April 9, 2003
A free press is currently an alien concept throughout the Arab world. Credit: Adam Butler, The Associated Press.
Last Thursday, according to Reuters and other media outlets, Ayatollah Sistani, the undisputed leader of Iraq’s Shiites, issued a fatwa ordering his countrymen not to resist the coalition forces that had come to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime. A leading Shiite foundation in London corroborated the Reuters story.
Wrong, Al Jazeera, the Arab-government-funded satellite TV network countered the next morning. It reported that Ayatollah Sistani had flatly denied the story coming from the western press. To the contrary, Al Jazeera stated, the Ayatollah and four other prominent Shiite scholars at Najaf in central Iraq, the holiest Shiite city, were exhorting Iraqis to defend the country against "the enemies of God and humanity."
But Al Jazeera didn’t have film of Ayatollah Sistani rebutting the western media reports; neither did it directly quote him. Instead, Al Jazeera relied on the most questionable of sources for its bald denial: Iraqi TV reports of the five clerics’ position, including the appearance of an aged, unidentified cleric reading what was purported to be Ayatollah Sistani’s actual edict.
Al Jazeera, dubbed the Arab CNN, is among the most credible of Arab broadcasters, and for this reason it has an immense following – an estimated 40 million viewers in the Arab world alone. But being among the best of a bad lot isn’t good enough. As Baghdad was falling, the Arabs in the Middle East overwhelmingly believed that the coalition forces were suffering major setbacks when they were not, that Iraqi forces were holding up well when they were not, that civilian casualties were high when they were not.
Many Arabs claim Al Jazeera brings balance to war reporting by providing an Arab cheering section. But countering facts with fictions only creates casualties among civilian viewers. Until Arabs have access to a free and competitive press, they will be kept in ignorance, not just about developments in the war in Iraq but about the way the world actually works.
Throughout the Arab world today, a free press is an alien concept. The government owns or controls almost all media – most governments appoint all newspaper editors, for example – and considers the press an arm of the regime. So does the Arab public. To most Arabs, who have never experienced the west’s rigorous reporting, investigative journalism, and competition for the public’s confidence that can only come of a media not dominated by the government, it is inconceivable that the western press can be trusted any more than the Arab press. In Arabic, in fact, the word for "news media" (i’laam) is the same word frequently used for "public relations."
Because Arabs have been kept ignorant by their government press, Arabs understand little about the outside world that their repressive governments don’t want them to know. Arabs consequently cannot judge the west’s intentions for themselves, leading to misunderstandings and hatreds.
All that may soon change.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the liberation of Iraq’s Kurdish areas led to a thriving press that offers Kurds meaningful media choices – residents of the city of Suleimania alone can now choose among 132 different outlets. With an array of public and private sector voices – instead of the sole official government line that existed previously – Kurds are now able to sift out fact from fiction and come to their own conclusions.
But Kurds are not Arabs – they speak Iranian dialects – and although some Kurdish media outlets provide Arabic services, they have limited credibility in the Arab world. When a group of university professors and the Kurdistan Journalists Union charged in a statement read on Kurdish television that Arab satellite stations, biased in favor of the Iraqi regime, "deliberately obscure and distort facts," for example, the reports made little impression in the Arab world.
But once a post-Saddam Iraqi government is in place, Arabs throughout the Middle East and beyond will take notice of news emanating from within Iraq’s borders. Under the democratic, open society contemplated for Iraq, Iraq would soon become the most prosperous of the Arab countries, and among the most populous, able to support many hundreds if not thousands of media outlets, and able to provide credible satellite alternatives to news services under the sway of Arab governments.
Then the truth will out. The Arab world will learn that the coalition didn’t target civilians but that Saddam’s regime did. That the coalition tried to spare holy places despite fire from within them by Iraqi soldiers. That Ayatollah Sistani, as he has since confirmed, did issue his pro-coalition fatwa, and that his right-hand man, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Khoi, went further, saying "A free Iraq shall be a living monument to our people’s friendship with its liberators."
Then Arabs will have stark choices before them. To believe the party-line that emanates from the Arab-government-controlled press, and accept the tyranny that comes with it, or to embrace democracy and sift and sort through the cacophony of views from the Iraqi people, most of whom will disagree on everything except how much better off they have become.