When the U.S. state department shyly released
a human rights report two weeks ago amidst an international outcry over U.S.
soldiers' abuse of Iraqi prisoners, it slipped in some tough talk on media freedom
– against the practice, not for it as would be expected.
Lorne Craner, deputy assistant secretary for democracy and human rights, told
reporters that Arab TV network Al-Jazeera was inciting violence
against U.S. troops in occupied Iraq.
"Al-Jazeera, from what I understand from CPA (the U.S. Coalition Provisional
Authority in Iraq) and others, is quite different in what they do. They go a
lot further than New Yorker magazine or CBS. And that's my point. We
are extremely tolerant, we have been for over 200 years in this country, of
criticism, but incitement of violence is something else."
The accusations from Craner, the man whose job includes promoting media freedom
worldwide, were the last in a series of high-level U.S. moves to muzzle the
TV network, which has so far managed to outpace many U.S. news sources in covering
the U.S.-led attack and occupation of Iraq, starting more than one year ago.
Although Al-Jazeera, which started broadcasting in 1996, irked both the U.S.
media and the Bush administration even before Washington invaded Iraq as the
first step in its plan to remake the Middle East on a "democratic" model, the
attacks turned vicious after the channel aired lived coverage of civilian casualties
of the U.S. military's heavy bombardment of the town of Fallujah in April.
Al-Jazeera correspondent Ahmed Mansour was apparently the only reporter in
the city when U.S. forces were enforcing a crippling siege.
According to medics in Fallujah, the U.S. offensive claimed the lives of at
least 700 Iraqis, mostly women and children, and left up to 1,500 others injured.
The senior U.S. military spokesman, Mark Kimmitt, suggested that Iraqis who
saw civilian deaths on Al-Jazeera, "change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative,
honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing
women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and
that is lies."
But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went further. "I can definitively say
that what Al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."
"But you know what our forces do," he added. "They don't go around killing
hundreds of civilians. That's just outrageous nonsense! It's disgraceful what
that station is doing."
Secretary of State Collin Powell, the outwardly dovish face of the administration,
went further and earlier this month formally demanded that visiting Qatari Foreign
Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani tighten the screws on the
24-hour network, which is based in his country.
Powell said in statements after meeting al-Thani in Washington that relations
between the two countries were being harmed by Al-Jazeera's coverage.
The channel has also taken some heat on the ground. On May 21, Rashid
Hamid Wali, assistant cameraman and fixer for Al-Jazeera, was killed by
gunfire in the Iraqi city of Karbala, the last in a string of journalists who
been killed in Iraq.
On several occasions, the channel's correspondents have also been banned from
government offices and news conferences in Iraq.
Media analysts here say that Washington's attack on Al-Jazeera, under the pretext
of fighting the promotion of violence, has negative implications both for media
freedom and for U.S. political strategy.
"To say that running false stories if they could inflame the conflict is grounds
for ending the media outlets' right to report is to say that no major U.S. media
outlet should be allowed to report anymore," said Jim Naureckas, editor of media
watch dog magazine Extra.
The New York Times, for example, ran
a story quoting Iraqi defectors saying the country possessed weapons of mass
destruction, which was one of many articles published by the U.S. media
that inflamed the conflict, he added.
Washington also risks losing more of its credibility over its attack on the
Arab TV network.
"Officials in Washington keep saying they want to encourage democratization
in the Middle East, but the Bush administration's moves to throttle Al-Jazeera
certainly indicate otherwise," said Norman Solomon, executive director of the
Institute for Public Accuracy.
Others see the U.S. attack as emblematic of its political and military woes
in the region.
"The U.S. is losing the war in Iraq and is increasingly isolated politically
in the Arab world, so what's its response? Blame the media. The U.S. media wouldn't
accept such an argument from Bush the candidate, so why accept it from Bush
the commander in chief?" said Reese Erlich, a foreign correspondent who has
covered the Middle East extensively for 20 years.
The best way to control Al-Jazeera and other media outlets that defy Washington's
control is to stop atrocities on the ground, analysts say.
"There are ways that the U.S. government could legitimately reduce the negative
coverage it gets on Al-Jazeera. For instance, if President Bush wants Al-Jazeera
to stop airing grisly footage of dead Iraqi civilians, as commander in chief
he could order U.S. troops to stop killing them," Erlich said.
(Inter Press Service)