Watching the War on al-Jazeera

Hugh Miles

I have spent 12 hours every day since the start of the war watching al-Jazeera. (It’s my job: I work for a 24-hour news channel.) In my claustrophobic, prefabricated newsroom, it has sometimes seemed as if I was watching two different wars – one on al-Jazeera, the other on the Western channels. When CNN was reporting that the deep-water port of Umm Qasr was secure, al-Jazeera was still covering the fighting.

The Qatar-based channel started in 1996 as a BBC Arabic television project that never happened, and a large number of the staff are BBC-trained.[*] Its style is closer to that of British rather than American news. Before the war started, longer historical, political and educational programmes supplemented the news, again perhaps showing the station’s debt to the BBC. Al-Jazeera is now estimated to have some 50 million viewers: 10 per cent more than it had at the start of the war. It is the most popular news channel in the Arab world, ahead of al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV. Satellite subscriptions have soared in Europe, too. (‘Al-Jazeera’ is the most common search term on Lycos, three times as popular as ‘sex’.) It has eight teams of reporters on the ground in Iraq, several with coalition units, and at the moment it is the only international news channel with a team inside Basra. (Its operational base in the city, the Sheraton hotel, was hit four times last night by US artillery.) On occasion it has been criticised for airing exclusives that haven’t yet been verified by an independent source – but it is hardly the only channel guilty of that.

The station’s format is much like that of other continuous news stations, with the same straps and tags, and scrolling text – right to left – at the bottom of the page. It shares the familiar formula of studio commentary sandwiching live and pre-recorded in-the-field packages; and as on other channels, glossy graphics and thumping music break the programmes up, though al-Jazeera has better pictures – it’s rare in having a moveable camera in Baghdad – and fewer fillers than any other station.

It recently ran an interview with Colin Powell, but so far al-Jazeera hasn’t had better access to senior Iraqis than the other channels. The Iraqi Ministry of Information hasn’t been lazy about taking journalists to sites where civilians have been killed, and al-Jazeera has often been in pole position. It acquired footage of bomb damage to bridges and roads outside Baghdad that no other news channel captured, suggesting that the Iraqis were favouring it. Things appeared to change when the Iraqi authorities banned two of the network’s correspondents in Baghdad from reporting, though the reasons for the ban remain unclear. In protest, al-Jazeera declared that none of its remaining correspondents in Iraq would report anything at all any more. This decision was later partly reversed, when it was announced that al-Jazeera would resume broadcasting pictures without commentary. So far today, it has shown the British encirclement of Basra, the unloading of supplies at Umm Qasr, the battle for Baghdad (formerly Saddam International) Airport and a speech given by the Iraqi Minister for Information, allegedly written by Saddam Hussein.

The impartiality of the station has long been a matter of debate. The anchors certainly present themselves as disinterested, but much of the American media especially has doubts. Al-Jazeera has been accused of being unforgivably pro-Palestinian, anti-Western and anti-semitic, and of aiming to foment Arab opinion against the US. But presenting news ‘objectively’ is particularly difficult during a war, and the channel has often been vilified unfairly. It routinely describes Arabs who have been killed as shaheed, or ‘martyrs’; the word is much more neutral than its English equivalent, but Western critics cite its use as evidence that the channel is biased and entirely unreliable. At the same time some Arabs claim that al-Jazeera is a mouthpiece for the Emir of Qatar, and a platform for Qatari foreign policy, which is widely perceived as being pro-Western. After all, Qatar has provided the longest runway in the region for American bombers.

The Pentagon has condemned al-Jazeera for airing footage of what appeared to be several dead US soldiers, some of whom had apparently been shot in the head, and interviews with five more American servicemen and women captured by the Iraqis. The channel has always been less squeamish than the English-language news stations – it has broadcast pictures of dead and wounded Palestinians more or less unedited – but cyber attacks began when the pictures of dead US soldiers were screened, and its website has been the target of mass spamming and hacking. When the station broadcast Osama bin Laden’s speeches, the US bombed its offices in Kabul (‘by mistake’).

After an early battle at Nasiriya, al-Jazeera broadcast a thirty-second video of exuberant Iraqis celebrating over the corpses of two dead British servicemen. The anchor apologised for the ‘horrific’ pictures, explaining that ‘it is in the interests of objectivity that we bring them to you.’ An MOD spokesman said: ‘we deplore the decision by al-Jazeera to broadcast such material and call upon them to desist immediately.’ Washington again condemned the channel. When al-Jazeera showed more US prisoners, the Australian Defence Department said that its failure to pixelate the faces of captives was an infringment of the Geneva Conventions. The numerous Iraqis who have been taken prisoner live on television have not had that benefit either, of course, even though they live under a totalitarian regime which might take revenge on their families if they are recognised surrendering. The last time Donald Rumsfeld talked about the Conventions in public was to deny their provisions to prisoners taken in Afghanistan.

There is an argument for showing corpses on screen: this is a war, people are dying, and, assuming the two sides are dealt with in an even-handed manner, the media have a responsibility to show this. Al-Jazeera is certainly aware of its reputation (or notoriety), and to a degree trades on it, winning viewers who see it as the honest underdog.

Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war has also prompted the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq to take the unusual decision of withdrawing credentials from two al-Jazeera journalists. The American media might have been expected to weigh in on al-Jazeera’s behalf since they all groaned so mightily when Iraq flung CNN out after the start of the first Gulf War – but they didn’t. Having lost the support of the UN and indeed of most of the world before the war had even started, America could have tried harder to win the war of words.

General Patrick Cordingley, former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade (the Desert Rats), has said that during the first Gulf War reporting was often extraordinarily erroneous. So far in this war it has been obvious to close observers and unsurprising to everyone that both the coalition and Iraq have employed a systematic policy of disinformation. The coalition commanders told us at the outset that Iraqi troops had been surrendering in droves, that morale had collapsed in the South of Iraq and that most of the Iraqi 51st Division had become POWs. It turns out that morale has not collapsed, that the war has not been going as expected, and although a fraction of the 51st Division surrendered, most withdrew into Basra. A marine commander in Qatar dismissed Iraqi claims to have captured US troops as ‘Iraqi lies’: al-Jazeera broadcast pictures of five captured American servicemen.

The Iraqis, naturally, have made their fair share of tall claims, too, exaggerating the numbers of downed US airplanes, civilian and coalition casualties, as well as the amount of food and supplies they have stockpiled. Finding an impartial view of this war is hard. The Russian press isn’t a bad place to start: www.iraqwar.ru has a collection of articles that make startling allegations not to be found in the Western press – which isn’t to say that they are all true.

The Iraqi forces in Basra are holed up among the civilian population. They consist of irregulars – members of the Baath Party security services and the Fedayeen Saddam – and regular troops from the 51st Division, many of whom have disposed of their uniforms and are now dressed in civilian clothes. Taking Basra was not part of the original plan, but since there has been insufficient water in the city and no electricity for days, international pressure has been brought to bear on coalition commanders to prevent a humanitarian disaster. So far, the only town the coalition has successfully taken is Umm Qasr. It has a population of only six thousand, took four days to clear, and was announced as ‘secure’ three times by the MOD, although there have since been accounts of a Scud missile attack on Kuwait City originating from somewhere within the ‘secure area’. Basra will be much tougher to take without inflicting massive collateral damage or incurring politically unacceptable numbers of coalition casualties.

It’s not clear who started the rumour early in the conflict that a popular uprising was underway on the streets of Basra, that the Shia were turning against the regime, but the MOD were happy with it and there weren’t any journalists in Basra to contradict it. Except for al-Jazeera. From inside the city, the channel reported that there were no disturbances, and broadcast pictures of a deserted town centre and quiet streets. So much for the ‘popular uprising’. Since then the team in Basra has been producing exclusive, and no doubt very lucrative, pictures of the inside of a city under siege. It will be interesting to see what they come up with when the city falls.

4 April

[*] Tariq Ali wrote about the history of al-Jazeera in the LRB (22 August 2002).