A B C Media Report Al Jazeera


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A B C Media Report Al Jazeera

  1. 1. The Media Report: 10 April 2003 - Shooting the Messenger - © 2003 Australian Broadcasting Corporation It's been a bad week for journalists covering the war in Iraq, but especially bad for the Arab satellite network, Al Jazeera, whose Baghdad reporter was killed when their office was bombed. The network's editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Hilal, is not convinced the attack was accidental. We also reflect on the media coverage of the war to date with Neil Hickie from the Columbia Journalism Review; and we'll find out about the Blair Government's new approach to the Arab media. Mick O'Regan: Hello, and welcome to The Media Report. This week, in what already feels like the concluding episodes of the fighting in Iraq, we're considering the risks taken by journalists covering the war, and allegations that some media outlets have actually been targeted. And we'll also speak to one of America's most eminent media commentators, to get some initial reflections on the coverage. Well as many of us have seen and heard, and as Peter and the Breakfast team have so comprehensively canvassed, the events of the past 24 hours have dramatically changed the tone of the media's coverage from Iraq. Breathless journalists are now reporting on the exultant mood in the Iraqi capital, as statues topple and people celebrate. It may not yet be the end of the war, but the media is certainly declaring the end of Saddam Hussein. However for media personnel in the city, it hasn't all been good news, as the deaths of three journalists in the past couple of days have shown. The Arab satellite TV network, al Jazeera, has been central to the news of the fighting, after US forces hit the network's Baghdad office, killing a reporter and wounding a cameraman. Al Jazeera's operations were also hit during the war in Afghanistan. Last night I spoke to the Editor-in-Chief of al Jazeera, Ibrahim Hilal, and began by asking him to described what happened to his Baghdad bureau. Ibrahim Hilal: We have two places operational in Baghdad, one is our office and the other place in the press centre in the Palestine Hotel. The same case of Abu Dhabi TV, they have two places. Their own building which is nearby our building, and the press centre. I think both of us, I'm sure of al Jazeera, we gave the Pentagon and the military officials here in Central Command in Qatar, we gave them the co-ordinates of our location in Baghdad, our office location in Baghdad. We gave them exactly where is the building, in which street. That happened two months ago. What happened exactly this morning, a couple of tanks, American tanks, were exchanging fire with Iraqi tanks, just beside the office. Most of the staff went out of the office, apart from the reporter, Tareq Ayoub and one of the assistant cameramen. They were on the roof, giving us live shots during this exchange of fire. Suddenly they saw an American plane approaching them, flying over the building for a couple of minutes, and then shooting the building with two rockets. When they entered the building they found Tareq Ayoub killed, and the cameraman was injured. Mick O'Regan: Have you been given any explanations for why the attack occurred? Has anyone tried to explain it to you? Ibrahim Hilal: No. We asked Central Command in Dohar to comment on that .They didn't comment. They said We only guarantee the safety of journalists working with the American troops, not the others. Mick O'Regan: Did you raise with them that the military or the Pentagon at least, had been given the co-ordinates to your building? Ibrahim Hilal: Yes. Central Command didn't want to comment on that. Mick O'Regan: Do you think it was a targeted attack in any way? Ibrahim Hilal: I think so. Mick O'Regan: A targeted attack because you are a media outlet? Ibrahim Hilal: If you compare what happened to us here this time in Baghdad, and what happened to us in Kabul in November 2001, and what happened to the Palestine Hotel, which was full of journalists, one of the Reuter's cameramen was killed in the accident, four others were injured. Abu Dhabi TV building as well faced some shootings and the horrible escape from the building, I think all of these incidents would lead you to one conclusion: that the American/British Coalition want to say that journalists working from the Iraqi side should stop working. They have to shut their mouth. They have to leave the Iraqi side of this war, and they have to cover from the American side only. Mick O'Regan: And what's your response to that? Ibrahim Hilal: We are still studying how can we respond, we now want to immediately retrieve our reporter's body from Baghdad, we want to expatriate him to his home in Amman. We wanted our reporters in other places in Iraq to be much safer. This is our main concern now, and we are still studying the next step. Maybe we'll go to a legal action against the American government. Mick O'Regan: What would that legal action involve? Ibrahim Hilal: Our legal experts will study it, I don't have anything to say on that. Mick O'Regan: The other attack that occurred was to hack into the al Jazeera website; again, do you think that was a targeted response to criticism? Ibrahim Hilal: I think so, because the hackers were very advanced. They managed to hack the system and the host in Paris, and in America they managed to do that, and they managed to stop our website for nearly one week. I think they came from a very advanced organisation. Mick O'Regan: So for one week you had no online functions at all? 1/4
  2. 2. Ibrahim Hilal: No. Mick O'Regan: How many people do you imagine? Is it possible to give a percentage of your overall audience that would access you online? Is it a widely-used means of reaching al Jazeera? Ibrahim Hilal: Yes. Online is about 40-million download, it's a huge number, and people watching al Jazeera estimated at 35, 40- million as well. Mick O'Regan: Mr Hilal, what's your response generally to the criticism often raised in the American media that al Jazeera is biased to I suppose an Arabic perspective, that in a way it's not neutral? Ibrahim Hilal: I think they follow al Jazeera, only they don't follow other Arabic networks. Al Jazeera is the most objective Arabic network. The other TV networks like al Manar, el Arabia, Dubai TV, some governmental TVs, they all take positions with the Iraqi side. Al Jazeera is the only TV working from there like an American side, objectively. Al Jazeera used to be accused from the Arab street people as an American channel. They used to accuse us of being a Zionist tool, the reason because we were the first-ever Arabic channel to interview Israeli officials. Israelis are normal citizens on our screens. We participate in changing the democratic environment in the region. We participated in the reconciliation between religions and cultures in the region. I think the vice-versa, we were fighting in the same battle with the West against dictatorships, against the single mind in the region, but actually after September 11th, the American point of view totally completely changed and it was clear from Mr Bush's statement at that time, 'Either you are with us, or with the terrorists.' This is a statement from Washington. If you are not with the American point of view, you should be against the American point of view, which is totally wrong. Mick O'Regan: There has been commentary in Australia, and I imagine in other countries, that al Jazeera has had a much greater focus on injury sustained by people in the war, and images of death and wounded people. Have you had that as a policy, to show more graphic accounts of the results of the war? Ibrahim Hilal: Simply we have to show whatever we see, we have to show whatever we have, because we couldn't hide for example, shots of American soldiers being killed, because its part of the tragedy. Spoilt all the tragedy to show that not only Iraqis being killed in this war, there are Americans, and we consider the American soldiers are innocent as well because they didn't have a political agenda before going to Iraq, they are normal soldiers and they were killed, and we have to show both side's tragedies, that's why we focused on whatever we can reach of shots from Baghdad and from other parties. We are 24-hour news channel, we have every day press conferences from the Pentagon, from Central Command here in Doha, from Washington, political conferences, from London we have regularly American and British guests, so we cannot be accused of being anti the American point of view because of some shots we showed of civilians being killed, because it's difficult to reach the military casualties in any war, the only shots we can reach are the civilian people being killed or injured. Mick O'Regan: Mr Hilal, in the period that follows this war, when there is the reconstruction of Iraq, there has been much debate about the establishment of a template of democracy, that Iraq might become the example of democracy in the Middle East. As far as your understanding of the media in Iraq, what do you imagine the shape of a post-war Iraq media might be? Do you think it will be privately owned, will it be government owned? Do you have a sense of how the media landscape will look? Ibrahim Hilal: My concern now is the population of Iraq after the war, because I cannot imagine normal life in Iraq after this war. After this war, the normal life would be very difficult at least. You'll have for example in Nasyriah we had one reporter telling us very frank news about Iraqi people killing each other, in Basra, Iraqi people killing each other. Iraqi opposition are killing Iraqis used to work with the regime. How can you imagine media operations after that? Everybody will think of what background of you and me and the others before dealing with you. Because you have Baath party ruling for more than 35 something, and Baath party had more than 7- million members. They are all accused, you cannot deal with them after the war. It's really a difficult and delicate situation. Mick O'Regan: Ibrahim Hilal, the Editor-in-Chief of al Jazeera television network, speaking to me from Qatar. The US military described the deaths of the journalist as tragic and denied targeting media operations, stressing how dangerous it was for people to be in the Iraqi capital. Mick O'Regan: Now to a British perspective on the war of words over Iraq. Compared to President George W. Bush, Tony Blair's had a much tougher task in convincing his parliament and people about the decision to go to war. And the media in that country has been similarly divided. The man charged with getting out the government's message is Alistair Campbell, the Director of Communications for the British government, and a key advisor to Downing Street. On a flight back to London from the US last week, the ABC's correspondent, Matt Peacock, managed to speak to Mr Campbell about the British government's attitude to the media and the coverage of the conflict. Alistair Campbell: The media, and this happened even before Iraq, when I was very conscious during Kosovo and Afghanistan, the media has itself changed the nature of conflict. If you take something like Kosovo, militarily there was never any doubt. If you put together the forces of NATO against the forces of Milosovic's regime, there was never any doubt. The only doubt was actually whether we could sustain public opinion sufficient to make sure that the democratically-elected governments that make up NATO would see through the mission that they set themselves upon. We saw the same thing with the Taliban, we're seeing the same thing now. Militarily there's no question at all. This thing will be won and it will be seen through. But meanwhile, and this is the other big difference, which I don't think our media, the media in democracies, makes enough, understands sufficiently or communicates sufficiently, more to the point, dictatorships are at a huge inbuilt advantage when it comes to, if you like this battle for public opinion. Democracies, we're expected to explain, we cannot tell lies in the way that dictatorships tell lies, all the time, both about themselves and about us, and I think that gives them (I'm not suggesting by the way that we should be telling lies) but it gives them an advantage in the way this thing is prosecuted. Saddam Hussein can go and do a broadcast and you know, how many of our media then stand and say 'What an amazing propaganda coup that was.' Bin Laden can sit in his cave and throw out a video and you get BBC, CNN and all these other guys saying 'What a propaganda coup.' I mean, all that's happened is they exploit, in their eyes, the weaknesses of our 2/4
  3. 3. democracy, the weaknesses of our media systems, they exploit them to their own advantage. And I think sometimes our media allows them to do that. Matt Peacock: What about people like al Jazeera, they're providing a kind of western media in an Arabic context; how much of a challenge is that? Alistair Campbell: Well we have changed our communications to try to adapt to the fact, two realities if you like, one is, (and we have to be honest about this) there is not much understanding or appreciation in the Arab world for what we say. Now we have to address that, because it is important the perceptions that people have in the Arab and Muslim world about Britain and the British government's policies. So for example, we have set up a dedicated Islamic media unit within the Foreign Office. We have a Foreign Office official who virtually full time appears speaking in Arabic on Arabic media and does a very good job at it. We have a significant outreach communications team that is constantly trying to get our message out there. Now, when you look at some of the output from not just al Jazeera, but some of the other Arabic media, we've got a huge uphill battle there, and we've got to engage in it. We've set up a system now where during the current period of military action and hopefully beyond, we are getting a minister every day to set aside one hour in their diary to do Arabic media, because it's important, it matters that they hear what we are genuinely saying as opposed to what is being mediated to them. Matt Peacock: And it's a contrast from this sort of American approach I guess, of hiring a Public Relations company to sell the image of America, it's not how you can do it. Alistair Campbell: Well what they've done in that is part of their communications. In fact they have people working to get the message out in the Arab media the whole time. People are getting their messages through all sorts of sources, some reliable, some not reliable. We have got to be getting our message through to them direct, and that means understanding the different nature of the media that you have in different parts of the world, understanding that sometimes requires different strategies to get your people on to them, but then doing it, getting them out there, getting the message out there. And over time, you can change perception, but it is a very slow job. Matt Peacock: So what different strategies have you adopted in terms of this war, the Arabic media, apart from what you've just outlined, has there been any general change of approach that you've had? Alistair Campbell: The first thing, I think the most important thing we do is we have very close co-ordination with the Americans in particular, where because you have all this embedded media, where we are being more open than we've ever been before, we're getting greater access than has ever happened in a military situation, but the downside for that if you like, is that sometimes events can be reported before we're in a position to contextualise and comment upon them. That requires really close co-ordination, we've got those systems in place. But it also requires you to understand that something that happens in any part of the world at any time, any day, can become the main source of news and comment and potentially your main source of political difficulty, on the other side of the world in a nano-second. So in a sense, what we've had to do is to try to get the systems in place to deal with that. They're being tested, because although we had systems like this in place post-September 11th, this is a whole new thing. The political situation is different, the diplomatic situation is different, the humanitarian situation is different, the military situation is different. So these are new challenges that we're just having to address as we go. And I think we're doing pretty well. Mick O'Regan: An in-flight conversation between the British government's Director of Communications, Alistair Campbell, and our own Matt Peacock, the London correspondent for the ABC. Mick O'Regan: In the United States, the Bush Administration is urging caution regarding any depiction of the war as being over. However, already the US Vice President, Dick Cheney, who was Defence Secretary during the 1991 Gulf War, has publicly acknowledged that the embedding of journalists has been a major success, changing the way the military and the media understand and respect each other. He also raised a laugh by suggesting the only weakness in the coverage had come from the retired military figures providing critical analysis from their embedded positions in television studios. So, has a new template been struck for reporting in times of war? Neil Hickie is Editor-at-large for the Columbia Journalism Review, published by the Columbia University in New York. This morning I asked him whether he thought the coverage from Iraq had changed both the nature and amount of information that ordinary people receive about war. Neil Hickie: Well I think it has, indeed I think it's the first time that this experiment has been used. Of course in World War II, correspondents were in effect embedded with the units that they moved with, but since Vietnam, it's been greatly different. I was a correspondent in Vietnam as well as in the Persian Gulf, and in Vietnam of course, the freedom of access was complete; in the Persian Gulf it was practically non-existent, and now we have an entirely different situation whereby journalists are, as they say, embedded with military forces. The general report card on that is that it has worked rather well, and of course there have been perils, supposed, that might occur. One of them is whether or not embedded journalists would become too rah-rah, or too much on the home team, and showing too much favouritism. I'm not sure that has happened, the consensus here is that that has not necessarily happened, that the reporting has been pretty objective. The difficulty of course is the reporting has not been highly contextual. What we have seen is military battles, but very little, or far less than we really should, about how this conflict is seen in the rest of the world, particularly in the Arab world, what the geopolitical consequences are going to be, and that whole contextual question of how does this fit into American diplomacy in the years ahead, and what will be the effects of this conflict in the months and the years just ahead. That kind of thing has gotten far less attention than the hour-by-hour and day-to-day reporting of gun battles. Mick O'Regan: Now do you think that the audience watching the coverage, often the live coverage that's emerged from Iraq are wanting that sort of analytical coverage? Because sometimes it seemed to me that there was almost a reality TV feeling to the coverage, and that possibly audiences that have grown up on the immediacy of the current formats of television, would have found that type of coverage quite interesting, you know, dropping in here to hear tanks blast and troops move forward and seeing another slice of life from somewhere else. Do you think that the networks realised that the audiences would be satisfied with that sort of action adventure style of reporting as opposed to lots of analysts sitting in chairs in studios? 3/4
  4. 4. Neil Hickie: Well you know television doesn't really do context very well. It's impossible for any news consumer to know what is going on simply by watching either the cable networks or the broadcast networks here in the US, because there is so little context. But there is context, in of course our best American newspapers, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the others. The New York Times for example has been running a special section of 12 or 16 pages every single day, giving every imaginable aspect of the war. Anybody who reads that is going to have a very good idea of what it all means. But of course, that is read by what? a mere million people a day, or so, in a nation of 290-million people. So it's insufficient. Mick O'Regan: And on the other hand, just to cut in there, but on the other hand, I'd be interested in your views on, say, Fox News, the Murdoch cable network particularly, that has been widely covered because of the partisan nature of its broadcasting and particularly the partisan comments of its hosts, or anchor people they're called in the States, that basically indicating that they were for the American effort, and if you weren't for it, then you too could almost be considered an enemy. Do you think that a facility of cable television has allowed this sort of niche broadcasting to have overt sympathies expressed on air? Neil Hickie: Well the Fox News channel of course represents the views of Mr Murdoch, and it does not depart from those views. It has been throughout the war and before, and will continue into the future, to be a kind of cheerleader for the policies of the Administration. That's understood. The other networks of course have not been anything like that. And the Fox network of course, is the leading cable channel in the United States. At the moment a cable news channel, as regards its ratings. So apparently there is an audience out there for high patriotism in cable news, because they are succeeding with audiences with that kind of programming. Whether that is proper journalism or not, perhaps it's for others to say, it certainly is not objective journalism. It tends to be journalism that follows the Administration line, and is a flag-waving kind of attitude, which the other networks have not taken up. Mick O'Regan: Just to come back to this issue of embedding, because it's been one of the key features of the media coverage. Vice- President Dick Cheney has already talked about the enormous success of it and how it's changed the relationship between the military and the media, but one of the things that's concerned me is there seems to now be a real distinction between the independent journalists who decided not to embed themselves with Coalition military forces and those that are, and there's almost a sense after the death of journalists in the strikes against the Palestine Hotel and against the offices of al Jazeera that the Pentagon has basically said, 'Look, we told you it was dangerous. The only way to secure journalists is to be embedded.' Do you think this is sort of pushing the idea that in future conflicts that's how it will occur, that the belligerents will basically want to bring their media with them, and independent media will be increasingly at risk? Neil Hickie: Well certainly it's been much more dangerous for the unilateral media, that is the unembedded media, than it has been for the embedded media. The embedded media depend for their safety upon the unit that they're travelling with, and the unilaterals are on their own. So automatically, and naturally and innately, there is a difference there between how they operate. But certainly the embed system will be the way of the future as regards coverage of this kind of conflict. Let us hope that there are fewer and fewer such conflicts in the future, but nevertheless, it's awfully hard, as they say, to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Once journalists have been given this level of access and freedom, it's awfully hard to take it away, and I think that the journalists will in fact respond by saying, 'We are eager to have this level of access in the future.' Certainly as recently as the Afghanistan crisis where access was almost totally denied, that this is a major departure from that procedure, and the journalists have responded positively to it. The great majority of journalists in the US are favourably inclined towards the embed system, and of course there should always be unembedded journalists who want to take their own chances, who want to go out and find the other story outside the safety and the boundaries of the embrace of a particular military unit and make their own way. That's a matter of choice for their editors and for themselves, and I suspect it will be that way in the future. Mick O'Regan: What about the issue that has arisen about the death of journalists, and I'm thinking here of the International Federation of Journalists who this week condemned both sides in the conflict, and brought up the term 'crimes of war' in relation to the attacks on journalists and the deaths of media staff. How seriously are those calls being treated, do you think, by the US Administration and the US media? Neil Hickie: Well we haven't heard any expression so dire as 'crimes of war'. Of course there was the terrible incident at the Palestine Hotel, and there are two versions of just what happened. Was there outgoing fire from the Palestine Hotel? Or was there not? The journalists who were inside say that there absolutely was not. And the tank commander who fired those rounds and who killed those journalists, obviously was terribly mistaken, and why he did it remains to be seen. I'm sure there'll be an investigation of why that hotel was fired upon when it was clear, and well understood, that it was a haven for hundreds, literally hundreds, of journalists. So there's a severe controversy going on with regard to that matter, and we don't know the result of that. The Pentagon has simply said so far, 'Well, we told you so. It's a dangerous place. We advised all journalists to get out of Baghdad a long time ago, but the ones who decided to stay stayed, and they took their chances'. So the Pentagon has been forthcoming only to that extent, to say that 'We're going to look into it, but you should have known that, and we told you repeatedly that Baghdad is going to be a very dangerous place and you very likely should leave.' Those who did not leave remained behind to do some wonderful journalism, but this tragedy of the firing upon that hotel is something that has to be investigated and the answers found. Mick O'Regan: Neil Hickie, thank you very much for joining us on The Media Report on Radio National. Neil Hickie: Thank you very much. Mick O'Regan: And that's The Media Report for this week. Guests on this program: Neil Hickie - Editor-at-large, Columbia Journalism Review, Columbia University, New York. Ibrahim Hilal - Editor-in-chief, al Jazeera network, Qatar. Alistair Campbell - Director of Communications and Strategy for the Blair Government, UK. Presenter: Mick O'Regan Producer: Caroline Fisher 4/4