of this malicious attack was undoubtedly fed by the disgruntled Arab governments who grew used to their own categorical monopoly on the media. Those despotic regimes had an early experience of shock and awe after al-Jazeera started giving voice to all the voiceless Arabs that they have managed to keep a lid on for decades: opposition politicians, women activists, human-rights advocates, leftists, Islamists, pan-Arabists, communists, ethnic minorities, independent journalists and analysts, and representatives of just about every shade of the political spectrum. But, there are also other factors that contributed to the air of disbelief surrounding the highly controversial al-Jazeera coverage: other than the fact that it was established by one of the most loyal American-protected regimes in the Arab World: the government of Qatar–not exactly an Arab Sweden in its not-so-luminous record of human rights and democracy– al-Jazeera also projected a degree of excellence, professionalism and objectivity hitherto unheard of in any Arab or even developing country. A measure of self-hate–to borrow a term from our Abrahamic cousins–played a role in discarding al-Jazeera at first as a “foreign agent,” a provocateur or simply a transient phenomenon that was bound to dissipate soon like a summer cloud in the sky of Baghdad.

Incidentally, al-Jazeera had another precedent: it introduced millions of Arabs for the very first time to Israeli politicians and commentators, a tactic that at first compounded the suspicions and even the open animosity that almost overwhelmed the young satellite channel. But, as in most taboos, being perceived as radically defiant, original and mischievous only fanned the already simmering interest in watching al-Jazeera, secretly, at times. Its ratings soared, and soon enough most realized that watching their enemies on television was not like going to bed with them, that being exposed to “the opinion and the other opinion”–al-Jazeera’s brilliant motto–was not the high treason their governments had led them to believe, that pluralism only expanded the choices before them, without forcing them to subscribe to any particular line.

All on its own, al-Jazeera has arguably been more effective than most Arab liberal and leftists parties put together in raising the Arab public’s awareness about democracy, human rights, pluralism, activism, repression, international cultures, politics and even economics, and even the various dimensions of the all encompassing Israeli occupation–which had been largely dealt with in the official media in terms of clichés and highly rhetorical discourse with poor understanding. It was as open a university as it gets, with no tuition fees, no homework and no patronizing lectures from above.

After putting its viewers to what seemed like a crash course in a truly Arab version of glasnost and perestroika, al-Jazeera created its own virtual reality, not in the news that it presented, which was as accurate and objective as any, but in affording the average Arab citizen a space to be free, to hope, to feel proud of this oasis of distinction surviving in the midst of a stupendous desert of intellectual stagnation, repression and under-development, all maintained with a complex fusion of local tyranny and American carrots and sticks.

In sad comparison, weeks before the U.S.-led war on Iraq had started, the mainstream American media meticulously fell into its well-rehearsed place and acted precisely according to the script written by the “ruling party.” Sounds more like third-world state-run media? Well, it is worse, in fact. At least in the latter case no one claims it is free, objective or close to professional. In the former, the arrogance, self-righteousness and monopoly on “truth” can easily fill a galaxy.

Watching news on Fox, CNN or any of the major U.S. TV networks has always exacted from the viewer a degree of mental numbness, and a will to believe in metaphysics. But, it was at least entertaining, and visually stimulating. Americans have always shone in making a glitzy show out of lackluster news–which invariably reduced the world to simplistic terms and sound bytes spoon-fed to the average American media consumer. But now, after seeing elsewhere what Mr. Bush and his obliging poodle really had in store for us in their illegal, unjust and criminal war, watching news on those American channels has become an exercise in suspending the faculty of reason, abandoning logic and steering strictly away from any critical thinking altogether.

And with all the dehumanization of Arabs all over the coverage it is far from entertaining.

Having the advantage of speaking Arabic–finally, this has become an advantage during my lifetime–I get to watch al-Jazeera, among many other Arab satellite channels which present a truly impressive spectrum of opinion, commentary and analysis. And for once, I am getting far more, better and decisively more accurate news than those not bestowed with the ability to understand Arabic in the English-speaking world. Al-Jazeera presents every significant American or British announcement, as offensive or even racist as sometimes it might be, with remarkable fairness and objectivity, along with the amalgam of Arab opinions. Its accuracy during the war on Afghanistan, the ongoing Palestinian intifada and the unfolding Anglo-American war on Iraq truly puts to shame any English language television channel, the BBC included.

If American television can be easily disregarded as a textbook case of obdurate, populistic, one-sided, sponsor-parroting media, BBC cannot. It has a long tradition in objectivity and a wider margin of pluralism than its American counterparts. But, compared to al-Jazeera, BBC comes across as rather narrow-minded, anachronistically colonial and pitifully “embedded,” or, to borrow a term from a New York peace demonstration: in-bedded.

Americans, and to a lesser extent Brits, who mostly rely on television coverage for news on the war are really at a critical disadvantage. They are getting a lot more government party line and very little free or accurate coverage. They are bombarded with an average of one to two grand lies a day, coupled with an assortment of lesser lies to match. In short, they are getting media that are worthy of the worst banana republic. Maybe they ought to learn Arabic, or, for that matter, French, German, or Spanish to see the light.

* Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian political analyst. His article “9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002″ by the Guardian. His articles have appeared in the Hartford Courant, Al-Ahram (Cairo), Z-Magazine among others.

He can be reached at [email protected]        

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