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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006

BALANCING WESTERN COVERAGE

Al-Jazeera English: the plot is thickening


LONDON -- The launch of Al-Jazeera English, the English arm of Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, on Nov. 15 was a notable addition to the growing global efforts aimed at counterbalancing American-European domination over world media.

It's still too early of course to appraise, in any serious fashion, academic or otherwise, the performance of Al-Jazeera English, and whether it has lived up to its own ideals and the expectations of its projected audience. It must be said, however, that the clash of discourses and the calls for a balanced media is hardly new. This topic is in dire need of urgent and continual discussion.

Clearly, the need for Al-Jazeera, and subsequently its English service, came from the realization that the presentation of events in Arab countries are far from fair in the mainstream media in the United States and elsewhere in the West. Further, the public's opinion of these events are not only limited, but bits and pieces that they may perceive are often tainted.

How much does the average person in the West know about the Middle East's key conflict, that between Israel and the Arabs, primarily the Palestinians? How much of that knowledge is molded by the media, and how much by personal discovery predicated on one's own objective reasoning?

Answers may differ, but it remains true that opinions formed regarding distant conflicts like that of the Middle East tend to be homogeneous in nature, and for the most part fail to deviate from the predominant media narrative espoused by the mainstream.

Further, how much influence do states have on their media, being mindful that ideally the media should be divorced from the public sector, and therefore an independent and unbiased critic? While states cannot prevent events or guarantee absolute power for themselves, they've learned of the value of the media and its ability to forge a favorable climate of public opinion that incidentally seems consistent with that of the state.

Public opinion is molded in the Western mainstream media by consistently pressing particular issues, while repressing others. For example, it is quite rare that a routine attack by Israeli forces on the civilian population in Palestine makes headline news, but a reaction to such an onslaught, such as a suicide bombing, would be a leading story and priority for news outlets everywhere.

In doing so, public opinion is slowly conditioned to think that Palestinian lives are not as significant as Israeli lives, and that Palestinian attacks are far more frequent and brutal. And while these policies are certainly mandated by the upper echelons of any given media institution, they are effective in not only tainting the public's view of events on the ground, but the reporters who compile those facts as well. Such policies are intolerable and should be recognized as biased policies.

Another obvious example is the Iraq war. The U.S. media, and to a lesser degree the British media, though they might allow for a controlled debate regarding the methods and tactics used to win the war, seem in unison regarding the "admirable" objectives of the war. The BBC hesitates little to use such assertions often infused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair such as "liberating" Iraq, bringing "democracy" to the Iraqis, and so forth. The margin allowed by the BBC is whether the post-invasion period has allowed for a complete liberation or whether full democracy is possible considering the civil strife, thus hardly ever questioning the original sins -- the unwarranted, illegal invasion and subsequent occupation. U.S. media remain, of course, the extreme example.

In Afghanistan the picture is equally tainted and dishonest. How often do we hear of a meaningful debate about the true intention of the war on that poor, ruined country? Almost never. Commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Afghanistan invasion, CNN, the BBC and numerous other Western media outlets dispatched their reporters to Kabul and other Afghan towns to examine the situation in that country after years of violent Taliban "resurgence" and coalition "reconstruction" efforts. They examined the plight of women, education, the health sector, security, drug trafficking, etc. Some of the reports were indeed astounding.

But such a selective examination was clearly a wholehearted embrace of the U.S. government's claim that its war on Afghanistan was motivated by such noble objectives as freeing women from the grip of extremism, improving the plight of ordinary Afghans, etc. These objectives were only introduced when the original ones failed, such as the capturing of Osama bin Laden, an objective that the media had also touted in the early months of the war. It was conveniently dropped by the media when it was dropped as an official priority of Western governments.

Western journalists freely and often courageously challenge the failure of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan to improve the lives of the people as the situation there is worsening and drug trafficking -- mostly from Afghanistan to Europe via Iran -- is at an all-time high. But again, there are limits to this journalistic audacity: Only the likes of Australian journalist John Pilger still question the original objectives of the war, which, like Iraq, is also being lost.

It is equally important to truthfully examine the state of the Arab media, especially with the advent of Al-Jazeera English, regardless of how it wishes to define itself.

The many years of controlled press in the Arab world has produced two equally alarming phenomena: one restrictive that champions the viewpoint of the authority, and another overtly impulsive that discounts the authority and offers itself as the only viable alternative.

Will Al-Jazeera be that third voice that speaks truth to power, yet neither self-congratulating nor reactionary? Is that even possible, considering how Al-Jazeera is itself funded and politically shielded? The debate is hardly meaningful if rashly examined.

It ought to be said, however, that without a serious challenge to the prevailing media-control mechanism, a reordering of media priorities and a re-examination of the relationship between the media and the state, it's most likely that media distortions will continue to afflict the collective imagination of entire societies. This, in turn, will shape their views of themselves and of the world around them, and therefore prejudice the way they define their views and responsibilities toward global conflicts, whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Ramzy Baroud's latest book is "The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle" (Pluto Press). The book is available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press and online at: www.Amazon.com.


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