Al-Jazeera tells the truth about war
My station is a threat to American media control - and they know it
Friday March 28, 2003
Last month, when it became clear that the US-led drive to war was irreversible, I - like many other British journalists - relocated to Qatar for a ringside seat. But I am an Islamist journalist, so while the others bedded down at the #1m media centre at US central command in As-Sayliyah, I found a more humble berth in the capital Doha, working for the internet arm of al-Jazeera.
And yet, only a week into the war, I find myself working for the most sought-after news resource in the world. On March 23, the night the channel screened the first footage of captured US PoW's, al-Jazeera was the most searched item on the internet portal, Lycos, registering three times as many hits as the next item.
I do not mean to brag - people are turning to us simply because the western media coverage has been so poor. For although Doha is just a 15-minute drive from central command, the view of events from here could not be more different. Of all the major global networks, al-Jazeera has been alone in proceeding from the premise that this war should be viewed as an illegal enterprise. It has broadcast the horror of the bombing campaign, the blown-out brains, the blood-spattered pavements, the screaming infants and the corpses. Its team of on-the-ground, unembedded correspondents has provided a corrective to the official line that the campaign is, barring occasional resistance, going to plan.
Last Tuesday, while western channels were celebrating a Basra "uprising" which none of them could have witnessed since they don't have reporters in the city, our correspondent in the Sheraton there returned a rather flat verdict of "uneventful" - a view confirmed shortly afterwards by a spokesman for the opposition Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. By reporting propaganda as fact, the mainstream media had simply mirrored the Blair/Bush fantasy that the people who have been starved by UN sanctions and deformed by depleted uranium since 1991 will greet them as saviours.
Only hours before the Basra non-event, one of Iraq's most esteemed Shia authorities, Ayatollah Sistani, had dented coalition hopes of a southern uprising by reiterating a fatwa calling on all Muslims to resist the US-led forces. This real, and highly significant, event went unreported in the west.
Earlier in the week Arab viewers had seen the gruesome aftermath of the coalition bombing of "Ansar al-Islam" positions in the north-east of the country. All but two of the 35 killed were civilians in an area controlled by a neutral Islamist group, a fact passed over with undue haste in western reports. And before that, on the second day of the war, most of the western media reported verbatim central command statements that Umm Qasr was under "coalition" control - it was not until Wednesday that al-Jazeera could confirm all resistance there had been pacified.
Throughout the past week, armed peoples in the west and south have been attacking the exposed rearguard of coalition positions, while all the time - despite debilitating sandstorms - western TV audiences have seen litte except their steady advance towards Baghdad. This is not truthful reporting.
There is also a marked difference when reporting the anger the invasion has unleashed on the Muslim street. The view from here is that any vestige of goodwill towards the US has evaporated with this latest aggression, and that Britain has now joined the US and Israel as a target of this rage.
The British media has condemned al-Jazeera's decision to screen a 30-second video clip of two dead British soldiers. This is simple hypocrisy. From the outset of the war, the British media has not balked at showing images of Iraqi soliders either dead or captured and humiliated.
Amid the battle for hearts and minds in the most information-controlled war in history, one measure of the importance of those American PoW pictures and the images of the dead British soldiers is surely the sustained "shock and awe" hacking campaign directed at aljazeera.net since the start of the war. As I write, the al-Jazeera website has been down for three days and few here doubt that the provenance of the attack is the Pentagon. Meanwhile, our hosting company, the US-based DataPipe, has terminated our contract after lobbying by other clients whose websites have been brought down by the hacking.
It's too early for me to say when, or indeed if, I will return to my homeland. So far this war has progressed according to a near worst-case scenario. Iraqis have not turned against their tormentor. The southern Shia regard the invasion force as the greater Satan. Opposition in surrounding countries is shaking their regimes. I fear there remains much work to be done.
7 Faisal Bodi is a senior editor for aljazeera.netLack of trust in media turns many to alternative sources
The Muslim view of al-Jazeera and alternative websites sought out amid suspicions that western networks are biased
Faisal al Yafai
Friday March 28, 2003
Somewhere amid the brick monoliths housing homes and minarets, sweeping up from one side of the city, the taxi halts. "Why have you come to Blackburn?" the driver asks.
When told the reason is to hear Muslim perspectives on the media coverage of the war, his response is animated. "Why Muslims?" he says. "Why not Irish? Why not Hindu? It's not just Muslims who are sceptical. Everyone is sceptical."
British Muslims have an awkward role in this war. Told repeatedly that they are not part of it because the war is not against Muslims, they are none the less linked by faith to many Iraqis - and have their faith linked by everyone else to their anti-war feelings.
Muslims are always singled out from the wider community, argues Ibrahim Master, a businessman and chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques. "Our Britishness is always called into question." He cites a newspaper report comparing Joseph Hudson, the American PoW who refused to answer questions on Iraqi TV, with Sergeant Asan Akbar, the GI who attacked his comrades with grenades at a US army base in Kuwait.
"The underlying message was clear. They were trying to insinuate how disloyal Muslims can be. Everyone highlighted the fact that he was a Muslim rather than highlighting his mental state as a reason. That sort of coverage makes people deeply suspicious."
He worries about giving the impression that Muslims are disloyal, as if they are the only group that have reservations about the media and the war. "I don't like the analogy that says if you're anti-war you can't be for the troops. I have sympathy for the servicemen and women but I'm against the ideology of war as such, especially if it's not a just war."
He admits there have been improvements in the media. "I get the impression the media are more anti-war on Iraq than they were on Afghanistan. They have backed anti-war marches more and some questions presenters are asking ministers are more hostile." But the onset of conflict has weakened that resolve. "Before war started they were fair, now they are under restrictions because of official secrecy. But with some of the broadcasters there's been a trend to be pro-war from day one. If you listen to some broadcast reports, they come across as very biased."
Pro-war supporters are holding anti-war sentiment in the media to "psychological ransom", he says. "They're saying now war has started we can't have anti-war stories. I think there's an official line not to show these images [of civilian deaths] because they stir up more anti-war sentiment and the media is following that line."
There is a widely shared view that the media may be deliberately withholding negative information. From the windows of a nearby community centre, Indian music coming from one side of the building competes with the hip-hop of the Streets from the other. Inside, Mohammed Anayat, a project manager in the Blackburn area, says despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the war, there is hardly any new information. "We've been over-informationised. Even when there is no news they will find some story of a soldier cleaning his boots."
He says that despite so many channels, the news is hardly balanced. "The coverage is too sympathetic to the allies. To a certain extent that's understandable because they have that information more readily, but it gives the impression they were compelled to do this, that they are forced to attack because Saddam attacked them, which is not the reality.
"We see aircraft taking off but not the other side. I can't believe the press can't find the information to give us, especially when the media is aware of the depth of anti-war feeling. If all they are doing is reporting the war, I'd like to see more equal coverage. We are not told about bombs missing their targets or how extensive the damage really is. I do generally trust the media but not over this. The coverage borders on propaganda."
This need for more information has led to people trying to access other sources. "Lots of information comes from countries we have links with, like Pakistan and India. We have a lot of daily communication so we hear different things and get news from other countries."
There may even be a generation gap between the kinds of information received - a gap that allows extreme views to flourish. "Different factions in the community have different sources of information and process that information in different ways. The younger generation will rely on the internet and mainstream media, whereas older people rely on word of mouth and foreign language newspapers. So they have different views and may have developed ideas that are not accurate." This confusion allows those who see sin in the western media's omissions to be more easily believed.
The chief benefactors of this lack of trust have been alternative and non-western media. The Arabic language TV network al-Jazeera has doubled its number of subscribers since the conflict started, and the Muslim Association of Britain emailed members to encourage them to watch the satellite channel.
Ahmed Versi, the editor of Muslim News, a monthly UK-based paper, says his newspaper's website is getting extra traffic as a result of this lack of trust. "We're getting an extra 2,000-3,000 hits a day. Many don't believe the media, especially the US news. They don't trust western media's portrayal of the war. Even those who don't understand Arabic will watch the Arab channels just to see the pictures."
Abu Dhabi TV has shown graphic images of demolished buildings inside Baghdad and al-Jazeera has courted criticism by showing footage considered too sensitive by western broadcasters, including of Iraqi bodies amid rubble and a gruesome image of a young child's head split open.
The Muslim Association of Britain has posted many of these images on its website and emailed them to its subscribers. The reaction has been positive. Ihtisham Hibatullah, a spokesman, says the organisation has received requests from all sections of the public for more information. "Many were thankful for the true story. This is not propaganda; it is the actual cost of war. Innocent people are dying and these images make clear the reality."
When such images of civilian casualties are seen, they give credence to the idea of censorship. Anjum Anwar was deeply moved by the website's images of civilian casualties. "I used to work with Kosovan refugees and all their stories have just come flooding back to me," she said. "The media have a concept of shielding people. I think if these photos were shown on the general media the anti-war movement would double."
She feels frustrated by the one-sided nature of TV coverage. "It's all very well showing pictures of soldiers with blood on their cheeks or nice photos of Baghdad but these are the real brutalities of liberation. I don't believe the mother of these children will feel any happier if she's liberated, because she's already lost everything. As a mother it makes me so angry. This is what should be shown.
"This is the real shock and awe."