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Sunday, April 18, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Media favors Al-Jazeera over government


In his new book, "The Unconquerable World," Jonathan Schell explains how "people's war" came to be the dominant form of international conflict in the nuclear age. People's war subordinates all aspects of warfare to politics, because only through politics can the strength of the people be harnessed to defeat an enemy that is materially more powerful.

Some people's wars are violent (Vietnam) and some are not (the collapse of the Soviet Union, the defeat of apartheid in South Africa). What they all have in common is a concerted challenge to an oppressive or imperialist force. Though the Americans do not see themselves as oppressors or imperialists -- they see themselves as liberators -- and claim the insurgency is not a national movement, the current situation in Iraq has many earmarks of a people's war.

A central aspect of the conflict is the use of the media as a weapon. It appears the hostage-taking tactics utilized by some Iraqi militants are meant to draw the world's attention to the attack on Fallujah so that pressure will be brought to bear on the United States to back off. Though these kidnappings have a slapdash, improvised quality to them, they've been effective in ways that even their perpetrators hadn't dreamed of.

The kidnapping of three Japanese civilians galvanized Japan for a week and forced its citizens to consider their government's real reasons for sending Japan Self-Defense Forces to Iraq. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he would not be blackmailed into pulling the SDF out of Samawah. They are in Iraq for ostensibly humanitarian (rebuilding infrastructure) and long-term strategic (Japan wants Iraqi oil) reasons, but the kidnappings made plain the immediate reason, which is politics.

The SDF are there because Japan needs to show solidarity with its greatest ally, the United States. The militants understand this as well as anyone. By taking hostages, they called Tokyo's "humanitarian" bluff and provoked the Japanese people into thinking. (The militants must have been howling with glee when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Japan for a meeting with Koizumi as the hostage crisis peaked. They couldn't have asked for better timing.)

The militants also gained unwitting allies in the families of the hostages, who immediately applied pressure on the government to bring back the troops if that would guarantee their loved ones' release. The media, demonstrating its usual lack of perspective, allowed the families to hog the airwaves. The backlash was swift, with many people saying the hostages were naive and reckless and their families selfish and unreasonable. The weeklies were particularly harsh.

Nevertheless, the militants got what they wanted, namely wider recognition of the Iraq situation from their point of view. Whether or not the insurgency represents a minority of the Iraqi population, as the Americans claim, has become less important than the fact that many Japanese are now aware that U.S. forces have killed a lot of people in Fallujah over the past two weeks.

The Arabic news service, Al-Jazeera, can thus be seen as either a valuable tool or an exploitable dupe. Americans have repeatedly said that the service plays into the hands of extremists, and have done whatever they can to shut Al-Jazeera out of Iraq. Al-Jazeera's existence is what makes tactics like hostage-taking effective -- the kidnappers did not contact the Japanese government directly, they just dropped a video off at Al-Jazeera -- but condemning Al-Jazeera for playing such a role is like condemning skyscrapers because they make better targets for terrorists.

Al-Jazeera has become a central player in the Iraq conflict since it is the main source of information for most Iraqis, and as such it has tried to act responsibly. It edits out the more disturbing images from the videos it receives from militant groups. The service even opened its facilities to Japanese media. Last Monday, a TV Asahi reporter was allowed in the newsroom -- something, apparently, the news service has never done before -- and she discussed the kidnapping candidly with a news director, who said "We really want to help."

The Japanese government didn't act like it wanted the kind of help Al-Jazeera provides. Last Tuesday, it told members of the official hostage crisis team not to talk to reporters because doing so might jeopardize the lives of the hostages. Given the general feeling that the crisis team was groping in the dark, the move seemed to be aimed at controlling spin.

Japanese reporters told foreign media that the government's reticence forced them to turn to Al-Jazeera for information. Several outlets talked directly to Mazhar al-Delemi, the self-appointed "mediator," and everyone picked up the story that the militants initially decided not to release the hostages because Koizumi called them "terrorists."

"I'd like you to consider whether discussing the matter [of Koizumi's 'terrorist' comment] helps get the hostages released," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told the press last Wednesday, acknowledging that he received the information the way everyone did, through the media. The public reaction, like the public reaction to the kidnappings, then got back to the militants via Al-Jazeera faster than you could say "credibility gap," and seems to have had something to do with the hostages' eventual release. And so it goes, back and forth, over the heads of governments and others who are materially more powerful. The camcorder is mightier than the sword.



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