The Iraqi government's closure of Al-Jazeera's offices in Baghdad has sparked a fierce debate over the media's role in Iraq
The Iraqi interim government's decision to shut down Al-Jazeera's offices in Baghdad for one month came as no surprise. It was the culmination of a long-standing controversy fueled by US officials and Iraqi government circles, who accuse the Qatar-based station of deliberately slanting its presentation of the news in a way which undermines US interests in the region.
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi justified the decision by accusing Al- Jazeera of ''inciting hatred". An Interior Ministry statement said the channel failed to show the reality of Iraqi political life and had become "the voice of terrorists", in reference to the channel's regular airing of videotapes of hostage-takers.
Iraqis, however, were divided on the issue. While both the Iraqi Press Syndicate and the Muslim Ulemma Association condemned the decision, calling it unjustified, others felt vindicated in regard to a TV station they felt had been misinforming the Arab public about Iraq.
"We cannot say for certain whether or not the media did justice to the Iraqi situation," said Hamida Semism, dean of the Media School at Baghdad University. To reach such a conclusive assessment an exhaustive content analysis of the various media outlets would have to be conducted. But not only, according to Semism, did Al-Jazeera's occasional exaggerations inflame public opinion, they also sometimes "magnified minor issues while ignoring major ones" or "advocated a certain tendentious point of view". "I also think that the Western media was gravely remiss in covering many of the humanitarian plights suffered by the Iraqi people," he said.
Many Iraqis share the same view. "The Arab media wants to maintain the status quo so they can stay in business and increase their fame in the Arab world on the pretext that they are covering Iraq," said Mohamed Raed, an Iraqi engineer. But he also believes that the Western media has also followed a skewed agenda when covering Iraq: "I have yet to see any reports on major US or European news programmes covering Iraqis who were killed along with their families in their cars simply because an American soldier was suspicious of them," Raed said.
Have the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison altered Iraqi opinion on the Western media? Political analyst Mohamed Kadhim thinks that Iraqis had long attempted to alert the media to abusive prison practices, but to no avail. He also pointed out that when the American media finally reported the story it did not focus on Iraqi suffering but on US domestic considerations, such as giving Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry an opening to attack Bush.
Media critics, however, condemned the closure of Al-Jazeera's office, calling it an attack on freedom of expression. Some Arab media critics saw it as a sign of the interim government's tendency to stifle nascent freedoms in Iraq. One Arab observer challenged the Iraqi government to issue the same ban on US networks which, he believes, "have politically slanted their coverage of the Iraqi scene and have no moral qualms about showing patriotism and pride for what the US soldiers do in Iraq".
Post-war Iraq has given birth to a plethora of television channels with an eye on Iraqi viewers. Along with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, Iraqis have access to a host of other networks, including two independent Iraqi channels, Al-Sharqiya, owned by Saad Al-Bazzaz, editor in chief of Azzaman newspaper, and Al-Deyar. There are also two American-financed channels, Al-Hurra and Al-Iraqiya.
Meanwhile, Egypt's Orascom company, in a joint venture with Video Cairo, a private TV production company, will soon launch a new Baghdad-based channel called Nahrein, meaning "the two rivers".
Al-Sharqiya attracts a wide Iraqi audience because many of its programmes focus on the problems and concerns of Iraqi viewers while providing light-hearted relief with comedy sketches. According to Baghdad University professor Jinan Abdul-Karim, Al-Sharqiya is more of a family-viewing channel, but for the news she prefers Al-Iraqiya "more than Arab satellite channels".
Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad contributed to this report