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Press Freedom, Censorship and the War on Terror

by VICTOR KATTAN

So the U.S. appointed unelected leadership of Iraq have decided to get rid of Al-Jazeera again because it has been “showing a lot of crimes and criminals on TV”. In February they closed its offices for the first time because it was disrespectful towards prominent Iraqis. During the invasion of Iraq the U.S. military bombed its offices killing one of its correspondents. Al Jazeera has been attacked by nearly everybody, by the Americans and by virtually every tin pot dictator in the Middle East. It must be doing a good job.

Al-Jazeera quickly established itself as an independent twenty four hour satellite news channel in the Arab world. Launched in 1996 it now has 40 million viewers and features interviews with prominent British, American and Israeli officials in the military, government and intelligence spheres. An attempt by the U.S. through its Arabic proxy satellite station, Al-Hurra (the free one) based in Virginia to penetrate Arab markets with its own propaganda has failed miserably.

In the last few months two independent films have been doing the festivals: “Control Room” and “Outfoxed – Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”. Although about two very different news stations (“Control Room” is about Al ­ Jazeera and “Outfoxed” is about Fox News) they tackle broadly similar issues to do with censorship and press freedom. The Republicans are so obsessed with image and information that anyone interviewed on Fox news that remotely disagrees with their policy or dislikes their President is branded a “lefty” or a “commie” or simply cut off.

“Control Room” on the other hand shows the difficulties Al-Jazeera faced in trying to cover the Iraq war in an objective and fair manner (bearing in mind that what is objective for Arabs may not be considered objective by the U.S. military). Whereas most journalists were regurgitating the misinformation fed to them by U.S. press spokespersons by claiming Basra had fallen when it hadn’t, Al Jazeera’s reporters were on the ground covering the fighting and interviewing ordinary Iraqi’s in their native language about their hopes, fears and aspirations.

People in the West are led to believe that Al-Jazeera is an unprofessional organization that acts as a propaganda front for terrorists ranging from Osama Bin Laden to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi even though some of Al-Jazeera’s journalists were trained by or even worked for the BBC. Al-Jazeera pioneered independent journalism in a region where the freedom of information is scare. It has an English language web site and has plans to launch an English language satellite station.

This latest action by the unelected President of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, bears more of a resemblance to the behaviour of Saddam Hussein’s former regime that stifled press freedom, censored reports and expelled journalists from the country. The International Federation of Journalists criticized Allawi’s government over what it called “unacceptable and illogical censorship that casts a shadow over hopes for a new era of press freedom.” Allawi should revoke his decision to ban Al-Jazeera from Iraq. His behaviour and that of his puppet government bear more of a resemblance to the totalitarian regime he aspired to replace.

VICTOR KATTAN is a correspondent with Arab Media Watch. He can be reached at: contactkattan@hotmail.com

 

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