With his persecution of al-Jazeera, Allawi is missing a golden opportunity to send a message about freedom of expression in Iraq
September 1, 2004
By Hugh Miles
The al-Jazeera bureau in Baghdad is shut down for a month or maybe more, because, according to the Iraqi interior minister Falah al-Naqib, the network is encouraging "criminals and gangsters". Al-Jazeera claims that it is simply doing its job. So, does the Arab media's enfant terrible have anything helpful to offer, or is it inflammatory as charged?
For the last 10 months I have been studying al-Jazeera, visiting its bureaux around the world and interviewing its staff. On one level, it is obvious why the Americans and their Iraqi allies were keen to shut down the network's Baghdad bureau, especially in the run-up to a major assault on the holy city of Najaf. Al-Jazeera nearly bust up a much stronger American-led coalition before, in the winter of 2001, during the bombing of Afghanistan.
Then the network's monopoly on pictures from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan stretched the resolve of some of America's allies to breaking point. Pakistan's President Musharraf had to appeal to the US to stop the bombing before he lost control of his country. Violence against Christians broke out in Pakistan and police had to be stationed at churches, schools and hospitals.
A month ago, al-Jazeera's coverage of the kidnap of a Filipino truck driver rattled Philippine morale so much, President Gloria Arroyo was forced to pull her country's troops out of Iraq. If al-Jazeera had been there to report accidental damage to the Imam Ali mosque, all hell might have broken loose.
But what the US and the Iraqi authorities fail to take into account is that such reporting is only part of al-Jazeera's output. After 9/11, al-Jazeera started a weekly talkshow out of Washington, From Washington, during which the host interviewed many members of the US administration, as well as a variety of other politicians, Republican and Democrat.
In January, at the start of the US primary elections, al-Jazeera started another weekly show called US Presidential Race which, like From Washington, is broadcast from the Washington bureau. US Presidential Race is concerned with the forthcoming US elections: it covered most of the primaries in the major states and will continue to cover events up until the November elections and beyond, until the president's inauguration.
US Presidential Race has taken great pains to explain to Arab viewers the US political and electoral process. Al-Jazeera reporters travelled around America to meet Arab communities in different states; they asked people what they thought of the elections, what were the key issues, who they were going to vote for and why. By the time the election arrives, Arab viewers will have had an opportunity to follow the democratic process every step of the way.
More of the Democratic convention was aired on al-Jazeera than on most US networks - several hours each night, more than the combined time of the three US news networks covering the convention. Al-Jazeera's London bureau has a similar focus on British politics. Three weekly programmes come live out of London, besides which al-Jazeera gives extensive coverage to British news, politics, opposition activities and goings-on in parliament.
When the Iraqi Governing Council first banned al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya from covering any official activities in Iraq at the end of September 2003, the ban undermined the council's calls for democracy, and its stated independence from the US administration. Now the ban by the prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has similarly undermined his credibility.
Once again the Arab press has observed how life under this government, just like life under the coalition, is similar in spirit, if not in practice, to life under Saddam - journalists in the field are continually harassed, shot at and arrested and their equipment confiscated. Armed police forcibly closed down the al-Jazeera news bureaux while accusations that the channel had inside knowledge about attacks on the coalition are not substantiated with proof. Although this ban has not stopped the channel covering events inside Iraq, it has served to send a clear message to Iraqis - that freedom of expression in Iraq does not mean the same thing as it does in the west, just as civil rights for Arabs do not mean the same thing as they do in the west.
The ban has also done much to rehabilitate the station in the eyes of ordinary Arabs, who see the accusations against al-Jazeera as a mark of its independence. Hafez al-Mirazi, al-Jazeera's show host and bureau chief told me why when I spoke with him in Washington.
"The interviews we were given by the Americans, especially after the Afghan war, created some scepticism in the Arab world and drove people back to saying: 'There is something going on between those guys at al-Jazeera and the Americans. They are doing the jobs of Mossad and the CIA and the Israelis and the Americans.' Even the al-Qaida tapes, people were saying, were doctored and given to al-Jazeera in order to prove that 9/11 had been done by Arabs. The administration thinks that it is punishing us by not giving us interviews - in fact, they are not punishing us, but helping our image in the Arab world."
What the new government in Iraq should be doing is trying to engage with al-Jazeera, while tolerating the criticism that will inevitably come. That would send the message that they were serious about freedom of expression.
The Americans would do well to do the same. Unfortunately, despite a dramatic increase in the amount the US spends on public diplomacy programmes, to about $1.2bn a year, long-term investment in learning Russian during the cold war means today there is a serious dearth of Arabic speakers in the US administration. America has only two or three spokespeople capable of appearing in a debate on al-Jazeera to advocate US policy, in Arabic. And if America cannot even answer the case against it, then what can it expect but be trampled on in every argument? As Woody Allen once said, "90% of life is just showing up.".
Hugh Miles is writing a book about al-Jazeera which will be published in January
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