On Sunday (April 24) al-Jazeera's program The Iraqi Scene did a fascinating (to me!) show on the Arab media and Iraq, which directly took on the allegations against al-Jazeera and the general criticisms aired in the Iraqi media against the Arab media more generally. Among the charges recited in host Abd al Azim Mohamed's opening remarks: the Hilla incident, the Arab media's continuing insistence that Iraq is an "Arab" state, allegations about past payments to Arab journalists by Saddam's regime, accusations of bias against the new Iraqi government and ethnic (pro-Sunni Arab) biases, charges of Arab media 'incitement' or support for the insurgency - all the things that the Arab media gets grief for in the West, in other words, but here being openly debated on al-Jazeera.
The host, Abd al Azim Mohamed, began with a pair of questions: is it true that the Arab media incites the Arab street over conditions in Iraq, and why does the Iraqi media have such an aversion to the Arab world? He ran a report by al-Jazeera's Jordan correspondent, Yasir Abu Hilala, about the recent meeting between Iraqi and Jordanian journalists (which AA wrote about here). The show had four guests: Mohamed Abd al Jabbar, editor of the official Iraqi daily al-Sabah; Abdullah al Sanawi, editor of the Egyptian Nasserist weekly al Araby; Mawfiq Muhadin, a writer for the Jordanian daily al-Arab al-Yom, and Ahmed al Shaykh, editor for al-Jazeera.
Abd al Azim began the discussion with Abd al Jabar, the Iraqi editor. Abd al Jabar complained that Jordanian journalists didn't really understand the new Iraq, but said that the meeting - however tense - may have been useful in overcoming some of those gaps in perceptions and knowledge, and expressed some hope that he and the other Iraqis had changed Jordanian minds. Muhadin, the Jordanian journalist, then responded that there are sharp debates within the Jordanian media, that there is no single Jordanian perspective, and sharply rejected King Abdullah's claim that this media is "stuck in the past." He said that the Iraqi complaints were unwarranted for one important reason: if the Jordanian media wasn't reporting things that the Iraqis liked to hear, it wasn't because they were biased but rather because the situation in Iraq was in fact unpleasant.
Then the al-Jazeera editor, Ahmed al Shaykh, gave his personal (not institutional) take on the situation. Shaykh said that all the Arab media were criticized for concentrating so much on the security situation in Iraq, but he defended this - like Muhadin - on the grounds that this was in fact a vital part of what was happening on the ground in Iraq. What have we seen in Iraq in two years of American occupation, he asked? A lot of acts of violence, which did tend to outweigh whatever positive developments or good news might also be there. Ignoring the security situation would be covering up the truth, which no self-respecting media should do. Shaykh firmly rejected the allegation that al-Jazeera's coverage reflected a pre-existing political position, pointing to al-Jazeera's coverage of the Iraqi elections as an example of the station's neutrality and objectivity. Why don't we cover the good news? When there's good news, he said, we cover it - the elections, or just yesterday we did a report on the meetings of the Iraqi National Assembly and its practice of democracy - but, as everyone knows, we are limited by the fact that we are banned from covering official activities.
Abdullah al Sanawi (al-Araby, Egypt) could hardly wait to get his turn, and when he spoke he got right to the point: Iraq *is* an Arab country, and if we are accused of refusing to acknowledge that Iraq is not an Arab country, then we are guilty as charged. He was also quite testy on the accusations that the Arab public was "against Iraq": we see the occupation as a crime against the rights of Iraq, and we support the Iraqi resistance, and we think that the vast majority of Arab public opinion supports the Iraqi resistance. What's more, he went on, those who would pass judgement on the Arabs for that should remember that millions of Americans and Europeans also marched against the invasion of Iraq, and Sanawi doubts that very many of them were "for Saddam."
Abd al Jabar, the Iraqi, in turn objected to Sanawi's "speaking on behalf of the Iraqis," who he felt were quite capable of speaking for themselves now. Abd al Jabar couldn't help needling Sanawi over the fact that there was an Israeli embassy in Cairo, to say nothing of Egypt's military and political relations with the United States. He gave a story about how the cameraman for an unnamed satellite station went to a school and asked the teacher to clear all the children out of the classroom so that he could shoot a story about how Iraqi children were too afraid to attend classes.
Finally, there was a testy exchange in which Abd al Jabar accused Arab journalists of not covering the reality of Iraq. The host asked whether he would acknowledge that the Iraqi authorities had some responsibility for that, given the restrictions they have placed on the Arab media such as the ban on al-Jazeera. Abd al Jabar insisted that the Arab media operated in total freedom, except for whatever restrictions were imposed by the terrorists. Shaykh took exception. And with that stalemate, the program came to an end.
There was more than I mentioned above, obviously, but I think I captured the essentials and the tone. All very interesting - I love seeing these issues debated openly.