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Al Jazeera Forum: Media and Power

I’m on stage at the Al Jazeera forum, speaking on a panel about Media and Power, blogging while on camera. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this over the years, though I suspect I’ll be the only one doing this from the stage at this conference, where all the bloggers appear to be Global Voices folks, sitting in the front row. It’s a great group of speakers and I’m honored to be in their company, despite what proves to be, for me, a pretty frustrating speaking format.

Christopher Dickey, the Middle East editor for Newsweek, uses his time to talk about the way the rest of the world sees the United States. Based on his experience as a foreign correspondent for 25 years, Dickey knows what the US wants from the rest of the world: “What the US wants from the rest of the world is to forget about it. Americans want to think about their future in their country and pay as little attention as possible to the rest of the world.” As a result, it’s an uphill battle for foreign correspondents. People are automatically unintererested in the stories foreign correspondents are telling. Correspondents have to seduce people into reading what people ought to be reading. Dickey reminds us that the perception that American media controls the world is pretty far from the truth – actually, American media is dying. Newsweek used to have several foreign bureaus and dozens of foreign correspondents – now Dickey is one of the very few dedicated foreign correspondents for the paper.

Dr. Faisal al-Kasim, host of Al Jazeera’s “The Opposite Direction”, brings up the contradictions of globalism. Everyone thought the world would be a small village through globalization. But it has become apparent that globalization produces its own opposite – disconnection. Arabization has used tools of globalization to produce new views of the world that contrast with the American view. America has lost the battle of media – we can see this in that America is allocating huge amounts of money to improving American image abroad. Rumsfeld and Bush complain about Arabs distorting image of Americans in Arab world. Arabs in the west are turning towards Arab media and away from Western media to get a different view of the world. France tried to ban satellite dishes because thought satellite tv would adversely effect integration of arabs into society. Arabization is not a competitor to globalization – it’s a contradiction. Before satellite TV and globalization “Arabization”, the Arab world was not united culturally to the extent that it is united now. Satellite TV achieved what generations of Arab politicians could not.

Muhammed Al Musfir of Qatar University is concerned about the language of globalization, specifically the ways in which the Arab media adopts the terminology of the West. Arab stations are not consumer based – they should reject the consumerism exported by the west and breed cizitens, not consumers. This means that Arab media needs to consider carefully the terminology it exports from Western media. When Hezbollah is mentioned in Western media, it’s immediately followed by “is supported by Iran”. Arab media does the same without thinking much about it. Media refers to people as insurgents – a word that does not translate the proper meaning – or uses the term “armed bands”. This suggests that it’s armed men, thugs, without saying thney’re freedom fighters. People who sacrifice themselves in Palestine are not called martyrs as they should be – “they are called suicide bombers so they can be graduated into being called terrorists”. In Islam, anyone who dies in defense of his home should be called a martyr.

Joseph Samaha, the editor of Al Safir in Lebanon, talks about the changes to media in Lebanon after the Hariri assasination. Lebanon had been celebrated as a place where independent journalism could flower. But in recent years, journalists and opinion makers have been killed or have survived assasination attempts. These attempts were designed to show that anyone who poses uncomfortable questions could be targetted. Since the end of the civil war in 1990s, media has suffered two kinds of pressure. Pressure has come from the Lebanese and Syrian security agencies – in the past, this pressure didn’t escalate to physical violence, but that’s recently changed. Media in Lebanon is also under attack on financial sides – magnates of politics and finance distributed TV stations amongst themselves in a way that diversity and multiplicity that characterized our former society in lebanon has retreated. There’s been an attempt at character assasination of anyone who wanted to participate in national debate either speculating on Hariri’s death or questioning his actions while he was alive. And as a result, diversity and pluralism have taken a back seat in modern-day Lebanon.

Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, was the belle of the ball, talking about her daily grassroots global news hour, emphasizing that the program is global, internationalism, unimbedded and independent. This independence, she argues, is critical because media in the US has reached an all time low, FAIR – Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, ran a study of four major nightly newscasts in the US for the two weeks aroudn Colin Powell’s speech advocating the invasion of Iraq. These stations ran 393 interviews about the invasion in these two weeks before the war – only three were representatives of the anti-war movement. This isn’t representative of actual opinion in the US, where more than half of people opposed the war. They aren’t a silent majority, but a silenced majority. More powerful than missles or bombs, the Pentagon has deployed the media to win the war.

We can see the command of the Pentagon over the media by watching the language US media uses – they’ve adopted the same codenames for operations that the Pentagon uses. Coverage of the Kuwait invasion a decade back by NBC and CBS was performed by companies owned by arms manufacturers – it’s hardly a surprise that this coverage was basically a celebration of weaponry. Coverage like this – and the recent rise of embedding journalists with military units – puts journalists in the seat of the people aiming the guns. They should be on the target end, reporting on the people who are in the gunsights. We need a real picture of the impact of war if we’re going to get a sense for the impact of the war, we need to see the people affected, the wounded soldiers and the flag-draped coffins.

It’s criticial to understand how important the targetting of journalists in war is, Amy believes. Whether 77 or over 100 have died in Iraq is a critical statistic – it’s a number we should know. When Reuters reporters were killed on the balcony of the Palestine hotel, the Pentagon reacted by saying “Baghdad is a dangerous place.” This danger makes it difficult for reporters to do their job, reporting from the target zone.

Chris Dickey reacted somewhat sharply to Goodman’s remarks, noting “It’s damned hard to cover from ground zero.” Kidnappings and security concerns mean that American media covers the American side, while Arab media covers the Arab side. We want to cover both sides… which was what Jill Carrol was trying to do when she got kidnapped. “More journalists are being killed that ever before because they’re more expendable than ever before.”

Goodman responded by apologizing for not mentioning Jill Carrol – Carroll was in Iraq not as an embedded reporter, but as one trying to get the voices of Iraqis on the ground. It’s journalists like these – or the journalist working for the Guardian films, recently detained by American authorities, who are at most risk in Iraq.

I’ll add a note about my presentation and my frustration with the panel format shortly – trying to blog the “Al Jazeera in the Mirror” panel at the moment.

2 thoughts on “Al Jazeera Forum: Media and Power”

  1. Ethan, that’s a very good, very quick summation of the presentations. Julia Day’s piece, by comparison, and in absolute terrms, was appalling.

    All the best, Chris

  2. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » What I (largely) failed to say at the Al Jazeera conference

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