By Mark Leonard, Rouzbeh Pirouz. Source: International Herald Tribune, 6 Feb 2004
Last May the Iraqi people celebrated the end of Saddam Hussein's stranglehold over what they saw and heard through the media. However,Washington's controlling attitude to broadcasting in the region has left many Iraqis feeling that US commitments to free speech are more rhetoric than reality.
At the end of last year, the Baghdad bureau of the Al-Arabiya news channel was shut down when twenty Iraqi policemen stormed the building in protest at what Donald Rumsfeld described as its "close proximity" with attacks against US soldiers and its "violently anti-coalition" tone. More recently, an Al Jazeera cameraman, arrested at the scene of an explosion, was held in a maximum security prison for two months.
Accusing the Arab media of colluding with terrorists has become something of a regular habit for the Bush Administration. Tensions with al-Jazeera date back to the airing of bin Laden tapes during the war in Afghanistan, when Condoleezza Rice warned his hand movements could be passing on clandestine instructions to followers. Last April, after broadcasting footage of injured US POWs, the station's Baghdad bureau was destroyed in a US attack.
Critics in Washington fail to realise that that Al-Jazeera and other independent stations are far preferable to the state-sponsored alternatives. Regimes from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to Morocco have attempted to ban the channel's reporting of women's rights and corruption in government. With its blend of phone-in debates and adversarial talk shows, Al-Jazeera offers the region's intellectuals the rare opportunity to make their cases without governments breathing over their shoulders. The majority of broadcasts centre not on the evils of the West but on issues ranging from the legitimacy of state boundaries to divorce and homosexuality. Programmes often feature US, European and even Israeli representatives in order to fulfil the station's motto 'Akthar min Ra'i' (more than one opinion).
Objections to Al-Jazeera from Washington have been coupled with a far from scrupulous attitude towards press freedom in Iraq. The US gave $20 million to the old Iraqi state broadcasting service in May to relaunch itself as an independent station under the banner of Al-Iraqiya. But its credibility has been destroyed ever since the Washington-based Index on Censorship revealed that vox-pops with those critical of the US had been edited out, Coalition press conferences were broadcast unedited, and all content had to be approved by the wife of a US Friendly Kurdish leader prior to broadcast. An independent US journalist who worked on the station last summer, Don North, has called it "an irrelevant mouthpiece of CPA propaganda, managed news and mediocre programmes". Eighty-eight per cent of Iraqis rely on television as their primary source of information, a figure increased by the decline in literacy in during the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, they are voting with their remotes against its perceived bias and giving it a mere 12% audience share.
The belief that independent channels will be irrevocably anti-western and that the US should only encourage broadcasters over which it retains control is deeply counter-productive. Radio stations over which the State Department retains right to intervene in editorial decisions,(even if rarely exercised) can only increase cynicism about Western motivations. Proponents of this strategy often point to the impact of US funded radio stations in Eastern Europe. However, populations in Eastern Europe were much more sympathetic to the West and thus much more receptive to overtly pro-Western media even if it was one sided. In fact the most popular Western media in the Arab world is the relatively even-handed BBC World Service.
Some parts of the US administration seem to believe that public opinion in the region will somehow be seduced by showcasing attractive products of US culture - whether boy bands or the ballot box. Therefore Radio Sarwar will mix the Backstreet boys with current affairs, and Voice of America will profile the happy lives of Muslims living in the West. But this misdiagnoses the problem. The population in the region are very clear about what they like and dislike about America. They admire its economic success and envy its freedoms, whilst also objecting to American foreign policies. After all, the BBC World Service has retained a large audience share in the region for years whilst attitudes towards western governments have become increasingly hostile.
Arguments for democracy and human rights could be won in the Middle East, but only through fair debate between Arabs themselves. According to the World Values Survey, a higher percentage of Muslims (around 88%) agreed with the statement "I approve of democratic ideals" than Western Christians. After all the mixed messages, any initiatives funded by the West risk being so discredited that a panel of experts might be required - made up of respected journalists from the region and the West - to monitor whether media outlets are altering their editorial slant according to pressure from the coalition authority.
Reactions towards a free press in Iraq are the clearest illustration of the painful choices that supporting democracy in the Middle East presents to the West. For Western political leaders the temptation to silence "destabilising" voices is an obvious one. But indulging this temptation contradicts the stated goal of political reform in the Arab world and hurts rather than helps the advancement of Western, particularly U.S, interests. Instead of making the voices of opposition go away, it gives their arguments more credence and a greater following.
The case for moderation is an extraordinarily strong one and the West must not be afraid to allow it to be tested by free debate. It is too late for propaganda and media control in the Middle East. Attitudes are too hard and the cynicism is too deep for these tactics to work. Only when our actions match our words can the battle for Arab hearts and minds be won.
Mark Leonard is Director of the Foreign Policy Centre. Rouzbeh Pirouz is Chairman of Civility, a project which examines issues related to political reform in the Middle East. (www.civility.org.uk)