The scene described is from Jehane Noujaim’s documentary Control Room, about the political problems Qatari news network Al-Jazeera faced covering the war in Iraq. One is left with the overall impression that contrary to the network’s image as an Al-Qaida propaganda machine, Al-Jazeera might have in fact been more unbiased than some of the other news networks reporting on the event. That is, if Al-Jazeera had been allowed to stay in Iraq.
Good journalism means being disliked by both parties
From its very inception, Al-Jazeera has managed to draw the criticism of both Western and Arabic governments. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called their images of Iraqi civilians “lies and propaganda” and their airing of videos of American POWs a violation of the Geneva Convention. Conversely, former Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf called on Al-Jazeera to “stop their pro-American propaganda.” If one of the hallmarks of good journalism is being disliked by both sides, Al-Jazeera certainly fits the bill.
One of the strongest cases for the importance of Al-Jazeera reporting on the war came from the reaction of Lt. John Rushing, a US Army press officer. In the beginning of the film he criticizes what he perceives to be an anti-US bias by Al-Jazeera. Within days of the start of the invasion, however, he makes the observation that he found Al-Jazeera’s graphic images of wounded Iraqi civilians “gross” but didn’t give them much thought, while upon seeing Al-Jazeera’s footage of captured US POWs, he was sick to his stomach. Comparing the two images – and his two different reactions to them – he realizes that he naturally felt more strongly about seeing the suffering of his own and came to better understand how Arabs must feel seeing the suffering of their people.
It’s also worth mentioning how many times members of the Al-Jazeera staff, while critical of the policies of the Bush administration, express nothing but respect for America itself. Correspondent Hassan Ibrahim, a former classmate of Osama bin Laden and an ardent Arab nationalist, states that he believes that “America will stop America,” that he has absolute faith in the US constitution and American democracy to turn the situation around. Senior producer Samir Khader wants to send his children to university in the US and says, “we [Al-Jazeera] don’t want to alienate the Americans . . . we are what they want for the region: an Arab channel with a western mentality.”
Were the media deliberately targeted?
Despite this even-handedness, on April 8th 2003, what appeared to be a deliberate military strike from US-lead coalition forces was meted out against Al-Jazeera correspondents, as well as correspondents from Abu Dhabi, in Baghdad. The official explanation has been that gunfire had been coming from their separate locations. What we see in the Al-Jazeera footage is correspondent Tareq Ayyoub, in helmet and flak jacket, crouched down behind a sandbag barrier looking more than slightly nervous as a fighter jet dives and fires the missiles which destroyed the Al-Jazeera office and killed Ayyoub, among others, in the process.
Whatever the truth behind the attacks may be, the end result was that Al-Jazeera correspondents became unwelcome guests in Baghdad, as no hotel wanted to increase their risk of becoming a target for an air strike. While Al-Jazeera did return to Baghdad later in the year, in August 2004 the US sponsored Iraqi interim government summarily banned Al-Jazeera from being anywhere in Iraq.
Why was Al-Jazeera singled out by US authorities? And why are their perceptions considered to be so different from the Western media?
Typing “Iraqi civilian toll” into any major search engine will show an exact number provided by some media sources (whose numbers vary), while others contend that there is no exact number at all. The natural reaction of many people is to trust those media sources that are a part of their own culture – people who will report on an event from a point of view as “one of their own.”
“Our goal from the very beginning was simply to give viewers the whole story”
In an exclusive interview with Grapevine, Ahmed al-Shaikh, editor-in-chief of Al-Jazeera, says:
“When Al-Jazeera first started, we came under a lot of criticism from Arab governments because we were one of a kind. We were reporting events the way they were actually happening, instead of just repeating the official version.”
Recently, Lt. Col. Daniel Williams of the US coalition forces was quoted as saying, “Al-Jazeera is a welcome guest and professional news organisation,” a statement that al-Shaikh says contradicts the way the coalition forces have treated Al-Jazeera.
“I don’t think they actually want a free media in Iraq,” he explains, “It’s been really hard for us trying to bring our viewers news about the war in Iraq when we’re not allowed in the country. We have to get all our information from the outside, so of course we’re missing a lot.”
When asked what Al-Jazeera is doing to try to reach a non-Muslim, non-Arabic western audience, al-Shaikh says that they will be launching an English-language television channel “hopefully early next year.”
“I think what will set us apart from other news stations reporting on the same events in the area is that, first of all, we will be bringing to the western world the words of the Arabic people who don’t speak English and, second of all, we will include explanations of the Arabic Muslim lifestyle and religion within our news stories. This isn’t just going to be an English-language version of our Arabic channel – we want to present to westerners the Arabic perspective of events in the area in a way that they can relate to.”
Are competing media sources simply playing a game of opposites with each other? If both claim to be fair and unbiased, why do their perceptions of the same events sometimes completely contradict each other?
“Al-Jazeera’s mission is not to reflexively report on “the other side” of a story. Our goal from the very beginning has been simply to give our viewers the whole story.”
Knowing the whole story obliges the viewer to use a blend of logic and intuition and listen to several different media sources. This necessitates involvement on behalf of the public. Fortunately, thanks to media sources that challenge those who would restrict our access to information, being left in the dark doesn’t have to be the only option.