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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Foreign reporters mixed on Tokyo's new Mideast role


By REIJI YOSHIDA and KAHO SHIMIZU
Staff writers

The Ground Self-Defense Force dispatch to Iraq has been viewed overseas by some as a significant political move by Japan to boost the role of its military on the international stage.

But for foreign journalists who watched Tokyo's response to the Iraq war over the past year, perceptions vary.

Those who spoke to The Japan Times on the first anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led war on Iraq said political developments in Japan received considerable media coverage in their home countries, but the focus differed, depending in part on the nations' own political situations.

Michel Temman, correspondent for the French daily Liberation, called the troop dispatch a historical decision.

But he said the lack of a strong public opposition movement in Japan came as a big surprise, standing in stark contrast to the reactions in his home country on the issues concerning the Iraq war.

"If it were in Paris, you would have massive demonstrations that are incomparable to the ones you saw here," he said.

Commercial TV "should have aired a three- or four-hour prime-time live program that would have guests, including Prime Minister Koizumi to discuss whether to send (the) GSDF to Iraq," he said.

But surprisingly, the prime-time TV hours were dominated by comedies and dramas at the same time the government was deciding on the SDF deployment, he said.

The domestic political situation in South Korea meanwhile had a significant impact on how Japan was covered in that country.

Ko Song Cheer, deputy chief editor of the major daily The Dong-A Ilbo, said the media discussed Japan's decision by comparing it with Seoul's political dilemma between upholding its alliance with the United States and doubts over the reasons for the war -- the same dilemma that confronted Japanese political leaders.

The dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq was a topic of fierce media debate, and some conservative media firms argued that Seoul should quickly send additional troops, pointing to Japan's dispatch, Ko said.

South Korea has deployed 700 troops to Iraq to engage in reconstruction efforts, and plans to send 3,000 more this year.

According to Ko, many South Koreans who opposed the dispatch of their nation's troops have expressed concern that the SDF dispatch would result in an expanded Japanese military role overseas.

But compared with the past, more people now approve of Japan's dispatch, because South Korea itself has been facing a similar political situation, Ko said.

Kamal Gaballa, Tokyo bureau chief of major Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, said Japanese people, when discussing the war in Iraq, lack a focus on Palestinian issues.

"If you want to solve the problem of the Middle East (and bring about) stability, Iraq is not the main problem," he said, while Israel is.

Khaldon Azhari, a correspondent for PETRA Jordan News Agency and MBC Middle East Broadcasting, suggested that his reports reflected the general sentiment of Arabs, who tend to have a favorable view of Japan.

"I don't really criticize Japan, because relations between Japan and Arab countries are really good," said Azhari, who is of Syrian origin. "And also I don't think Japan has any negative plans against any Arab countries."

But most Arabs do not know much about Japan's security alliance with the U.S., which includes hosting U.S. military bases.

"Basically, Japan is providing land for launching attacks. But (many Arab people) don't realize this is a fact," he said.

In Azhari's view, 90 percent of the media coverage of Japan in the Arab world depends on translations by Western news agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press and AFP, because of the costs of running media operations here and the relatively minor interest of Arabs regarding news from Japan.

Najib El-Khash, another Syrian journalist and documentary filmmaker who has been in Japan for six years, said this nation's stock is falling in the Arab world.

"I feel that the image of Japan in the Arab world is turning from that of a friend and role model to (those) ranging from an enemy to a no-longer-reliable friend," El-Khash said via e-mail in response to questions from The Japan Times. He is currently in the Middle East to cover Arab views toward Japan.

"The SDF dispatch to Iraq perplexed Arab media, who had for decades established (as) the image of Japan the oasis of peace and philanthropy, and the image of the U.S. as an imperialist power which caused so much suffering in the Arab region," he said.

El-Khash said he tried to highlight in his reports the gap between the pacifist sentiment among the Japanese people and the policies of the government concerning the war in Iraq.

He said everyday Arab media coverage of the miserable plight of the Iraqis could overshadow the humanitarian nature of the SDF activities in Samawah, southern Iraq.

"The huge moral support that the U.S. is receiving through Japan's dispatch to Iraq will remain much more visible in the media than the developmental projects that the SDF will execute in Samawah," he said.



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