April 5, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 491

Editor of the London Arabic Daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Criticizes the Arab Media's War Coverage

April 5, 2003
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 491

In a series of three articles the editor-in-chief of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, criticized the Arab media coverage of the war.[1]The following are excerpt from the articles: 'Slow Down, Media of 1967'

In an article under the title 'Slow Down, Media of 1967,' Al-Rashed wrote:

"…The war in Iraq may last several years… and may be a lightning war… and end in 45 days. Fighting is the duty of military people, while the duty of the media is not to be dragged into the trenches of the war itself… This is true with regard to respectable journalism."

"But when we examine the Arab media, [we find] that little has changed since the previous century. It seems as if today's wars are no different than those of forty years ago. At that time, the Arab media jumped ahead of the Arab armies by making false predictions. They assumed that publishing a headline about downing 100 Israeli warplanes in the war of 1967 would build self-confidence and may even come true in the future. However, those who doze off and wake up in front of Arab TV will not forgive the [Arab] media [for] its lies when the smoke clears up and the truth is seen in full."

"I [understand] the feelings of my colleagues, the Arab journalists, who deal with events emotionally rather than reasonably. They collect fragments of news reports that suit their hopes. But professionally, a journalist who stays within the limits of the news he has, and does that impartially, renders the best service to his readers and viewers, who will thus be able to see reality as it really is."

"I know that adopting an impartial stand in the [Arab] media world is akin to suicide, because there are many who push the media into extremes, and take 'nationalistic' positions, and maintain that whoever thinks differently is committing treason against the [national] cause. [They maintain] that lying for the sake of the cause is moral and honorable. The Arab media [of today], in these hard times, is slowly turning into the 1967 media; at that time, radio announcers, analysts, and journalists exaggerated acts of courage and covered up defeats, which - historically - became a mockery."

"The Arab media today, with its clear inclination towards exaggerations and false promises of victory, is feeding the public stories that have nothing to do with the real events in the field. Hence, it is replicating the old media, despite the fact that it is broadcasting in color and using electronic technologies…"

"Before the beginning of the [1991 Gulf War], Arabs who supported the Iraqi regime came up with floods of promises that it would be a great war, a second Vietnam, and that tens of thousands of the invaders would return in body bags, and that the Gulf would become a sea of blood. We were deluged with reports about the support of the international street [for Iraq], but soon the whole thing ended with the signing of the Safwan Agreement, in which Iraq surrendered completely, to the surprise of millions…"

"The media, in its reports, should not preempt the propaganda of ministries of information... The best service that [the Arab media] can provide to the public is the truth. This way it will save its reputation that was tarnished in the past, to the point that it became the twin-sister of the inferior political regimes."

'Even Worse than the Arab Media of 1967'

In a follow-up article a few days later, Al-Rashed responded to criticisms of his previous article:

"…[The] Arab media today is worse than the media in 1967, because it is not objective and it is not impartial… The 1967 media had limited circulation, while from the media of 2003 - no one is immune since it [reaches] every house…"

"…The Arab media intentionally censored the proposals of the Iraqi opposition, although it represents segments of the Iraqi people… More importantly, they censored any reports that contradicted their [ideological] positions, such as the reports about Iraqi secret service units firing on Iraqis who were trying to escape. [Instead], the Arab media published stories reminiscent of the adventures of Sindibad, such as the story about the one farmer who downed an Apache helicopter with an old rifle. Some of the Arab media highlighted reports that the coalition forces used chemical weapons, a claim that even the Iraqi information minister did not make. Tens of stories were axed just because they contradicted what Baghdad was saying, or because their sources were American."

"The question is then, how do we know the truth when a journalist turns himself into a biased censor?"

"[Let me make clear:] I am not asking to ignore the Iraqi version, despite the fact that it is ridiculous or an outright lie. And I am not asking to report news coming from the American commanders only, even if they are truthful. I am demanding to allow the Arab individual to get the news in their two versions, in order to avoid falling into the trap of biased reports, as in 1967..."

"Today, it is a battle of information just like 1967. Every editor sits with his scissors and tells the people: this is what you are going to see, and this is what you are not allowed to hear because it features an Iraqi as Washington's supporter, or it describes the defeat of the brave [Iraqi] troops, or it looks like a propaganda campaign. There is a difference between a media tool that acts like a sifter and one that acts as a distributor. The later is better."

"[Some critics claimed] that I do not acknowledge the qualitative improvement of the Arab media. This is not the forum to evaluate the technological advancements in broadcasting - color, electronics, and speed. Unfortunately, these are not the brain-children of the Arab genius. They are imported just like the paper that we import from Sweden and the printers that we import from Germany. They are imported improvements, just like clothing, cars and watches. But the reports themselves are still published in the same old way, which is more concerned about [national] principles than about presenting the truth."

"Watch what most of the Arab cable stations - not only Al-Jazeera - are broadcasting from Baghdad. Most of them are acting as mouthpieces of the Iraqi Information Ministry. None of them had the courage to ask, just ask, during the drama about downing a plane in Baghdad and pursuing the pilots in the waters of the Tigris, no one asked the [Iraqi] Ministry of Information – which gathered [the people] and sent them to watch the drama – where is the plane, which could not have evaporated after it was downed, and [where were] the parachutes that the two [pilots] used?... Unfortunately it was a fabrication…"

"Notice the difference in press conferences on both sides. In the West, journalists are not satisfied with listening. They probe, express opposing opinions and expose lies. In our media, anything [the Iraqi Information Minister] Al-Sahhaf says is broadcast as if he was a Friday preacher in a mosque…"[2]

'Either You Get the Viewers or Someone Else Does'

In another article, Al-Rashed wrote: "The media influence reached such a point that [even] supporters of democracy started to rally behind a world dictator, and religious people started to congregate for prayer behind the leader of the [secular] Ba'ath Party…"

"Many in the [Arab] media establishments [as well as] the personnel… agreed to submit to Saddam's Information Ministry not out of conviction, but in order to ride the emotional tide that is sweeping the streets, and profit from it. I asked one of them why is it that his TV channel was taking a biased position. He answered that it was a contest, akin to a beauty contest, either you get the viewers or someone else will get them."

"We turned our media into mouth-pieces for the Iraqi Information Ministry, and they do not let the readers and viewers see anything except a biased point of view. They consider any objective discussion treason, and any impartial reporting is forbidden…"

"In this party, there are groups of dancers who profit from inflaming and inciting public sentiments. These are groups that have nothing to do with Iraq or the war. They were happy with the American invasion more than the Americans themselves. They are taking advantage of the crisis in order to recruit people ideologically… I asked one of them, 'how can you lead the protests and inflame public opinion, when tomorrow you will have to cooperate with the Americans in the region? How will you sell your oil and co-exist with the [new] political dictates? How are you going to convince those minds that have been stuffed with rejection, to deal with reality?'""In such crises, objectivity and the reflection of both sides of the issue are essential for level-headedness and for preventing this craziness that afflicts people and governments. No one is being asked to support the war… but, it is illogical that officials and the media become appendages to a collapsing regime, just because of [media] competition and the fear from the hellish rhetoric of those who are full of hate."[3]

[1]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 27, 2003.

[2]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1, 2003.

[3]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 29, 2003.

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